If you've been reading my blogs (here and on EETimes) you know how excited I am about the wave of innovative products coming out of Kickstarter, Indiegogo and incubators like Y-Combinator - so when I came across SoundFocus, I had to call them. I actually found SoundFocus and their AMP audio product through ARM partner and audio engineer Paul Beckmann, founder of DSP Concepts, who has an interesting take on the future of DSP’s in applications like this (follow me in the community to get notified when I publish that interview). Paul connected me with Alex Selig and Varun Srinivasan of SoundFocus who are the co-founders, and they have a really interesting story to tell. Alex and Varun worked together at Microsoft on the Office suite of products, but had an itch to do something entrepreneurial - so when Alex wanted to modify his Smartphone to compensate for his hearing loss, a company was born.
Alex wanted to know why in a world of increasingly smart devices can’t there be better audio for people with hearing loss. One in five people in the US over the age of 12 has some form of hearing loss and we all know that audio on a Smartphone in some environments can be a challenge. Their first idea was to figure out if a smartphone could become a hearing aid and they developed a music companion app to compensate for hearing loss. The SoundFocus app has been downloaded over 150,000 times and users customize the sound of their music to their own hearing profile and taste. Go and check out the SoundFocus app on iTunes.
The next logical step for them was to build a hardware version to improve the listening experience for iPhone users and they quickly built a prototype (they claim in a day!) using a Texas Instruments BeagleBone in a Tupperware container (if anyone has a picture of that please post). In their defense, anyone who has had hands-on experience with a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone knows how fast you can get the lights blinking and something happening. What was key in this case was Alex and Varun found the AudioWeaver audio algorithm builder from Paul Beckmann’s company and they were off and running with the software. Now they have a working prototype, but how do they transform it into the final product they are showing us below?
This is where the design tradeoffs start and choosing your partners is key. The team knew they needed a very low-power processor (with a small footprint) that could run the bare metal level code. They also needed USB integrated connectivity and embedded flash memory so they turned to Future Electronics (a major electronics distributor) who recommended they look at STMicroelectronics' STM32F401 chip which has an ARM Cortex-M4 processor on board and many of the integrated peripherals they needed. The fact that the chip is only 3mm square and has the DSP processing capability they need at very low-power without using a separate DSP cannot be underestimated. For the technically minded I will explore this in an interview with Paul Beckmann next week.
Now they knew the form factor and power would work but they needed a physical prototype with a custom PCB board and at this point many companies go to Shenzhen and try to get it built. I saw this happening in real-time two years ago and saw firsthand the toll it takes on a team but yet again the SoundFocus team took a different approach and partnered with San Francisco based 3D printing company Fictiv https://www.fictiv.com/and local quick turn PCB supplier Sierra Circuits. By having key partners so close those inevitable changes and redesign meetings could happen whenever needed and that meant they could get the product to market faster than taking the Shenzhen route. At some point they may take manufacturing offshore but when that day comes they will have a stable and successful design to replicate.
Just as interesting to me as the design is how the original team got the company funded. Alex and Varun won a place in a Y Combinator cohort in 2012 and “graduated” in the summer of 2013, they then raised money to develop the prototype and finalize the design. Alex told me their experience at Y-Combinator was a huge help, it was unstructured but the advice was incredibly valuable. Y-Combinator is perhaps the most visible of the incubators and I mistakenly thought it was mainly for software companies but Alex and his team pointed to some very cool Y Combinator hardware companies to check out - such as Coin, Gbatteries, Estimote, Graft Concepts, Meta, Senic, Lockitron, Airware, Beep, TerrAvion, iCracked, Cruise, Boosted Board, Double Robotics and let’s not forget Pebble (got mine!).
You can probably tell I got very excited about this product because it brings a number of major forces in technology together; first is idealistic founders getting funding and doing someone useful for humanity with passion and second is the new wave of ARM processors like the Cortex-M4 which can operate at such low power they will enable devices like the AMP and billions of new devices which will bring us the Internet of Things. Also let’s not forget 3D printing, this is a perfect example of how useful it can be.
If you want to check out the AMP or order one go to the AMP website, mine is on order and now I have to go out and buy that iPhone 6. Have you seen something as cool as this recently? If you have, please comment below.