By now you know I am a fan of the internet. I found my second favorite band from a personal recommendation on IRC in 1996 and I never looked back. I have my close friends and school contacts on Facebook, I have my new friends and interests on Google+, Reddit and Imgur and I keep up with the rest of the internet on Twitter. I have about six-thousand hobbies and one of them is microcontroller and electronics development. In support of that, I follow the Arduino group on Google+ and quite often find people that need help or people to help me. About a year ago, I stumbled across this guy who was building a very interesting project called HelloSpoon. It was this robotic arm that helps feed people who can’t feed themselves. It wasn’t great in practice at the time, but had tons of potential.
However, it really blew my mind. What a great idea! I was immediately struck by how cool this project was and what it could mean for the people who need it. HelloSpoon could be made very inexpensively and was so simple to build so you could easily build something like it yourself – well, easy if you understand engineering and microelectronics and bluetooth and Android apps and all that. I responded to the message for help from the original author, someone known as Luis G III, because I had to know more about it. From that first message, I’ve been following along with HelloSpoon as it developed. A lot has changed in a year and finally, HelloSpoon is about to cross a threshold.
Luis G III, is Luis Garcia of Mazatlan Mexico. A place that most Americans think of as a sleepy Mexican vacation town where probably not a lot happens. But evidently, behind the brightly painted walls of the little homes in Mazatlan, there is creativity brewing everyday. Luis is 23 years old and holds a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering and he embodies the spirit that draws me to the internet. I don’t know Luis IRL (in real life, for you n00bs!). We met over Google+ and have only spoken about his project. I’ve given him some unsolicited advice and hopefully offered some encouragement to keep on keepin’ on, but outside of that, we don’t know each other.
It got me to thinking about developing hardware in Mexico. What is the scene like there? How does a young person get exposed to the kinds of things Luis is in to? Since writing is one of my hobbies, last week I decided to ask Luis for an interview, to which he kindly agreed.
DamnDad: Mr. Garcia, you’re a young guy, how old are you?
Luis G III: I’m 23 years old, young but not that young. I would like to be younger to be honest.
DD: Well, compared to me, that seems pretty young! I understand you live in Mexico. What part?
L: Yes, I’m from Mexico. I live in a beach town actually, Mazatlan, Sinaloa
DD: Excellent, are you in school now?
L: No, I graduated last year in February
DD: Oh, Congratulations. Did you earn a degree?
L: Yes, I have a BSc in Mechatronics Engineering
DD: That’s a wide open field with an absolutely huge future. You must be pretty excited and proud of that. Do you plan to go to work for someone or do you want to do your own thing?
L: I don’t like the idea of working for somebody else I’m very used to doing my own thing but I’ve always been a good student (and like to learn) but I like to work on my own projects.
DD: That’s great. I personally feel like if you aren’t an entrepreneur, then you are missing out.
L: Yes I agree with you, a lot of people are unhappy with their jobs but they aren’t prepared to do their own thing because they don’t want to take the risk. I try to encourage my own friends to take risks… but they don’t always listen.
DD: It’s good advice. Speaking of friends, do you have developer friends? How is the maker community in your town?
L: To be honest, Mazatlan is more a place to have fun and enjoy life, there’s not much work for engineers here and for that reason a lot of students leave Mazatlan and go to other cities but there aren’t a lot of developers here because well… Mexico is focused on manufacture. You don’t hear much about being an independent developer, so you can imagine how lonesome it is to be like me. I do have a few friends in Mexico city that are developers, but they are very few and far between.
DD: Yes, when Americans think of Mexico, it usually is manufacturing or vacation. Do you think your generation will start to change that view?
L: I would like to be part of that change. That’s why I do what I do. In a way I’m not afraid to fail, because I would like others to see what I’m doing and they get some inspiration. Young people like me, we are the future, but there’s very little guidance.
DD: Thats an important way of thinking. Fear of failure has stopped so many young people from finding success. I have a feeling that you will help to create a nurturing environment for the next generation.
L: I hope so, that’s part of my dream and one of the goals for my project
DD: We met on Google+ and I’ve been following your project for some time now. I see that you have lots of children and family in your life. Do you get much support for your endeavors from your family?
L: In the beginning, my parents thought I was just playing with this stuff and it didn’t look productive to them. Now they see the effort and the results from those efforts so they are starting to come around. My grandparents have been very supportive and I appreciate that.
DD: Usually perseverance is the key to changing mom and dad’s minds. So, you are a true, lone-wolf as we say. You have to do all your own thinking, answer finding and everything right?
L: Yes, I have to do everything on my own, but I like that because it helps to learn more about my project and better understand people. I feel that’s very important, especially when you are developing a social robot. Understanding people and their reactions is very helpful for that purpose. I do have an internet friend who has helped me from the beginning of this project. He’s the one who actually motivated me to work on the HelloSpoon project.
DD: Is your friend a developer too, or just someone who supports you?
L: He lives in South Korea and works in the robotics industry. We met through Facebook. He discovered the project and has supported me quite a lot throughout the project.
DD: Excellent. I love the internet for just this reason. The collaboration you can find online eliminates the barriers you may find in your local surroundings. That’s what it’s all about.
L: Yeah, it is great when I talk with people and tell them my story, they are always extremely supportive. People seem to really understand how helpful HelloSpoon can be.
DD: What are some of your favorite resources online for building awesome projects like HelloSpoon?
L: Well, I really like the Let’s Make Robots community, it’s a like a different world. If you take a look, you’ll see all kinds of robots created by everybody from young hobbyists and experienced roboticists alike.
DD: Yeah, I’m familiar with that one. Great community there.
L: But the majority of my inspiration behind HelloSpoon is life itself
DD: So, tell me more about HelloSpoon. Specifically, how did you come up with this idea? How did it start? Why this robot?
L: Everything started when I was recovering from wisdom tooth surgery. I was kind of depressed and I had a lot of complications. Then one day I saw that my Korean friend put a video online about using a voice-activated iPhone app to open a garage door. I was immediately like, “hey I could build that”, so I started to work on it and in about an hour I had a prototype ready. I recorded a video to show to him and he was very surprised by the response. Of course, we didn’t know each other at that point, but I think he got curious about me, and has supported me quite a bit ever since. He’s a well known figure in the field of robotics and I’m very lucky to have him as a mentor.
As for HelloSpoon, he got started because my granddad had carpal tunnel syndrome and he had a lot of difficulty eating. He would always spill food all over the place and himself. It’s helping him that continues to motivate me to develop a solid product. I think I have a very good solution in HelloSpoon. If it’s not my grandpa, it’s going to be someone else. There are many, many people – too many – that need help eating.
DD: That’s so cool. They say that “necessity is the mother of invention”, sometimes one-upmanship helps to get it done too!
Excellent. One of the things that drew me in with the project was the potential to help people. It just amazed me that for a few dollars and a couple hours, a young guy such as yourself could build something with so much potential. And now, its been a year of development and constant refinements on HelloSpoon. What has been the biggest challenge with it?
L: The biggest challenge definitely is testing it with people, I’ll tell you what I mean, development of this project has been pretty hard actually. After school, I moved out of my parents house, which meant getting a job to earn money but that job helped me to focus in what I wanted to do and improve the design. HelloSpoon got his good looks through that job, so that part worked out well. However, when you build something by yourself in a “lab” all the time, you start to worry if people will reject your creation – especially with social robots. You make it for people and you hope they enjoy it, but that can’t be assured when you are working alone. When I would post progress online, I’d get a good deal of negative feedback. People telling me that he’s useless, ugly, whatever. Anyway, kept working on him and finally people see the potential.
DD: Explain that a little more. What did people think about early versions of it?
L: Oh, people hated early versions specially roboticists. They were like, that’s a really ugly and expensive arm.
DD: Were these people who actually sat down with him or people that saw videos and pictures?
L: No, these were all internet comments. No one who actually used him said anything like that.
DD: Do you think it was a matter of them not liking or not trusting the actual technology?
L: I had the opportunity to travel to SF the last year with one of the old versions, and people loved it, so it was very confusing to me. There’s a lot to think about and you can’t please everybody but you have to find the balance. I believe it was more not trusting the actual technology.
DD: Are we talking about the usual internet trolls here?
L: No, I don’t believe so, my own peers here in Mexico rejected it. Even when I did so much for them when I was a student, they still reject me, but I don’t care anymore.
DD: Now you have videos and photos of actual people using him and playing with HelloSpoon, how is the feedback now that you have refined him to this point?
L: It’s really positive now. Now roboticists think it’s cool, normal people think is cute, children love it, my parents aren’t mad anymore and rehab oriented people see HelloSpoon as a real solution. All of that makes me very happy.
DD: Well, hopefully I’m not ripping off a scab with this question, but to hear that your peers didn’t like him is a little shocking. Can you tell me about a specific bit of feedback you got from them that really stuck with you?
L: Once, when I was doing internships in the best research center in Mexico, my mentor told me that I should should stop because I’m a Mexican, he said, “Who do you think you are? It’s not like you are Dennis Hong or anything.” Dennis Hong is a very important researcher in robotics, I really admire him.
DD: Whoa. And this is a mentor. Wow. Thats not very encouraging. So what was your initial reaction to that?
L: I was sad, really sad
DD: I imagine.
L: But it was not enough to beat me down
DD: How long before you decided he was an idiot and got back to work on HelloSpoon?
L: Actually, I never stopped working, when he told me that I wasn’t working with him anymore and we are still friends. I understand it now. I think he was trying to prepare me for the real world.
DD: That’s great. Success is the best form of revenge!
L: We don’t talk very often anymore, but he knows about me and what I’m doing.
DD: I have a feeling he’ll be hearing a lot more about your work in the future too. We have a saying in education: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”
L: haha I believe that, honestly. A lot of people told me that I should be teaching, but I know my path so I’m not giving up and I’ll do my own stuff
DD: So, you are about to launch an Indiegogo fundraiser for HelloSpoon. What are you hoping to get out of that project? Or, rather, what do you hope to accomplish with him?
L: The idea behind HelloSpoon is for it to be the seed for a startup company that builds robots focused on quality of life. I’ve always enjoyed helping people and I’m really good at robotics and programming. While I understand that if I have a company I will not work on development projects all the time but I still want to motivate people to think in that way and create products to help people at affordable prices.
DD: We haven’t touched on this much, but HelloSpoon is a robot designed to help the disabled, so when you say you want to focus on quality of life, is that quality of life for the disabled or for everyone?
L: I am mainly focused on the disabled, but generally focused on everybody. You never know, we all could all be a disabled person someday. It’s like we can’t stop death, but we can enjoy life and be happy and I want to help in the “enjoy life and be happy” part. Imagine a child using HelloSpoon, when he/she grows up, he/she will remember those good times next to his/her robot. We built that robot.
DD: With the indiegogo project, you are looking to build a certain number of HelloSpoon robots for retail sale and then use some of the funds to create a Mexico based company to build more robots focused on the quality of life, mainly for the disabled, but with an occasional foray into the mass-market. Do you worry that being based in Mexico may limit your opportunities for growth or funding?
L: My intentions is to not be based in Mexico. I need to find a way to move to a place like California. My Korean friend says that’s possible and I’m in contact with people from Silicon Valley Robotics so, in the mean time I will focus on the products. Staying Mexico is not a good idea, the government just doesn’t support startups like the one I want to create. The environment for development is much better in the U.S. My research shows there’s just about zero robotics startups in Mexico.
DD: I understand. You’ve rightly said that Mexico is well known for its manufacturing capabilities, will you set up a production line to build HelloSpoon after the fundraiser?
L: Yes I’d eventually want to manufacture in Tijuana. I have friends there.
DD: Ok. So, you fund this project, build some robots, and start up a company, no matter where, is there enough money from this fund raise to bootstrap your company or do you think you’ll be back for more funding on another project?
L: Yes there’s enough money to build the products and the company it if the campaign is successful. If the campaign is successful then the rest will work out. I am always looking for opportunities and having a successfully funded campaign will help with brand and product recognition.
DD: That’s great that you can do it all. In the U.S. many devices have to be approved by the FDA or other regulatory agencies to be used as medically assistive devices. I doubt HelloSpoon fits into that category but do you envision creating products that will need regulatory approval or will you steer away from those kinds of products?
L: Oh the FDA, I would like to stay away of that type of organization. But, who knows. Right now, I’m not anticipating products that would need approval, these aren’t medical devices, they are life assistance devices. Right now I don’t want to think about being approved by the FDA and I’m certain HelloSpoon is well out of that scope.
DD: Let’s talk about design for a second. You and I have talked before and you’ve said that you have no formal design training, but HelloSpoon looks like something a cutting edge design house would make. I saw one article that said he looks like something the “always hip minds at Apple” would make. How did you come up with such a fun, and elegant design for him?
L: I’m an Apple user myself. I’ve been a fan of Apple since before the iPhone so that was a very nice complement to hear. HelloSpoon’s design is inspired by a robot from Japan. That robot is also an elephant but it’s a big elephant used to clean bathrooms.
DD: I thought it had a little “Japan” in it.
L: Actually when you see the other robot and HelloSpoon they are only similar because both are elephants and blue. The final design was influenced by SketchUp. I’m not great at SketchUp and so I kind of went with what I could do. He turned out very nice. I think children will be a target market for these devices and since manga is really popular, I had that in mind while designing him.
DD: So, tell me about test cases. How many HelloSpoon robots are there in the world right now?
L: There’s only one right now and is here with me in my study.
DD: Have you worked with disabled focus groups at this point or do you need to get more units built before you can do that?
L: I’m in contact with a Dutch organization, Eizt, and they will help to study final designs, but yes I need more robots!
DD: That’s amazing. You must be really proud of him. As a member of the internet, I’m proud of your accomplishment and I wish you all the success in the world. Is there anything you’d like my readers to know about you or HelloSpoon before we go?
L: I just want to say thanks to everybody for taking the time to check out HelloSpoon. Maybe they will feel motivated to make their own projects.
DD: You are most welcome. You have motivated me to start messing around more with my electronics to try to create something the world has never seen, so it’s already working. Thank you so much for your time today Mr. Garcia.
L: You’re welcome, and I hope to see your project soon. It is always exciting see new stuff around, especially if it can help somebody else.
It’s not like you are Dennis Hong or anything. – Luis Garcia’s Mentor
Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve watched HelloSpoon grow from an intimidating arm with a spoon on the end of it, to a cute, Japanese toy inspired elephant who gives helpful encouragement when you take a bite. Luis’ whole process is available on Google+ and you can watch it grow too. From early renderings to videos with test subjects, he’s really done his homework on this project and it’s about ready to pop.
A couple of weeks ago, when Luis sent me a draft of his Indiegogo campaign, it really solidified for me just how important a project like this is. It’s the right project for crowdfunding and the right person to back. About the time I post this article, the campaign will be live and I wholeheartedly encourage you to go check it out and even back it. It will help an independent guy with limited resources keep innovating and building important products that improve lives.
I think Luis is going to have a great deal of success in the future. As for HelloSpoon, I certainly hope it takes off, but you never know how many people really need help until you launch something like this. If you’d like to learn more about HelloSpoon, check out Luis’ Tumblr account.