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Lynq is a dead-simple gadget for finding your friends outdoors

If you’ve ever been hiking or skiing, or gone to a music festival or state fair, you know how easy it is to lose track of your friends, and the usually ridiculous exchange of “I’m by the big thing”-type messages. Lynq is a gadget that fixes this problem with an ultra-simple premise: it simply tells you how far and in what direction your friends are, no data connection required.

Apart from a couple of extra little features, that’s really all it does, and I love it. I got a chance to play with a prototype at CES and it worked like a charm.

The peanut-shaped devices use a combination of GPS and kinetic positioning to tell where you are and where any linked Lynqs are, and on the screen all you see is: Ben, 240 feet that way.

Or Ellie.

No pins on a map, no coordinates, no turn-by-turn directions. Just a vector accurate to within a couple of feet that works anywhere outdoors. The little blob that points in their direction moves around as quick as a compass, and gets smaller as they get farther away, broadening out to a full circle as you get within a few feet.

Up to 12 can link up, and they should work up to three miles from each other (more under some circumstances). The single button switches between people you’re tracking and activates the device’s few features. You can create a “home” location that linked devices can point toward, and also set a safe zone (a radius from your device) that warns you if the other one leaves it. And you can send basic preset messages like “meet up” or “help.”

It’s great for outdoors activities with friends, but think about how helpful it could be for tracking kids or pets, for rescue workers, for making sure dementia sufferers don’t wander too far.

The military seems to have liked it as well; U.S. Pacific Command did some testing with the Thai Ministry of Defence and found that it helped soldiers find each other much faster while radio silent, and also helped them get into formation for a search mission quicker. All the officers involved were impressed.

Having played with one for half an hour or so, I can say with confidence that it’s a dandy little device, super intuitive to operate, and was totally accurate and responsive. It’s clear the team put a lot of effort into making it simple but effective — there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes.

Because the devices send their GPS coordinates directly to each other, the team created a special compression algorithm just for that data — because if you want fine GPS, that’s actually quite a few digits that need to be sent along. But after compression it’s just a couple of bytes, making it possible to send it more frequently and reliably than if you’d just blasted out the original data.

The display turns off automatically when you let it go to hang by its little clip, saving battery, but it’s always receiving the data, so there’s no lag when you flip it up — the screen comes on and boom, there’s Betty, 450 feet thataway.

The only real issue I had is that the single-button interface, while great for normal usage, is pretty annoying for stuff like entering names and navigating menus. I understand why they kept it simple, and usually it won’t be a problem, but there you go.

Lynq is doing a pre-order campaign on Indiegogo, which I tend to avoid, but I can tell you for sure that this is a real, working thing that anyone who spends much time with friends outdoors will find extremely useful. They’re selling for $154 per pair, which is pretty reasonable, and since that price will probably jump significantly later, I’d say go for it now.

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Building the Moon without leaving the London area

Hardware isn’t easy — especially if you decline to take advantage of the global manufacturing infrastructure, build everything in a flat in London, and use only local labor and materials. But that’s what the creators of successful Kickstarter project Moon did, and they have no regrets.

Back in 2016, I got a pitch for the Moon, an accurate replica of our satellite around which a set of LEDs rotated, illuminating the face in perfect time with the actual phase. A cool idea, though for some reason or another I didn’t cover it, instead asking Alex du Prees, one of the creators, to hit me back later to talk about the challenges of crowdfunded, home-brewed hardware.

The project was a success, raising £145,393 — well over the £25,000 goal — and Alex and I chatted late last year while the team was wrapping up production and starting on a second run, which in fact they just recently wrapped up as well.

It’s an interesting case study of a crowdfunded hardware project, not least because the Moon team made the unusual choice to keep everything local: from the resin casting of the moon itself to the chassis and electronics.

“At the time we wanted to make sure that we made them correctly, and that we didn’t spend a lot of our energy and money prototyping with a factory,” du Preez said. “We’ve seen a lot of Kickstarter campaigns go straight to China, to some manufacturing facility, and we were afraid we’d lose a lot of the quality of the product if we did that.”

The chief benefit, in addition to the good feeling they got by sourcing everything from no further than the next town over, was the ability to talk directly to these people and explain or work through problems in person.

“We can just get on a train and go visit them,” du Preez said. “For instance, there’s a bent pipe which is the arm of the device — even that part alone, we worked with a pipe-bending company and went out there like three times to have conversations with the guy.”

Of course, they weren’t helpless themselves; the three people behind the project are designers and engineers that have helped launch crowdfunding campaigns before, though this one was the first they had done on their own.

“I think Oscar [Lhermitte, who led the project] probably worked two and a half or three years on this, from ideation all the way to manufacturing,” said du Preez. “He had this idea and he contacted NASA and asked for this topographical data to make the map. He came to us because he wanted some technical and engineering input.”

The decision to do it all in the UK wasn’t made any easier by the fact that it was a demanding piece of hardware, the team’s standards were high, and despite being a great success, $200,000 or so still isn’t a lot with which to build a unique, high-precision electronic device from scratch.

The whole operation was run out of a small apartment in London, and the team had to improvise quite a bit.

“We had this tiny little room the size of a kitchen we were producing these things out of,” du Preez recalled. “It wasn’t like a warehouse. And we were on the second floor — we’d get a delivery of like, a ton of metal, and we’d have to spend half a day hauling it up, then boxes would arrive and it would fill up the whole studio.”

They resisted the urge to get something off the shelf or ready-made from Shenzhen, choosing instead to rely on their own ingenuity (and that of nearby, puzzlingly specific artisans) to solve problems.

“One of the trickiest parts was that every single part is made with a different process,” he said. “If you want to make a piece of electronics in a plastic case,” for example a security camera or cheap Android phone, “it’s a lot quicker to develop and execute.”

Obviously the most important part to get right is the globe of the moon itself — and no one had ever made something quite like this before, so they had to figure out how to do it themselves.

“It’s quite large, so we can’t cast it in one solid piece,” du Preez explained. “It would be too heavy to ship. And it sinks — the material moves too much. So what you do is you make a mold, like a negative of the moon, and you pour the liquid inside it. And while the liquid is setting, you rotate it around, to make sure the inner surface is being coated by resin while it’s drying.”

In order to do this for their prototyping stage, they jury-rigged a solution from “wood, bicycle parts, and I think a sewing machine engine,” he said. “We had to put that together on the spot to keep costs down. We kind of replicated what we knew was already out there to test our materials and concepts. We knew if we could make this work, we just had to build or find a better one.”

As luck would have it, they did find someone — right up the tracks.

“We found this guy in Birmingham who basically has an industrial version of this, he makes molds and he has this big metal cage rotating around all day,” du Preez said. “The quality of his work is amazing.” And, of course, it’s just a short train trip away — relative to a trip to Guangzhuo, anyway.

Attention to detail, especially regarding the globe, led to delays in shipping the Moon; they ended up about four months late.

Late arrivals are of course to be expected when it comes to Kickstarter projects, but du Preez said that the response of backers, both friendly and unfriendly, surprised him.

“It seemed quite binary. We had 541 backers, and I’d say only two were really pissed off about not having their moon, and they were irate. I mean they were fuming,” he said.

“But no one really got publicly angry with us. They’d just check in. Once they email you and you give them a response, they seem to be very understanding. As long as we kept the momentum going, people were okay with it.”

That said, four months late isn’t really that late. There are projects that have raised far more than Moon and were years late or never even shipped (full disclosure, I’ve backed a couple!). Du Preez offered some advice to would-be crowdfunders who want to keep the good will of their backers.

“It’s really important to understand your pricing, who’s going to manufacture it, all the way down to shipping. If you have no game plan for after Kickstarter you’re going to be in a tricky situation,” he said. “We had a bill of materials and priced everything out before we went to Kickstarter. And you need some kind of proof of concept to show that the product works. There are so many great hardware development platforms out there that I think that’s quite easy to do now.”

Their attention to detail and obvious pride in their work has resulted in a lasting business, du Preez told me; the company has attracted attention from Adam Savage, Mark Hamill, and MOMA, while a second run of 250 has just completed and the team is looking into other projects along these lines.

You can track the team’s projects or order your own unit (though you may wish you’d gotten the early bird discount) over at the dedicated Moon website.

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Arbtr wants to create an anti-feed where users can only share one thing at a time

At a time when the models of traditional social networks are being questioned, it’s more important than ever to experiment with alternatives. Arbtr is a proposed social network that limits users to sharing a single thing at any given time, encouraging “ruthless self-editing” and avoiding “nasty things” like endless feeds filled with trivial garbage.

It’s seeking funds on Kickstarter and could use a buck or two. I plan to.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Why would I give money to maybe join a social network eventually that might not have any of my friends on it on it? That is, if it ever even exists?” Great question.

The answer is: how else do you think we’re going to replace Facebook? Someone with a smart, different idea has to come along and we have to support them. If we won’t spare the cost of a cup of coffee for a purpose like that, then we deserve the social networks we’ve got. (And if I’m honest, I’ve had very similar ideas over the last few years and I’m eager to see how they might play out in reality.)

The fundamental feature is, of course, the single-sharing thing. You can only show off one item at a time, and when you post a new one, the old one (and any discussion, likes, etc) will be deleted. There will be options to keep logs of these things, and maybe premium features to access them (or perhaps metrics), but the basic proposal is, I think, quite sound — at the very least, worth trying.

Some design ideas for the app. I like the text one but it does need thumbnails.

If you’re sharing less, as Arbtr insists you will, then presumably you’ll put more love behind those things you do share. Wouldn’t that be nice?

We’re in this mess because we bought wholesale the idea that the more you share, the more connected you are. Now that we’ve found that isn’t the case – and in fact we were in effect being fattened for a perpetual slaughter — I don’t see why we shouldn’t try something else.

Will it be Arbtr? I don’t know. Probably not, but we’ve got a lot to gain by giving ideas like this a shot.

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GoFundMe launches native content arm to make videos for campaigns

GoFundMe has racked up over $4 billion in donations as the world’s biggest platform for people setting up donation campaigns, in part by leveraging the power of social media to get people to share stories around those campaigns, with the biggest of these often going viral. Now, to tap deeper into the estimated $500 million in charitable donations that are made globally each year, the company is adding a new feature into the mix as it looks to tap into the popularity of video, currently the hottest medium on social networks.

Today, GoFundMe is debuting a new operation called GoFundMe Studios, which will make films both as short movies and clips, based on select campaigns on the platform.

The studio will be led by two people: Wil Tidman, who had been the VP of creative, strategy and original productions for GoPro — the camera maker that once had high hopes of its own move into content before shutting down its entertainment unit in 2016 amid many other cuts (but didn’t exit content altogether: Tidman was actually in his role there until May 2017); and Chris Neil, who has a long list of production credits in Hollywood films to his name.

The studio is releasing its first film today, a nine-minute short called “Jim Ford, Repo Man” (embedded below), and there are several other films already in production. They sound pretty compelling, I have to admit, above and beyond the donation aspect, which speaks a lot to the emotive nature of GoFundMe (and, perhaps, what makes the content world go round these days).

Others in production include a film about a reformed Klansman; a film about bulls that escape from a slaughterhouse.

“In my career, I have yet to come across so many truly incredible stories as the ones we’ve found on GoFundMe,” said Tidman in a statement. “GoFundMe Studios will showcase the extraordinary stories of humans changing the world through the simple act of giving. Through a documentary storytelling lens, we aim to inspire our community and the world to turn compassion into action.”

“Now is the time for these stories,” added Neil. “With so much tragic news these days, people are hungry for artfully told, real-life stories that remind us of the transformative power of kindness and compassion.”

The idea behind the new division, according to Raquel Rozas, CMO of GoFundMe, is (fittingly) one of marketing: it will be used both to spread the word about interesting campaigns, to get more people to contribute; and by association, spreading the word about GoFundMe as a place to start fundraising for a cause.

“Wil and his team will be working with different formats, from one to two-minute short moments to more in-depth docu-series in order to bring these stories to life,” she said in an emailed interview. She said GoFundMe is  aiming to release at least one film a month and a shorter “moment” every week.

“We will share these with a wide audience over our social channels, and we  are also talking with networks and digital platforms who are interested in helping our community by amplifying these stories,” she added.

It is not — at this point — a mission to replace all the video on GoFundMe with video natively created by or on GoFundMe’s platforms.

The in-house studio is an interesting twist on the concept of native content — which today has largely become a term that is equated with advertising. As with the rest of GoFundMe, while this is a kind of advertising of its own as well, it’s in aid of the cause itself.

For now, GoFundMe is hand-selecting the causes that it will choose to profile in video form — one example of which you can see below.

It’s early days but you can see how this might develop over time. Video, potentially, could be an interesting and extra line of revenue for the company, if they decided to make this into a service.

Today, those making campaigns can create and upload their own videos, and many do, often using other platforms like YouTube, so there is clearly an appetite for using video to build stories, and this is GoFundMe’s way of tapping into that and potentially getting involved in that part of the process.

Rozas declined to comment on any plans, if they exist, to open up the service to any and all campaign creators as a paid or free service, nor would she say anything about whether GoFundMe planned to and add in any other features to those videos, such as the ability to, say, donate directly during the videos themselves — both features that would make sense in GoFundMe videos.

“Right now we are focused on launching GoFundMe studios and sharing these powerful stories,” she said, “but we are always looking for ways to help amplify more stories, and bring more features and tools to our community to make helping even easier.”

To date, GoFundMe has not disclosed the total amount it has raised in venture funding, nor its valuation. The company counts Accel, Iconiq, TCV, Stripes and more among its investors. The company typically charges 7.9 percent + $.30 processing fee for personal or charity campaigns and competes against the likes of Facebook (which natively hosts much of the video posted on its site), JustGiving and more.

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