At the Motrr headquarters in Santa Cruz, entrepreneur JoeBen Bevirt tussled his 2-year-old daughter’s hair. We were discussing the rotating sphere that Motrr designed that allows users to control what they’re looking at in a room while video chatting remotely. After a Kickstarter campaign in March 2012 that raised $700,000 from 5,200, the sphere – dubbed “Galileo” – started shipping to early backers in June, with 7,500 orders.
Here’s how it works: you place an iPhone or iTouch into Galileo, which can turn 360 degrees horizontally and tilt vertically. Then you use a second iPhone – connected to the first through an app – to control the movement of Galileo while you’re video conferencing with someone. “I wish I had remembered to give Galileo to my partner when she took Vivi [his daughter] up to Napa,” Bevirt says. “I tried to Skype with Vivi, but she was running around with her mom’s phone and I couldn’t see anything.”
That’s one of the purposes of Galileo, to allow parents to hang out with their kids, even when they are working far away. Another: perfect photo panoramas with your iPhone, or time-lapse videos that have steady camera pans. (Click here for a demonstration.)
Hardware Kickstarters are notoriously risky for backers. Potential negative outcomes include fundraisers never finishing their projects, finishing and shipping way after deadline, or building a bad product that doesn’t deliver what was promised. For all these reasons, New York-based techie Mike Golofaro was initially reluctant to back Galileo’s Kickstarter due to how expensive an investment it was ($85), without a guarantee.
“It’s not like you’re buying it,” Golofaro says. “It takes a year and a half to arrive!”
But he was looking for affordable ways to do time lapse photography with pans and tilts, couldn’t find anything under $1,000, and thus decided to give Motrr his hopeful investment. Golofaro received his Galileo two weeks ago and “unwrapped it like an excited kid at Christmas.”
On the surface, Galileo has been a Kickstarter success story, but Motrr had its share of setbacks indicative of the unique challenges hardware startups face. The biggest, by far, was the announcement of the iPhone 5′s new Lightening Connector, after Motrr had already developed Galileo for the original iPhone Dock Connector. “That was not a happy day here at Motrr,” business development exec Jasper Eisenberg says.
Kickstarter backers were less than pleased that the product they bought wouldn’t work on new iPhones, and Motrr issued thousands of dollars in refunds. To add insult to injury, the company claims Apple retail had previously shown interest in stocking Galileo, which was designed to fit seamlessly with the Apple product line in look, coloring, and texture. But the new connector botched that possibility, at least until Motrr finishes developing its new iPhone 5 Galileo prototype.
Given Motrr’s successful fundraising effort, there seems to be pent-up demand for Galileo. Thousands of Kickstarter backers opted to wait for Motrr to finish its iPhone 5 and bluetooth products. Other companies are using Galileo’s code to develop apps for photography and video conferencing, receiving Motrr’s assistance to design its user interface and iron out bugs. “We don’t want to be in competition with developers,” Eisenberg says. “We’ll help them with their code if they need it.”
Early backer Golofaro attempted to use an external company’s app for time lapse, and found it slightly jarring. Motrr has had customers contact it to complain about bugs like that which reside with outside developers’ work, not the Galileo product. It’s a unique complication for hardware companies – protecting their personal brand and reputation while opening their devices and platforms for other software developers to build on. As for the app Motrr designed itself – which offers remote video conferencing – I tested it myself and found it to be a smooth ride.
Motrr is currently developing its iPhone 5 prototype. Once that’s done, its biggest challenge will be getting the word out to the marketplace. Galileo, after all, is by no means a household name. But the company’s product is well designed, it has established its production lines in China, and the Galileo app is seemingly good at what it purports to do.
Given this, it has a chance to find a wide audience among parents, photographers, and techies. As for hardware products on Kickstarter, however, last September the crowdfunding portal tightened up rules for such projects, requiring that fundraisers only show images of how their product looks at the time of the Kickstarter (i.e. not a optimistic simulation of what the fundraiser dreams it could look like given enough money).
As it has reiterated time and time again, ”Kickstarter isn’t a store.”