Designing a product is hard.
Making it real is our story.
Project Aura was a unique challenge as it necessitated actions to be determined by the problems at hand, requiring an attitude of deliberate flexibility and a willingness to learn and develop new skills, like creating films to prototyping software, almost every day.
From the Beginning
In 2010, as second year students at Carnegie Mellon, Ethan Frier and I decided to collaborate on a wild experiment. We called it Project Aura. Three years later, Project Aura has won regional, national, and international awards and is now a start-up dedicated to bringing our vision into reality.
We started with a simple observation - most of our friends who commuted to campus by bike rarely wore helmets and lacked the most basic safety lighting. Even if they did have a front headlight or rear blinky, the lights would hardly be used.
By taking advantage of the wheels, we could make the cyclist visible from the side while highlighting the inherent beauty of a bicycle in motion.
We wanted to address a few major problems with current bike safety: side lighting and ease of use. In order to address side lighting, we utilized the wheels of the bicycle. By taking advantage of the wheels, we could make the cyclist visible from the side while highlighting the inherent beauty of a bicycle in motion. We also sought to make it self-powered, reducing the need for user input and increasing overall usability.
This first prototype was very much a technical challenge of creating an idea.
Project Aura 1.0
Using funds granted to us from a Carnegie Mellon sponsored small undergraduate research grant (SURG) we tackled the project head on - diving into electrical concepts and various fabrication methods. After much trial and error we decided to embed RGB LEDs within the rims of the bicycle powered by a hub dynamo. Acrylic light pipes channeled light from the interior of the wheel to the exterior. Through sheer luck we discovered the color-changing characteristics of our system. Technically speaking, the red diode of an RGB LED operates at a lower forward voltage (something we didn’t know at the time) and thus would turn on at lower RPMs/speeds. As RPM increases so did the voltage, activating the green and blue diodes. This was a remarkable breakthrough and key to our innovation.
A few weeks later, we were picked up by Core77, an industrial design blog, and overnight our video went viral.
As good design students, we put together a video documenting our product and uploaded it to the online video sharing service, Vimeo. A few weeks later, we were picked up by Core77, an industrial design blog, and overnight our video went viral - racking up a couple thousands views and today reaching almost 400k. We were admittedly shocked. We had unknowingly created something that people actually wanted. At the end of the school year we had a choice: we could either ignore our internet success and continue on with our lives, or we could try to turn it into something real.
Against our better judgement, we decided to turn Project Aura into something real.
Acclimating to Confusion
During the next year, we were bombarded with uncertainty. What do we do next? Do we get a patent? What is a patent? How do we even make anything? Needless to say, confusion became the norm.
I realized we had only touched upon the potential of our product. We could do more than turn wheels from red to white.
What if the lights could respond to dynamic information? What if they could react to other riders in the vicinity?
Project Aura 2.0
Our first prototype relied on an analog method to change colors, however I realized that with a digital method of computation, the level control could be limitless.
Beyond turning red to white, what if the wheels could respond to wireless input from smartphones? What if the wheels could grab data from the internet to dynamically respond to information like weather? Could the wheels turn brighter when it rains? What if the wheels could respond to traffic conditions? What if bikes could communicate with each other and create a pack of connected and synced up riders?
Prototyping for Production
As exciting as these ideas were, we deliberately pared down these blue sky ideas to core features that were crucial to the safety experience: red to white speed sensing and auto-on. Even so, designing the circuitry by pouring over data sheets and finding components to prototyping versions of the Arduino code were time consuming and difficult. It was yet another reminder of how difficult it is to take something from an idea into reality.
Then came the bigger conflict.
We had a product, but no direction.
Over time, it became apparent there existed a conflict between two modes of thinking: designing a product and running a business. At times the product development fell at odds with the business strategy and development.
Thinking seriously about the project as a business dramatically changed the way we had to think about managing risk. This couldn’t be just a fun exploration anymore. Money had to be budgeted and frugally spent. Decisions had to be made to ensure a successful, potentially profitable venture. Even managing ourselves proved to be more difficult than both of us could have imagined. We had to move beyond thinking about what the product could do, to what we could do with the product.
For over a year, we operated without an unified vision to direct us. We always knew what a finished product would be, but nothing else. The product acted like blinders, keeping us focused on fostering and babying our idea while ignoring the bigger picture of our ambitions and overarching goal of our start-up.
In the end, we decided to try to license Project Aura. We weren't in the manufacturing business and didn't want to be in one either.
After months of aimless development, we finally sat down and developed an exit strategy: licensing. We weren’t in the manufacturing business and didn’t want to be in one either. It liberated us to focus on developing the idea, not the manufacturing process.
Fortunately, our funding figured itself out for us.
Serendipitously, we had won two grants in early 2013 to fund our development. The first we received was $25,000 from a business competition organized by the Pittsburgh non-profit business incubator Thrill Mill. A few months later, we won another $13,500 grant in the form of a fellowship given by Behance and GE
Giving a visual identity was a crucial step for Project Aura. Working with one our classmates Jiwon Choi, we created an identity around the experimental nature of our product. The logo depicts shards of a wheel in motion on the brink of coming together. I spent time developing and directing videos to update and better reflect our more mature point of view, our origins and attitude and who we were as a company.
As of February 2014, we are in the midst of launching a pilot test program for a limited number of Aura units starting in Pittsburgh. We have also decided to try to manufacture a version of Aura ourselves.