10 fascinating tech projects that crowdfunding has made possible

A look at some of the most promising and novel tech projects to come out of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
By Nick Heath on
1 of 10 Nick Heath/ZDNet

Innovation — every big tech company talks about it, but many of the new computers and gadgets that hit shelves are simply glossier versions of existing tech.

Today anyone looking for a piece of technology that dares to be different can turn to crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

Anyone with an idea for a project can set up a page on these sites, outlining their vision and how much money they need to make it a reality.

Freed from corporate constraints crowdfunded projects are pushing into interesting areas of technology, from VR headsets to low-cost supercomputing boards.

Projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo have raised millions from individual backers, who pledge money to support projects in return for rewards, including the promise of receiving the finished product.

It's arguable these crowdfunded projects are already influencing the behaviours of the tech giants, with Samsung launching a competitor to the Pebble soon after the crowdfunded smartwatch's release.

Of course, anyone backing a project should be aware that projects can and have gone wrong, with various examples of teams burning through pledges and leaving backers without the finished product.

That said, here are some of the most interesting and successful projects to come through crowdfunding websites:

Structure Sensor

Occipital's Structure Sensor is a device that turns an iPad into a mobile 3D scanner.

Structure Sensor is an attachment that fits on the side of an iPad or Android tablet and combines with an app turns a tablet into a scanner for capturing real-world objects and turning them into 3D models.

Because Structure is a handheld scanner it can be used to scan objects of varying sizes, from a teddy bear to a living room. The sensor's range is described as ranging from 40 cms to more than 3.5 metres.

The scanner works by using dual infrared (IR) LEDs to illuminate the outline of objects so that its IR sensors can capture the reflected outline of objects and transform them into 3D models.

3D models of objects and people captured by the device can be imported into CAD and used as a blueprint for 3D printing.

Despite only recently going live on Kickstarter, the project raised many times its funding goal of $100,000 within days of launching. With 25 days left before the funding period runs out the project has raised more than $870,000.

The Structure Sensor is available to order at $350 until November 1st, with an estimated shipping date of February 2014.

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Oculus Rift

Until recently, virtual reality (VR) had failed to live up to expectations. Just ask anyone who suffered through VR in the late 90s, when encyclopaedia-sized headsets and graphics blockier than Minecraft were the order of the day.

But in the intervening decade and a half, Moore's Law has pushed graphics and motion tracking technology to the point where VR can present a far more convincing vision of reality than was once possible.

The Oculus Rift, dreamt up by 20-year-old Palmer Luckey, is a VR headset that soared past its $250,000 fuding goal on Kickstarter to raise more than $2.4m, and has tempted gaming industry veteran John Carmack to become its CTO. In total $16m has been raised for the project through a variety of sources.

The headset tracks head movements at 1000Hz and reflects those movements in a virtual world in real time, allowing the wearer to look around without noticeable lag. The screens almost entirely fill the user's field of view (FOV), with a horizontal FOV of more than 90 degrees, which reportedly greatly adds to the feeling of being in a virtual world.

Those who've used the prototype Oculus Rift headset generally describe the experience as transformative, offering a level of immersion that can't be achieved by playing a 3D game on a monitor. The game singled out for particular praise is space dogfighter Valkyrie, an offshoot of the multiplayer space epic Eve Online.

More than 15,000 prototype headsets have shipped with Oculus Rift development kits, and hackers are finding uses beyond gaming, including an explorer for Google Streetview and a chance to experience the Northern Lights.

The headset is not perfect; testers have complained about the blurriness of the screen, the resolution of the development headset is 1280x800 (640x800 per eye), while the version released to consumers is expected to have a resolution of at least 1920x1080. Some users have also said they suffered nausea after using the headset for prolonged periods.

There's no confirmed release date for the Oculus Rift, but the development kit is available to order through the Oculus Rift website for $300.

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Another famous project to come out of Kickstarter is life-logging camera Narrative, formerly known as Memoto.

The Narrative Clip is a one-inch square camera, that snaps and stores a five megapixel photo every 30 seconds. The camera only takes pictures when clipped to a person and a built-in GPS geotags each image.

The camera can store 4,000 images, and includes a free one-year subscription to Narrative's cloud-based storage service, with a maximum of 1.4TB storage.

Images can be accessed and shared through an Android or iOS app, which organises photos into groups of "moments".

The clip can be ordered for $279, with delivery promised after 1 November. The firm behind the camera has said it expects to sell 10,000 this year.

The current fixed-focus lens has 70-degree viewing angle but a snap-on lens that is being developed will give it a 135-degree view and a fish-eye perspective.

The company is also developing a waterproof case and planning on releasing an API to allow others to build further software and services for Narrative.

Although the company asked for $50,000 to build Narrative, it ended up raising more than $550,000 last November. Narrative also recently received $3M in a funding round led by San Francisco-based True Ventures.


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Open Hand Project

The Open Hand Project is a project to build a robotic hand that offers much of the functionality of a human hand for less than $1,000 (£630) — up to 100 times cheaper than commercial alternatives.

The project is building the Dextrus hand, a robotic hands that uses electric motors instead of muscles and steel cables instead of tendons. 3D-printed plastic parts work like bones and a rubber coating acts as the skin. These parts are controlled by electronics that allow the user to handle a variety of objects.

The user controls the fingers by flexing muscles in the forearm. Electrodes attached to the user's arm capture electomyographical signals transmitted in the muscles and use those to control the device.

As well as the Dextrus being made for amputees, the hand is also being pitched at researchers looking into control systems for telepresence robots or hobbyists making humanoid robots.

A full working prototype of the Dextrus hand has been built, with the core electronics running on a breadboard — a board for prototyping electronics — and the software on PC.

The next step in the project is to design and prototype electronics and build printed circuit boards.

Project backers need to pledge £460 to receive a Dextrus, although to receive a Dextrus plus power supply, batteries, charger, electrodes, cables and EMG board a pledge of £700 is required.

The £39,000 target for the project is less than the cost of one hand from commercial manufacturers of robotic prosthetic hands and with five days to go before its funding drive runs out on Indiegogo, the project has raised £40,950.

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With 3D printing on the cusp of becoming mainstream, finding a way to scan real-world objects for printing is increasingly desirable.

The Fuel3D is a handheld 3D scanning system capable of capturing high resolutions images of items, which, according to its makers, accurately reproduce both colour and fine details like the rivulets in a flower petal.

To capture a 3D image with the system a small tag is first attached to the person or object that is to be scanned. The Fuel3D can then be used to capture images by pointing and clicking the scanner, in a manner similar to a taking a photo with a camera.

Once scans are captured they can be viewed from any direction, edited and used as the basis for 3D printing. The image can then be exported into a variety of formats.

As well as generating models for 3D printers the scanner will help capture 3D models for use by game developers, artists and for use in industrial applications — say the system's makers.

Commercial 3D scanners can cost more than $15,000, whereas the Fuel3D is priced around $1,000. Backers of the Kickstart could get a scanner for $990, while the scanners can be ordered from Fuel3D for $1,250.

The system can scan objects to capture high resolution mesh images and maps of the colour of objects. Fuel3D can capture a variety of textures, including: skin, fabrics, organic matter, stone and masonry. According to the product's technical specs the finest resolution captured by Fuel3D is a 250 microns sampling.

The Kickstarter for the project raised more than $325,000, far more than the project's $75,000 goal. Scanners are now available for order through the Fuel3D website. The first devices will be delivered to Kickstarter backers in May next year.

The Fuel3D scanner technology was originally developed at Oxford University for use in a 3D medical imaging system.

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The Meta glasses will be a wearable 3D display and computer that can be controlled using gestures or voice.

The glasses, being developed by startup Meta, will pair a 3D headset with a depth-tracking camera that can place objects in 3D space, allowing it to track hand movements in a manner similar to Microsoft's Kinect sensor.

Meta is designed to provide an augmented reality or head-up display, meaning users looking through the glasses see virtual objects on the display, giving the effect of overlaying digital objects and information onto the real world.

Unlike Google's augmented reality headset Glass, Meta will offer a 3D image. Being 3D capable will allow the Meta to be used for playing 3D games, or for overlaying 3D virtual objects in the user's view, which the headset's creators anticipate could have applications in the fields of architecture, engineering, medicine, film and other industries.

The Meta headset is available to order as part of a developer's kit for $750, which is due to ship in January next year. The headset that ships with the developer's kit has a resolution of 960x540 per TFT LCD screen and needs to be tethered to a Windows computer to function. Sensor and camera-wise it includes a 720p RGB camera and 320x240 infra-red depth imaging, as well as an accelerometer, gyroscope and compass to track movement to nine degrees of freedom. Meta plans for the consumer version of the display, due to be released at a later date, to work as a standalone device.

The developer's kit also ships with various software: including a chess game, 3D sculpting software and MetaCraft, a Minecraft simulator, and a Unity 3D game engine framework for managing gestures and tracking control.

According to an interview with Meta's founders the company plans to model itself after Apple, selling its own hardware and operating system, and working with app developers to build out an ecosystem.

The Kickstarter project raised more than $190,000, almost double its $100,000 goal.

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While low-cost computers like the Raspberry Pi are becoming more common, budget massively multi-core boards aimed at supercomputing are relatively rare.

Adapteva has created the Parallella, a Raspberry Pi for parallel programming, with the 16- and 64-core Epiphany Risc chip on the board providing a cheap parallel programming environment for developers to experiment with.

The 16-core board is only the first step, the ultimate goal of the project is to create PCIe boards with multiple 1024-core chips and 2048 GFLOPS of double precision performance per chip.

As engineering challenges force chipmakers like Intel and AMD look to increase the performance of processors by piling in more cores, rather than ramping up clock speeds, getting more developers used to designing programs to run in parallel across multiple cores is becoming increasingly important.

Each Parallella board pairs a dual-core ARM A9 processor with a 16- or 64-core Epiphany Multicore Accelerator chip along with 1GB of RAM, a MicroSD card, two USB 2.0 ports, 10/100/1000 Ethernet and an HDMI connection. In addition to the hardware, each board will ship with a set of open-source development tools for the Epiphany chip and the Ubuntu operating system.

The low-power boards should consume around 5W and theoretically deliver 45GHz in equivalent compute performance, if all the chips on the board are maxed out.

Adpateva was looking for $750,000 in Kickstarter funding but raised $898,921. The 16-core boards are available for $99 through Adapteva's website and are expected to start shipping next month. 64-core boards will be available at a later date.

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Teaching computers to recognise objects is getting even easier, thanks to devices like the Arduino Pixy.

The Pixy is a fast vision sensor that can be taught to find objects in the real world and report its findings via simple interfaces. The device is a small camera, about half the size of a business card, attached to an Arduino board that handles the image recognition.

Teaching Pixy to identify objects requires users to place an item in front of the Pixy and press the button on top of the device. Pixy then generates a statistical model of the colours of the object that it stores in flash and later uses to identify the item.

Software in the Pixy detects objects using a hue-based colour filtering algorithm. Pixy calculates the hue and saturation of each RGB pixel from the image sensor and uses these as the primary filtering parameters for detecting objects. The hue of an object remains largely unchanged with changes in lighting and exposure, making it an effective way to detect objects.

The makers of Pixy claim it can identify hundreds of objects in a scene at a time, using its connected components algorithm, and then report back on each object's size and location through one of its interfaces.

The device consists of an Omnivision OV9715 0.25–inch image sensor with 1280x800 resolution and an NXP LPX4330 microcontroller with a dual-core ARM processor, which can process images at 50 FPS. The Pixy has interfaces for UART serial, SPI, 12C, digital and analogue I/O.

An application called PixyMon allows users to see what Pixy sees, outputting either raw or processed video, and allowing users to configure Pixy, set the output port and manage color signatures.

The Pixy is a joint development between Carnegie Mellon University and Texas-based Charmed Labs.

The Kickstarter campaign for Pixy raised more than ten times its target of £25,000 and the first 3,500 Pixy cameras are expected to ship on 14 January next year. The camera is still available to order for $75.00, including shipping.

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While we wait for washing machines that Tweet at us when the laundry's done or homes that text you to let you know the basement's flooded there's Twine.

Twine is pocket-sized box of sensors with a wireless internet connection built in, that can be configured to keep you updated about what's happening in the world.

Twine is configurable using a simple web app, which allows you to set rules about when and in what situation Twine should message you, for example 'WHEN'+'moisture sensor is wet' then 'SEND'+text message: 'The basement's flooded'. Messages can be sent via Twitter, email, text message, or as straight HTTP GET or POST requests to feed data into a web app. Once Twine has been configured it functions as a standalone device.

The box has sensors to detect its temperature, orientation and vibration, and can be expanded with a moisture sensor, external thermometer, a magnetic switch (which could be used for detecting if a door is ajar), and an Arduino Shield or breakout board to work with more complex electronics projects.

Twine is small, just 2.7 inches square in size, and can keep running for months on two AAA batteries.

On Kickstarter the project raised more than $555,000, far more than the $35,000 originally asked for. Twine is available to buy now for $124 through the project website.

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3Doodler is a pen that squirts out melted plastic rather than ink, allowing users to draw 3D models in the air or on a surface.

Plastic is pushed out through a 0.3mm nib, which heats the plastic to make it pliable so it can be pushed out of the pen, before hardening into a solid object as it cools.

The pen has been used to create a variety of objects, including a 60cm Eiffel Tower and a detailed model of a hand. 3Doodler plans to release different sized tips next year.

The 3Doodler is now shipping to its Kickstarter backers and is available to order at the 3Doodler website for $99. The project attempted to raise $30,000 through Kickstarter, but ended up raising $2.3m.

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