Where did you go next?

To a company called Think Unlimited, now Echelon. It was founded by Mike Markkula, Apple’s third founder. Mike is a gadget freak and had seven homes, so he wanted to create what’s now called a smarthome, controlled by smart remotes, build smartphones, etc. Think created a networking system for homes and buildings that would integrate lighting, HVAC, AV, etc. I built an emulator rack for testing their “neuron” chip, a controller designed to work with their LonWorks topology and proprietary network protocol. I worked at Think for two years, then Mike brought in Ken Oshman from Rolm, who in turn brought in his own team.

Did you say “proprietary” protocol? They didn’t use TCP/IP?

No.

I see a problem here.

Well, at the time TCP/IP was still new, so I guess the software team decided to make their own protocol. I guess it worked well enough since the company is still in business.

Could I ask you a question? For years people have been working on smart homes, smartphones, home networks, etc. Yet you still can’t buy a decent universal remote. I know that was an area Wozniak was always interested in, but today, still no joy.

Personally, I loved Woz’s CORE Controller product in the mid-80’s. It was a programmable “master” remote that could learn any command from any other remote, so you could use it to control anything and have one button press do many things. Unfortunately, it was a little too much for the typical consumer.

Nothing much has changed. What was next?

My son was born in 1990 and over the years I’d become interested in technology and education. I built a wireless polling system for classrooms based on the PIC microcontroller and a simple baseband RF circuit. PICs are wonderful little devices and the company that makes them, Microchip Technology, has shipped billion of the things. Hobbyists and engineers love them because they’re cheap, reliable and there’s a lot of software support libraries…really the precursor to the Arduino of today.

What happened?

I looked for years to find a marketing partner to help me sell the product, without success. There are similar systems available now, though more expensive. The main idea was to make it easy for educators to give a quick quiz at the end of every classroom session so they could gauge student engagement. I still think it’s a great idea! The best teachers I had in high school would give a self-graded quiz at the end of every class.

Part of that project (which I called the Pollstar system) was figuring out how to test the functionality of all the handsets for battery life before use. I found these cheap LED matrix modules and hit on the idea of creating a signal array, say 4 x 8, and using the LED module to indicate which were properly charged.

Then I realized that I could use PIC controller to display scrolling text as well. I built many different prototypes of that device and programmed them to display cute messages on LED panels you could wear at events. The product was called Cyberlights and I actually manufactured hundreds of them, mostly to Jenny Holzer, who had me program her epigrammatic poetry into them.

Hmmm. The next step is integrating this technology into clothing so that we can all be walking commercial displays.

I think that’s coming. Anyway, I next I wrote a little editing routine so one could dynamically program the messages, which was cool but still not really a consumer product. The PIC controllers still didn’t have built-in serial ports so I wrote a software serial port routine, which worked well enough. But the thought of selling a product based on Windows serial COM ports was not appealing. They’ve always been a headache.

Twitter_chyron

Daniel Kottke’s Twitter chyron. One day, we’ll all be wearing it

By 2005 I was a contractor for the EmWave Heart Rate Monitor from HeartMath and PIC controllers finally had a USB interface. I learned from my contract work how to create a USB-based version of Cyberlights that allowed me to copy and paste text to the LEDs.

I took what I’d learned to launch what was probably my coolest ventures. I used a PIC processor to drive two five inch LED matrices placed side by side. Basically, it was a low-cost, low-power Twitter chyron, a version of the news strip you see running across the bottom of cable TV news channels. You could put it anywhere. I showed it to Twitter and they loved it. They were willing to advertise and co-market the system but not invest in it.

When I showed it to them, Kickstarter was a couple of year from showing up. I estimated at the time we needed $150K to launch. From a startup’s viewpoint, that’s a lot of money but it’s too small for your typical venture sources. They want to make multi-million dollar investments. Today, I could Kickstart that product.

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