Play Impossible has reinvented the ball by connecting it to phones and tablets. They’ve managed to do this while maintaining the look and feel like a ball found on any gymnasium floor. Launched in October of last year, Play Impossible won first place at the Last Gadget Standing competition at CES in December. With rave reviews from USA Today, CNN, and Mashable, Play Impossible’s Gameball is capturing the hands and minds of kids as it provides another way to play ball with the modern insight of today’s connected devices. Silicon Labs had the opportunity to sit down with cofounder and CTO Kevin Langdon to hear how the company got its start and what he sees for the future.
How did Play Impossible come about?
All of the founders of the company are dads. And as parents, we have all struggled with the amount of time our kids spend on devices. This particular problem was the impetus for the company - how do we get our kids up off the couch in active play and doing what we call active play. Active play is physical and involves movement, but it’s also social and creative in nature. These are important things that many kids today aren’t getting enough of, and there are plenty of studies saying this is only getting worse. Getting kids to move and play is what Play Impossible is all about.
The quality of Gameball is amazing - it’s a real ball.
Yes. If you couldn’t see the charging part, most people would not know there are electronics inside of the ball. The quality of the ball was important to us, but that aspect of the product definitely was not in our wheelhouse, and we didn’t want to reinvent the process. So we partnered with Baden Sports, which specializes in sports equipment, to build the ball.
What were some of the original design requirements when you set out to create the ball?
We really wanted to create something with a reasonable price point, especially when it’s sitting on a shelf next to $5 balls in a retail setting. The connection range of the device was critical as well. We needed a Bluetooth to stay connected as far as you could throw the ball. Silicon Labs played a big role in helping us do this. Power was another issue – creating a solution that didn’t get in the way in terms of charging.
What was Silicon Labs’ value proposition in the beginning?
I first started looking at Blue Gecko when I was working on another product for SkyGolf. And then with Gameball, we looked at a lot of modules and realized the range and low-power functions were two pieces that we knew Silicon Labs could help with.
Were there any unforeseen challenges that you came across, such as weight, size, etc.
The hardest part for us was getting the durability right with all of the electronics inside. We also came up with a unique solution for the power. There is no battery in the ball, it runs entirely on super capacitors. We needed to do that for both cost reasons and to maintain the durability. I’m pretty happy with the solution we came up with - it’s a real jaw dropper when people see our ball charge up in 20 seconds.
What was the Last Gadget Standing competition at CES like?
There were hundreds of applicants and they narrowed it down to 10 gadgets on stage. I had no expectations of being selected, but when we were, we were honored. One of the gadgets was a Star Wars VR gadget, and it was two months after Star Wars had hit movie theaters. But it went really well and was a lot of fun. The host, David Pogue, was tough and asked a bunch of questions, but he loved the product.
What types of pressures are you under to be innovative – is it developing new games, cost of goods, talent? It’s definitely creating new games. It’s a combination of making the ball new again. Anyone who has a kid knows kids typically like a new toy for a few days, but then on the fourth day, the toy tends to be thrown into the closet. We want to make sure our product is played with a long time beyond those four days. The new games we create make the ball new again and give the kid a reason to get the Gameball back. We are driven to create hit games that are what everyone is talking about.
Is all of the production for Gameball done in house?
When we first started, we hired an experienced gaming designer to build the game, as it’s definitely not a traditional game. We had to do a lot of heavy prototyping and understand the software and hardware capabilities. We had to figure out what the product would be capable of doing socially and with Bluetooth and power. We definitely pushed the limits in terms of what we could do with those functionalities. For example, with a lot of IoT products, real time doesn’t matter. Of course it’s always important to be quick, but real time isn’t critical. With us, if you look at other playables on the market with Bluetooth, I don’t think there are any products as fast as Gameball. The game requires feedback from your fingers on the ball as quickly as possible to get the gestures from the beginning with the ball.
Where do you see the future of IoT going? And where do you see it expanding for the everyday person?
Right now, expectations are low among the average consumer of what IoT is all about. When our product is sitting on a shelf at a retail location, no matter how much we put on that box, there is little a consumer can understand about the product until they actually play with it. It’s going to take years for consumers to change and expect connectivity in everything. The nice thing is it’ll be much easier at that point for businesses such as ours. But today, it’s a critical issue for us in terms of marketing and sales. We see ourselves as a software platform that can interact with many different devices. Gameball is just the first of many devices and accessories that will change how we play in the future.
IoT Hero DeviceRadio Levels Playing Field for IoT Innovation
Just before the holidays, Silicon Labs had the chance to sit down with Christian Klemetsson, the founder of Swedish-based start-up DeviceRadio. The company has created a horizontal connectivity layer of technology that sits on top of various protocols supporting IoT products, such as Wi-Fi, LoRa, Bluetooth, etc. The seamless layer removes the need for specific IoT design expertise, giving companies and designers of all backgrounds immediate ability to build IoT products from the ground up, regardless of designer expertise.
Tell me about DeviceRadio – how did it come about?
The company started out as a hobby project. At the time, I was killing all of my houseplants and it was getting expensive to replace them. I have an electronics background, so I wanted to build some sort of solution to monitor the plants with an application on my phone. I quickly realized that building something cheap, simple, and with long battery life wasn’t available. The solutions I found were based on technology built for other purposes. For example, Bluetooth, at least at the time a few years ago, wasn’t built for IoT, only wireless peripherals. So I created my own radio protocol specifically for IoT and added encryption and plug and play along with additional features. Two and a half years ago, I found the Silicon Labs/Digi-Key competition and entered the device I had just built. I ended up being one of the winners and received $10,000 worth of components from Silicon Labs. I also received media attention in Sweden from the electronics press, and the overall feedback was that I was on the right track – there was a possible missing piece in IoT. From that starting point, I started DeviceRadio.
Was your IoT radio protocol the first one you’ve seen on the market?
At that point, (2014) there wasn’t anything specifically for IoT. There were protocols for low-power communications, such as Z-Wave and peripheral protocols, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but nothing for IoT.
What I did was transform the protocol into something that could be placed on top of existing protocols, which would provide encryption, plug and play, abstraction, etc. Regardless if you’re using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 4G, etc., it would all be the same. Our layer goes on top of whatever protocols you’re using, making everything seamless and consistent.
The product is sort of like the Internet, but specifically for devices and their sensor data and signals. We create the mechanism to move sensor data between each other and provide the integration to cloud platforms and services.
You call this horizontal connectivity, right? How would you explain the value of this concept to a non-developer?
I think it’s easier to talk about the value of Internet connected devices to help non-developers understand the value of our product. When working with today’s technologies to build connected devices, a lot of custom development and expertise is required. You need to know about security, servers, scaling, protocols, etc., and hook everything up to an IoT platform. This process becomes limiting and IoT development ends up being only available to a select few companies with this level of expertise.
What we’re trying to do is democratize and hide the complexity of IoT by placing a horizontal layer on top of everything. This means if you’re a product company, your developers can create an IoT product without relying on exclusive and hard-to-find talent.
Think about it from a macro perspective – western countries are all trying to increase efficiency, reduce environmental impact, and care for a large aging population. But developed countries are still the minority - the rest of the world doesn’t have basic services or our standard of living. Our resources are limited if we want to bring the entire world up to our living standards. The only way to solve these big problems is with technology. I think IoT can grow core technologies to do so much more. But in order for this to happen, IoT needs to be available to all companies, not just experts.
What exactly does the horizontal layer include?
We host an infrastructure for customers that can be replicated and takes care of access control and gets data to the right place. Our vertical communication layer is a software library that designers place on top of their protocol layers and hardware. By using our software library, designers don’t have to think about cloud APIs, Internet connectivity, etc.
We are giving designers the opportunity to create something fast without thinking much about what technology to use. Designers can create a prototype on their hardware and focus entirely on the benefit and business value of the device up front, worrying about technology and scaling requirements much later on in the process. Designers have the freedom to stretch the product further without having to rewrite the apps and alter the code.
Have you started selling the product?
Right now we’re doing small pilot and proof of concept projects. We also have additional funding from angel investors and government grants. We’re still in the development phase and we want to make sure we’re building the right product. Our pilot projects are giving us critical insights. Our goal is to increase the number of devices using DeviceRadio by 10-fold every six months.
What are some of the design challenges you have run into while building the product?
From a technical standpoint, there were plenty of challenges. But the biggest challenge I have seen is an awareness problem - getting the right awareness and feedback circulating among companies about IoT. There is so much hype and confusion because everyone wants to be a part of IoT. But the companies that can benefit the most don’t really know it exists and what the benefits are – I think that’s a big challenge.
So they don’t understand what’s possible?
Exactly, a lot of the IoT media attention is around must-have killer applications solving luxury problems, such as connecting a water bottle or something. One of the companies I spoke with recently is building drones that work with emergency services to deliver heart defibrillators in a fraction of the time they were previously delivered, using IoT to save lives.
What Silicon Labs products are you using?
Where do you see the future of IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Even though there are some cool IoT start-ups and things happening, it’s really going to be about existing companies discovering how to leverage IoT in a way that’s seamless. If you’re building connected washing machines, it should work as a normal washing machine, but then have additional connected features or benefits. It needs to be a gradient, where we move from unconnected to a connected world, and eventually an interconnected one. Right now it’s vertical. The same company that builds the IoT product owns the servers, apps, etc., making everything isolated. In 5-10 years, you’ll have multiple companies building the hardware, IoT enablement technologies, and software services and apps, allowing people to utilize products from multiple companies in ways we can’t even imagine at the moment.