Good Vibrations: the making and meaning of Hackaball

A computer you can throw

Hackaball was conceived and developed by Made by Many, and at the end of 2016 was shipped to more than 2,300 backers and buyers in 51 countries all around the world. An extraordinary hardware project (with a failure rate of less than one per cent) which continues to sell and has attracted interest from major toy companies, Hackaball has won awards, thrilled children, parents and schoolteachers, and fascinated everyone who’s come into contact with it. It’s been written about extensively, but now also seems like a natural moment to trace its story all the way back to the beginning, looking at how it evolved, the problems that arose and solutions that fixed them, and the meaning of this object.

There are also four big lessons for anyone looking to make a success of IoT hardware projects, namely:

1. The IoT is waiting to be built — but build it in a user-centric (instead of tech-centric) way. Involving users in design will lead to better products. 
2. Among the most exciting IoT spaces is where science, learning and play meet.
3. To make something real, get realistic about manufacturing.
4. Hardware challenges that were Samsung-sized a decade ago can now be done by small organisations.

We’ll get into those lessons in this article, which is the first in a series of stories on the object. But first we’ll travel Hackaball’s development arc and learn from the people who imagined, made, tested, designed, redesigned, de-cludged, configured, reconfigured, backed and shipped it, about how this enigmatic object came to exist in its current bleeping, glowing, vibrating, connected, hackable, chuck-able form.

It’s no simple story because Hackaball is something radical and simple at the same time. Simple because human civilisation has known spherical objects for millennia: we’ve played with them, and kicked, rolled, thrown and caught them, and much of what we know as “sport” has evolved from games devised with the ball. And radical because as yet, no-one had ever connected one the internet, technologised it and simultaneously transformed into in a device for learning, play and computing simultaneously.

And doubly radical because today it’s Hackaball’s users (and kids in particular) who are reinventing the ways the ball is played with, learned from and used to hack the idea of fun itself.

Kids, not adults, decide what “fun” is

2013: Reinventing the ball

When Ben King and Thomas Nadin began internships at Made by Many’s London studio in the summer of 2013, they were tasked with exploring the space where play meets the IoT. They hit on the idea of reinventing the most primitive, enduring and versatile of objects: the ball. Later that summer, creative technologist Melissa Coleman joins and the team, and work begin on building a prototype using a 3D printer and Arduino to create light, sounds and movement effects. This side-project would eventually have a tangible outcome — a spectacular, ground-breaking, genre-bending one. But in the beginning, what was the vision?

Early prototypes of Hackaball being hand-built in the Made by Many studio

tim malbon, Made by Many co-founder: “We were simply trying to understand how to design software and hardware at the same time, to build a connected experience and device. At Made by Many we’ve never subscribed to the idea of big design or big strategy upfront, and we genuinely didn’t know what the answer would be. However, one thing we have done successfully in the past is to think about what the world will be like in the next year, or two or three years, when we’d wanted to learn how to develop things in touch, or how to develop apps and experiences for smartphones. In both cases, we initiated projects that taught us those skills the hard way: by doing. So in the beginning we didn’t even know this would be a ball.

What “extremely low fidelity” looks like
“The prototypes were extremely low fidelity — at one point a sock filled with a Raspberry Pi and some wires was a prototype.”

Hackaball could have been that most necessary of as-yet-uninvented objects, a “smart sports cone”.

Ben King, former Made by Many intern: “The idea of ‘Hackaball’ came about after two weeks of the internship. We ran a workshop about inventing games with sensors, formed six ideas, and then [Made by Many-co-founder] Stuart Eccles sent us out to explain the ideas to parents and children.

“Hackaball — which was initially called ‘Rule Ball’ (left) — stood out. At the time we had another idea about smart sports cones. It turned out that a ball is more fun than a sports cone.”

Since balls are meant to be thrown and therefore need to be robust, throwability became the central concern in development: this one would contain fragile sensors, circuitry and components. Gradually the object was beginning to look like something that most would recognise as a ball.

Melissa Coleman, Made by Many technologist: “It was spherical, at least. It was becoming something that looked like a product. We wanted to be at a point where we could test it and see how people respond, but it was traumatising to user-test early versions with kids because they would treat it like a normal product when really it was breakable. The 3D-printed parts would crack all the time.

“Some products can have a much lower-fidelity prototype in order to get to that step, but unless this was a ball that you could throw around, it wasn’t going to work. We could do some work on the app and game creation but actually seeing how people responded to an interactive ball, we had to make a functional prototype. It had to be something that kids could really use and wouldn’t be afraid of breaking. I sometimes accidentally threw early prototypes of Hackaball off the stairs and mezzanine in the Made by Many studio when we were testing — quite a good test of robustness.”

Unidentifed hackable objects

The final Hackaball comprises an internal electronics unit encased in a two-part shell with silicon wrapper, and a lot of work went into protecting its fragile electronic brain.

A new language of play

In parallel work was started by Made by Many designers Alex Harding, Mike Walker and Owen Thomas on the wider design needs of Hackaball, inclduing the customer experiencce of receiving, constructing and playing with the ball, and the necessary branding, tone of voice and gameplay elements. Among the biggest challenges was building the accompanying app. If users (and young ones in particular) were to be able to program their own games, a simple new language would also have to be written. This posed a further set of challenges.

Tom Harding, Head of Design, Made by Many: “We’d set ourselves the brief of connecting an object to a phone, so an app was the logical place to control the ball. We also knew that we’d have a series of inputs and outputs to create games, and the simplest way to program for non-technical people is to break these down into logical steps using straightforward English words. We researched basic programming languages like Pascal, visual languages like VisualBasic, we looked at the mad libs system, and the ‘choose your own adventure’ books we used to read as kids. IFTTT was also a big inspiration as a way of creating something from a few simple actions.

“The goal was to design the two so they felt symbiotic. One way to achieve that was to have subtle sound and light sequences indicating that the app had connected or disconnected — like R2D2 or Wall-E coming online.

“Initially we had to send games over Bluetooth to the ball to play, and then see what the outputs were like. Having realtime feedback when creating games was a big improvement because it meant we could get a feeling for a game as we created it. Kids especially love cause-and-effect: my son, who’s a bit young for Hackaball, will spend hours just changing to colours or sounds in the app.

“Visually, we wanted the app to look like the ball and the ball to feel like something you’d expect to see in the app. A ‘space’ theme grew out of the interface — individual games look like a solar system and actions are planets in orbit.”

Hackaball was to stay in the research & development cycle for around a year as a wider supporting team — including designers, technologists, and strategists — coalesced around this intriguing object with its growing repertoire of bleeps, rumblings and buzzings. Games were written (the first included versions of playground staples such as Hot Potato), risk analyses undertaken and big questions asked. Was it a commercial idea, was it feasible in technology terms, was it viable for a company the size of Made by Many? “It wasn’t easy to answer those questions with low fidelity prototype, and it took ages to get a good fidelity prototype,” recalls Ben King.

2014: Why hardware is hard

Hackaball was slowly getting real, in particular through rounds of user testing with kids in school and playgrounds, the proof of its features and limitations evidenced in their grins and scowls respectively. However, if it wasn’t already obvious enough, 2014 brought the striking realisation (visible in the growing pile of broken 3D-printed husks, malfunctioning PCBs and dead LEDs particularly) that doing hardware is hard, and perhaps especially for studio specialised in software.

tim malbon: “We knew it was hard, but we didn’t know it was very, very, very hard, this new discipline of syncing hardware, industrial design and interaction design. Partly that’s because the cycle of iteration in software is almost real-time, whereas with hardware you’re dealing with atoms rather than bits. At the beginning we naively thought, ‘We’ll use our lean, prototype-powered, user-centric way of doing it, and that will help us to get to the right answer.’ But in hardware what can go wrong is much more unpredictable, and eventually we realised that we were never going to get to industrial design and production on our own.”

Which is why Made by Many approached the award-winning industrial designers Map Project Office and work began in earnest by Jon Marshall, Julie Arrivé and their team to evolve the object into something that could eventually be produced in a factory.

Jon Marshall: “Our first impressions were that this was a great product — and why hadn’t anyone already launched it? It was a perfect combination of harnessing kids’ love of technology with outdoor social play. We felt there was an opportunity through the industrial design to make Hackaball appeal to a wide range of ages, which led to us making it able to come apart to expose the computer inside, which could potentially be taken out and used in other projects.

Early versions of Hackaball’s industrial design
“The main challenge was creating a soft shell to protect the delicate computer inside from active play. Made by Many needed support on making the casings, and making it bounce- and shock-proof. We knew we could solve that, but what also interested us were the sensorial aspects which didn’t fall into the traditional physical world: the sound and lighting behaviours. We always knew we could get Hackaball to bounce, but the sound and light were just as important in terms of experience.”

Mock-ups were duly made in foam, card, drawing pins, elastic bands and lots of cut-up acrylic balls, with later models being constructed using 3D printing and vacuum casting. MAP suspended the ball’s internal electronics into a shockproof ring made from ABS and TPE plastics, and split the ball into two hemispheres fabricated in polypropylene, with a silicone outer sleeve to hold the assembly together.

Hackaball was beginning to look more and more real, viable, desirable and magical: a ball in name and form, but also much more than that: one with its own language of lights, sounds and vibrations.

Increasingly, Hackaball began to look not only feasible, but too good to avoid committing to.

But the question remained: how to make it really real?

William Owen, Made by Many co-founder: “at that point we were looking at three possible routes to take Hackaball from an early concept or working prototype to something that was ready for manufacturing. One was to go with a consulting company who would have taken around 25 to 30 per cent of the profits. Another was to work with a company to supply us with electronic component design and design, all for a fee which would have been very high. The third was to sell it to a toy company under licence. The first two options were too expensive and we weren’t very keen on the licence option — the danger was that we could sell the licence and then nothing would happen with it, which is often the case.

“‘So for a while we did nothing, thinking, ‘This isn’t possible; we should leave it’. That was until the idea of a Kickstarter arose: it kicked us into thinking we could take this to market.”

In the interim, however, there was still plenty of work to be done. In Made by Many studios streams of work continued on the app, firmware, hardware and industrial design, along with brand thinking and strategy. Working in Objective C and later Swift, Made by Many iOS developer Julian James picked up development of the app which pairs with Hackaball to enable owners to play games or hack the simple, code-like language of rules to make their own.

Hackaball’s programming language is built on “When” and “Then” rules

Julian James: “The app had the basic idea of If/Then rules, which we called Whens and Thens — and a way of laying them out. Next we had to map this user interface onto the new firmware, which itself was quite different from the prototype firmware. We also thought about how we represented the games themselves on the home view screen: the idea of having the nodes came in, with lines joining to another node, and so on; these nodes were the “Whens”. Around the edge of a node you have up to six of the “Thens” — for example, to make a noise, or flash a certain colour, little icons illustrating what each step does. All this was an evolution — an original idea taken and mapped onto what is actually in the app. We went back and forth between the app and the firmware.”

2015: Looking for the meaning of Hackaball

By the beginning of 2015 Hackaball had been through many iterations, and a certain atmosphere of introspection alighted on the project: the Fog of Innovation, we might call it. After round upon round of user testing, prototyping and head-scratching, the questions nevertheless came into greater relief: what could Hackaball do, become or achieve? What was this object’s real purpose in that perennially misunderstood dimension, the IoT?

What could Hackaball really mean?

When Kickstarter curtain call came on March 3 2015, it took Hackaball just 23 days to break its target of raising $100,000, in addition to almost breaking Kickstarter itself: Hackaball was launched at the same time as a new Pebble product, and briefly went down. Hackaball was also made Kickstarter design project of the week and by the end of its month-long campaign, Hackaball had attracted a staggering $241,122 from 2,312 backers spread across the world (read about how we ran the Kickstarter campaign here).

But investment wasn’t the only result of the successful campaign. Kickstarter would also help validate the project, establish a supporting community, and soliciting feedback from the world beyond the Made by Many studio. The process also illuminated two important insights:

William Owen: “The first was the reaction from people who’d launched similar products before — we got a universal appreciation from them that Hackaball was a much more mature product than most in terms of its hardware design, form factor, app and hardware design. And it had been very, very thoroughly tested with children and we’d brought in a very good hardware design company.

“The other thing it illustrated was the chasm that exists between a product that looks very mature and is ready for Kickstarter, and a product that’s fit for production. These are very, very different things. We were ahead of ourselves in one sense, yet nobody told us about quite how hard it would be and it was partly because of a severe lack of electronic engineering and firmware skills in the UK.”

On the nature of fun

For Hackaball’s Kickstarter launch, Ben King dressed up as a spaceman

Meanwhile, as public awareness and interest in Hackaball was growing, its supporting philosophy was also coming into sharper resolution through the rigours of learning while playing, testing and retesting, breaking and building, watching, listening and tinkering —being seriously scientific in the pursuit of fun. Which is how it eventually transpired that fun itself could be Hackaball’s grand narrative.

Sketching out the future of play

Melissa Coleman: “the product development process was about listening to feedback and adjusting our ideas based on that. We were making a modular product that people could mould into their own thing — some kids might use Hackaball for storytelling, others for playing active games. Hackaball was always intended that way, but in our heads we had very static games with the classical structure of a beginning, middle and end, and very clear rules of how to get from one to the other.”

“What we realised is that kids like stuff that is just fun. It doesn’t really matter how you get there because they decide what’s fun. They might come up with really crazy rules and as an adult I might say, “That’s not a game.” But the kids are like, “Oh no, that’s definitely a game.” So if something the kids make is about having fun, then who am I to judge? It’s mistake to assume: they are the judges of what’s fun.”

Hence Hackaball may been intended one way, but its truth was emerging in the way it could be hacked into something else: an alternative, kids-eye view on what fun could be, along with a direct, hands-on feeling of making and remaking the interactions with this most fun of objects.

Melissa Coleman:Hacking is like coding without permission. It’s more naughty — and more and more that became our philosophy around Hackaball: a physical product that’s broken when you get it and you have to build it. Putting Hackaball back together is part of the user experience. It’s not this pristine product that you cannot touch.”

Observations such as these were as disruptive as they were enlightening, and they led to the realisation that the Hack as much as the Ball was what made Hackaball unique.

tim malbon: “earlier in the process there had been some much more focused propositions based on becoming fit or learning certain skills, but later we wanted the broadest possible concept, and a ball with some very simple rules that could be co-opted to do anything at all. The missing bit that we learned as we went along, was that hackable space: in the concept that allows the child to insert their own imagination, and to turn something that’s just “a ball” into a golden egg, or something that a dragon owns, or something extremely dangerous, rare, or whatever. We learned not to overdesign it. It’s surprising what kids really want to play with: pots and pans, wooden spoons, stuff in the kitchen. They want to use their imaginations on the stuff that you might think is really boring.”

2016: Getting really real

There were setbacks — plenty of them — and achieving the project to the satisfaction of those 2,312 backers wouldn’t be without its intricacies. To overcome them Made by Many had partnered with an agency in the Shenzhen region of China to manage the manufacture of Hackaball, but a further working prototype had to be developed.

Hackaball PCBs being produced in China

Throughout 2016 activity focused on redesigning the electronics board, writing the bill of materials and functional spec while the industrial design, brand design and packaging finished were finessed further still. “Visually Hackaball looked like the same product as it had been,” recalls Melissa Coleman, “but its guts were very different: different hardware and different firmware.” For several months the Hackaball team were in close liaison with China over firmware releases but on August 26 2016, Hackaball was sent into production.

In Shenzhen the production lines went into action, the machines turned for a few days… and Hackaball was finally real.

Soon after, the first batch of Hackaballs arrived into the Made by Many studio where QA specialist Jamie Mayes ironed out the final bugs in the system and updated the firmware. The failure rate proved to be astonishingly low: just 0.59 per cent, against an industry standard of 10 per cent.

Hackaball was ready to go, but shipping it around the world wasn’t to be without complications: it meant synchronising a range of technologies — logistics, backer, pre-order and payments systems among them — to deliver Hackaballs into the hands of patient fans. It’s an endeavour that looks simple on paper, yet in Hackaball’s case proved to be complex, time-consuming and at times frustrating.

Matt Williams, Made by Many: “The clever way to work out the best way of shipping would be to test it on a really small scale: buy a box of something that’s a similar weight and size on eBay, ship them to your shipping partner, and then get them shipped to friends around the world. Work out what the best way to do it is, and of using bulk data as opposed to individual orders. Then see how it fits with your other processes and software, such as Celery for pre-orders, Stripe for payments, and Kickstarter for backer information. Getting data in and out of any shipping systems can be problematic, and you need access to support 24/7. Choose a provider based on the quality of documentation the website, the ease of input of data into the system, and the availability of support in your own timezone.”

2017: Hack to the future

Despite the complexities of shipping, Hackaball was out in the world and in the hands of backers by the time Christmas 2016 and New Year’s Day 2017 arrived. Delighted reactions were coming in (see the full story here): “Great unboxing experience. It’s alive! Thank you, @hackaball” said @ybakos. “We are acting like a couple of kids excited to try out this…” added pyuan of Silicon Vallet. Darrell Whitelaw was “stoked” for delivery day. “Thanks for making something rad Made by Many friends,” he went on. @ollylazbot coined the hashtag #moreexcitedthanagrownmanshouldbe to describe his feelings at the arrival of Hackaball, while @Miss_Birkbeck from the Penn State College of Education straightway took Hackaball to the place where it will probably mean the most: the classroom.

It was also instructive for members of the Hackaball team to cast back over the last three and a half years and consider how they object in front of them met with their visions back in 2013.

“Looking back from the very initial idea, Hackaball has changed a lot, says Ben King. “Very organically it came out of a first idea through iterating our prototypes and testing them with kids. We never shaped the idea so to be educational, it was about creating the most fun thing possible.”

“Hackaball looks simple, but is very complex,” adds Julian James. ‘It’s not just a multicoloured light bulb, and it’s deceptively simple. Hackaball shows how you can pull a lot of disparate parts together into a whole that actually works and if you can do it for a ball, you can do it for all kinds of stuff. But it’s been hard work.”

In the Made by Many studio, a period of reflection on this endeavour so far seems natural. Considering its uncertain genesis, the almost endless round of iterations, the complexities and intricacies of designing in the gaps between software and hardware, there have been some big lessons that any organisation thinking of embarking on hardware project could learn from:

1. The IoT is waiting to be built, and almost anyone can do it

Arduino was extensively used in early prototypes of Hackaball

tim malbon: “we know that many more objects will to have a degree of connectivity in them and talk to the internet, but which don’t look like phones or computers anymore. These objects that are going to surround us, and there’s a whole range of experiences that need to be worked out to make our interactions with them useful and natural. We were only going to learn how difficult these things are and how to get round those difficulties by actually doing it.

“What’s also exciting about Hackaball is the way you can reinvent the value that something has — an object like a ball. There’s an invisible layer of value that you can build on top of it. Balls are used to keep people fit, they’re used to teach people, Isaac Newton conceptualised gravity when a ball-shaped fruit fell on his head. Balls are really, really important to the way we think. So if we can connect them to a lot of the other intelligence and knowledge that we have, and the ability to measure and understand and model those kinds of things that make us human, then we can make those objects even more valuable, and that’s pretty exciting.”

2. There’s ground to be broken in the space where products combine science, learning and play

Melissa Coleman: “when you consider the Arduino and other modular electronics aimed at beginners, products that are aimed specifically at young people are generally very good for creativity and promoting science but as much as kids might have fun with them, it’s quite hard to make something of high quality. Hackaball is such a complete product that anything you do with it will be just as attractive, yet it still gives you the space for making. In that sense it’s a product that we haven’t seen much of yet. It has the quality of a gadget where you think, Oh I want it, it’s beautiful, but that’s just like the beginning of it: it’s not what it becomes. You build a different relationship with it through using it. It’s about how willing you are to dive into the guts of it.”

3. The “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is real, but companies need to get real about the process

Machining Hackaball in China

Among the most important — if not the most important — aspects of running a project such as Hackball is the relationship with manufacturers in China: building the relationship, being on the ground, solving problems. Effort applied early in the relationship will pay off in the quality of the final product.

4. What would have been an Apple- or Samsung-sized problem a decade ago is today achieveable by a small-to-medium sized organisations

The finished product, ready to be hacked

William OwenWhat’s most remarkable about Hackaball is that would have been regarded as extraordinary 10 years ago for an agency the size of Made by Many — a mix of 40 product strategists, technologists and interaction designers — to have brought a product of this complexity to market. It’s not so extraordinary today. Nonetheless there are very few things around which can touch Hackaball in terms of coding, interactions, robustness, and wonderment for children in the toy and education market. It’s been hugely successful as a demonstration that you can take products like this to market at relatively low cost. Similarly, the quality of hardware and software a real testimony to made by Many’s test procedures, as well as to our Chinese partners’.

What the project proves above all is that the research and development required to get a product like Hackaball from conception to market-ready product is in the realms of what a small-to-medium-sized enterprise can afford today. Once it would have been an Apple- or Samsung-sized problem. No longer.”

Text: Kevin Braddock

Facts & Figures

Hardware failure rate: 0.57 per cent
What Hackaball could have been if it wasn’t a ball: a “smart sports cone”
Downloads from the App store: 4,000 (and counting)
Number of Kids who played with Hackaball in testing: 354
No. of different factories used in manufacturing: 4
No. of kilobytes on Hackaball’s electronics board (housing games instructions, audio files, look-up tables etc): 32
No of countries shipped to: 51
Clients won by Made by Many as a result of Hackaball: 3

The prizes Hackaball won:

Best Inventions 2015, Time
Best In Book, Digital Category, 2015, Creative Review
Best of CES 2015, Engadget
Lovie Awards 2015, Connected Products
Lovie Awards 2015, Family & Kids
Core 77 Award, 2015
Gold IxDA Awards 2015 (runner-up)
Finalist, Fast Company Innovation By Design, 2015
Most Engaging UX For digital Education, Gold, User Experience Awards 2015
Design For Experience Award, 2014

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