We nicknamed the project “wire eater” among ourselves so I will refer to the devices asWE versions. The plan was set in motion: ship WE-1, incorporate feedback and develop WE-2 within 3 months. The goals for WE-2: make the app cross-platform (Android and iOS), get bellguard-grounding-accuracy to 90-95% on épée and deliver over 100 devices for the clubs to test. In other words a broad beta test for WE-2. We planned the testing to take place in November.
The sprint started by mid-August and the first clubs buying WE-1 planned to restart fencing in September. We agreed to deliver for the reopening. For the first few weeks development and production went simultaneously, but delivering a product for actual customers was very exciting. We finished just in time:
Some pictures from a training session @ PSE. The kids had fun, and we gathered valuable insights.
Néhány kép a PSE edzéséről. A gyerekek jól érezték magukat mi pedig sűrűn jegyzeteltünk.Posted by Calibur Fencing on Thursday, 1 October 2020
The kids intuitively started to use our products really enjoyed themselves
In the meantime we made a detailed roadmap for WE-2 with the 3 goals in mind as above. Let’s get through them one by one.
Making the app cross platform
It shouldn’t take particularly precise planning. We take what we have for Android and replicate it for iPhones, right? Well, Apple strictly controls everything and why wouldn’t that be true for wireless devices. If we want to connect something to iPhones we need to use a wireless chip approved by Apple. If you had to guess whether we used one like that or not, where would you put your money, and why on not? WE-1 only supports épée and does not have any grounding capacity, but it has a very stable and fast connection with the phones. That part was fine tuned already. Changing the chip means to throw all that away, and restart.
Getting accuracy over 95%
Bellguard grounding should work 9+ times out of 10 in test environment. Our model is based on that a larger data pool is needed to operate. How would we get that? Obviously it’s not an option to gather that at the clubs every time we change something. So a lot of nights went like this:
999 green bottles on the wall, if one green bottle should accidentally fall, 998 green bottles on the wall…
Both of the goals turned out to be an uphill battle especially in the given timeframe. All the new wireless chips turned out to be either too slow or dropped connection too easily with the phones. Every time we tested out something in the lab and took it to a real training session it completely failed. Special thanks to OSC and their fencers for letting us do our it-worked-yesterday-I-swear show twice a week. The connection drop proved to be a very stubborn issue, basically disrupting every other test we tried to run.
OSC helped a lot, sharing their space to test
Producing 100 pieces
We were approaching the end of October. The clubs who signed up for testing were all set, waiting for their devices, we just finished the new enclosure design and for the 1st time the application was approved on both platforms.
It's much more convenient to connect the yellow penguin than a QR code
But the connection issues still stayed with us. We had only a week left to finish and we put our bets on a last resort solution in changing the antenna design. We urgently needed a plan B and getting the devices out of the pockets made the connection slightly better.
Desperate times call desperate measures
I shouldn’t get into details about the things we tried on the last weekend in a rush to find a way to attach them to the body. The new antenna design, though far from perfect proved to be above the threshold and we decided to give it a go.
We’ve made everything ready and after an intensely laborious week with 3 hours of sleep on average we tested, packed and labelled all the packages ready for shipping. And the épée beta started.
Final touches before sending out beta test packages. (Nov.11.)
Utolsó simítások mielőtt kiküldtük a beta teszt csomagokat.Posted by Calibur Fencing on Sunday, 22 November 2020
As I mentioned, I think it’s worth getting a brief look back on the evolution how we got to where we are today. Picking up the story from where we left off: Our team had just formed. More or less with the skillset diverse enough to build a hardware we had a lot of questions. What should we focus on? What are the milestones to set? Who are the customers?
We decided that we should enter a startup competition and present the concept to a jury. It would provide 2 things for the project: Firstly, it’s an external commitment that forces us to build and deliver something in time. Secondly, there will be some guiding feedback. So we did exactly that, we built “something”.
Meet the “thing”, our very first prototype. Banana for scale
I shouldn’t get into nuances, like the main board being cardboard or the fine crafted details of the blue duct tape keeping the whole thing together. However it did prove a few things. It was able to send a signal to a phone whenever the tip was pushed. In other words: we’ve built a scoring machine on very basic terms. And it was enough to push us to the second round of the competition. More importantly, what we’ve learnt from this experience is that you’ll always have additional features or fixes you want to finish before you “launch”, but actually putting something out there is really what starts momentum.
So preparing for the second round we needed to “commercialize” the thing. Shrinking it in size to fit in a box and basically to be usable for some sort of fencing. We’ve actually designed 2 models for this round. The better one was much smaller, had a rechargeable battery and had far better chips on it however it was so unstable we used the more basic but stable one. (Note that by stable I mean we needed to connect a headset to the phone because the device randomly scored sometimes. So the plan was to disconnect the headset while presenting, pray that it wouldn’t make any sound randomly, then reconnect the headset when we were done. Please don’t tell the jury).
Somewhere in the distance an industrial designer starts to cry
Our chances were weaker than the quick binder on the money clip holding the box together, but it worked! Or at least did not fail during the presentation. The performance earned us third place in the competition which gave us a great push. More importantly we had something that we could start to test on actual fencers.
Real life testing
So the next months were spent on incremental improvements, shrinking the size, going to fencing clubs and collecting feedback.
We visited 2 clubs a week, sometimes even more. Fortunately everyone was very welcoming and the general feedback was very enthusiastic. We got proof that the old way of scoring was really the pain that we understood it to be. Our two main goals were set:to shrink it to the size of 2 matchboxes, and to lay the ground for data gathering. We started to test basic AI models on the data. We went through a handful of iterations not very different from each other.
I'm glad we left the small coffin design on the left
Even though the app was only for Android it only worked for épée and no grounding feature was available, we had our first customer. A small club next to Budapest decided to order 10 pieces. Sadly we didn’t have too much time to celebrate as it coincided with the worldwide spread of Covid-19. With the clubs closed and most of the indoor activities restricted we didn’t see any other option but to suspend developments.
Few months went by, the restrictions eased and the world started to adapt to the new reality. We started to get more and more messages that wireless sets could be really helpful in order to maintain health standards. So we decided it was time to get back on the project.
First we put together a comprehensive plan. In 3 months we want to achieve 3 key goals: make the app available on Android and iOS, get bellguard grounding over 95% accuracy on épée, produce and send over 100 pieces of it to clubs. We will cover that in the next post.