We’ve all seen at least one sci-fi movie where a character interacts with a magical display that acts just like paper, but can display new info just like a screen. Typically, some guy in silver spandex unfolds a gizmo from his utility belt and poof the entire Sunday New York Times appears on it in the blink of an eye. While we might not be there yet, engineer Jarek Lupinski’s work with e-paper screens gets us a lot closer to a ubiquitous, power-free, inexpensive, digital replacement for ink and paper. (The silver spandex is another story.)
Lupinski is the creator behind the E-paper Shield Kit campaign, which successfully launched on Crowd Supply last fall. The idea germinated when Lupinski was working on a simple, low-power weather display that could download weather info, update a screen, and then go back to sleep. He had a working prototype that was getting good feedback from his users, but they kept saying it was a shame it had to be plugged in to get power.
Serendipitously, while Lupinski was browsing through an electronic news site, he came across an article on e-paper, a kind of display that stays visible even when it’s not connected to power. Coincidentally, he also had a browser tab open with an article about solar power and he put two and two together and came up with an idea for his weather station’s display. He did a few “back of the envelope” calculations and determined that it should be possible to keep a solar-powered e-paper display on indefinitely using typical office light levels.
That led him to start looking at commercial e-paper development/starter kits so that he could make some prototypes. He soon found that every platform he could find was far too complicated and over-engineered. As he put it, “Everything on the market tried to do too much: they would support, for example, a certain manufacturer’s entire product line using some kind of all-in-one board, or they limited their supported partner microcontroller to a single vendor’s existing solution which was too expensive for me.”
So. like many Crowd Supply creators, he decided the best solution was to make something himself that would fit his needs. He chose one of the manufacturer’s all-in-one e-paper boards that represented a good compromise between screen size and cost and hacked off all of the unnecessary bits, leaving a board that just ran a single e-paper display. He then “crammed” all of that circuitry into a Teensy form-factor. The result was the E-paper Shield Kit, an inexpensive, convenient platform for e-paper development.
Of course, as every good creator knows, getting your hardware working is only one milestone amongst many along the road that goes from idea to shipping product. There’s still funding and manufacturing to deal with, which is where Crowd Supply comes in. Lupinski had actually developed two products previously via crowdfunding, so he was confident that was the approach he wanted to take with the E-paper Shield. As he says, “knowing how the end-to-end process works gave me the confidence to see the project through and steer clear of anticipated pitfalls.” In particular, for Lupinski, that means anticipating, and having a plan for, all the likeliest scenarios, from getting too few backers to too many. As he puts it, you need to “plan five times” so you are prepared to deal with not enough pledges, just enough pledges, and 2x, 5x, or 100x the number of pledges. Making those kind of plans will help you be ready for the inevitable issues of parts availability and vendor Minimum Order Quantities (MOQs).
Beyond providing a funding platform, Lupinski also turned to Crowd Supply for marketing help. As he says, “I’m terrible at marketing and can’t speak much about it.” But with help from his Crowd Supply team and the exposure he got from the platform, he was able to build an international community of backers who funded the E-paper Shield Kit at nearly 500% of its goal (which proves Lupinski’s point about planning ahead for larger quantities).
After fulfilling the over 200 pledges from backers. Lupinski says he is hearing from folk around the world who are using the Kit to develop a variety of projects. He’s particularly gratified to know that several backers have used the Kit to build their own low-cost, low-power weather display, just as he envisioned when he first got the idea for the project. That’s a pretty compelling proof of concept, right there.