A little while ago I backed a project on Kickstarter, a popular crowd funding service here in the US, for what was described as a wearable camera. I am actually not so interested in the wearable part as some of the other mounting options, like the car mount, that were promised to be in the “perk” package you receive for backing the project, assuming they are successful in raising the funds they need to complete the project, and they actually do complete it. There is always an element of risk in these projects (my Pebble watch was a Kickstarter project too, and while it was ultimately a success, and I love it, there were quite a few delays on the way).
The ParaShoot camera project blew through their $30K goal in no time, and were over $100K at the weekend when, out of the blue, Kickstarter suspended them. And suspension on Kickstarter is irreversible, essentially killing the project. At least, killing their Kickstarter campaign. ParaShoot has bounced back though, this time on the competing IndieGoGo site.
In the run up to the suspension, there had been a series of revelations that at least two identical looking, and very close specification, cameras were already on the market. One in Russia, and one from China, but with FCC approval for sale in the US.
That has lead several backers to accuse the project of being nothing more than a rebadging of an existing design with some skins.
There are definitely a lot of similarities between the the three cameras:
* The enclosure the three cameras are in looks to be identical
* The mounts and accessories
* The software shown as the ParaShoot app looks almost identical to the Unieye one in the App Store already
* The specification of the cameras
There are a few differences too though:
* The PCB shown in the FCC filing of the Unieye looks pretty different to the photo the project released.
* As of 2.1, the camera also has a time lapse mode
* There is a new enclosure.
It is quite possible that the PCB the project showed was an earlier iteration, and their one would now resemble the Unieye one too, and the other differences are new features in 2.1 that were not part of the original Kickstarter project description.
The Creators Response
I reached out over the weekend to see what I could discover from both the project creators and Kickstarter. The latter refused to comment, citing policy of not explaining
their actions why they suspend projects. The ParaShoot team had this to say about the similarities:
* The enclosure shown was a standard ODM (original design manufacturer) one so as not to reveal the final design:
“We designed several enclosures, and were not planning to show our latest enclosure to prevent against copying. So we showed this enclosure from the ODM, that we were planning to update and improve to accommodate our requirements, including a flat front, a sleeker design, and the skins.” – ParaShoot team
* The electronics are their own design, manufactured by a Chinese ODM.
“Our staff designed the electronics and the Chinese ODM put it into action.” – ParaShoot team
* The software they claim to have developed themselves too, though they have not (yet) explained the almost identical look, even down to icon choices, of the Unieye app. I will update this if I hear back from them. What they have said so far is:
“We have our own team doing work on the ParaShoot software. There are features we are deploying that currently do not exist in the “Unieye” app.”
They also added that they had been in contact with Kickstarter specifically about the comments of their discussion board and the discovery of these similar existing products, and Kickstarter had been positive about it: “They saw the other products and were positive, suggesting we continue communicating openly. So don’t think it had anything to do with that.“
1. The backers objecting to the project are right and the ParaShoot team are basically just branding a standard ODM product. This is far from uncommon in the land of consumer electronics. The ODMs will have a reference design for most of the popular chipsets in the space(s) they cover. The Ambarella A7L would seem to meet that criteria in the HD video space.
2. Some of the project’s defenders are correct and the project is a victim of its ODM reselling their design without permission. Again not uncommon in the land of ODMs. Especially if their design teams had input into the design (or even designed the entire product under contract).
3. Their ODM (or even another one) created a separate reference design around the same Ambarella chipset and used the same off the shelf enclosure.
Not sure we’ll ever know the complete story here, but I don’t think it necessarily matters.
Original Design Manufacturers
In the world of consumer electronics, use of ODMs is very common. They manufacture most of the electronics we use (even high profile brand name products like Apple’s iPhone). In some cases they also play a significant role in the design of the electronics and perhaps even the software embedded in the devices. Big brands go to great lengths to protect their designs, but even they have issues with clones sometimes, though typically they are only sold in the domestic Chinese market.
Oftentimes though they will sell the same basic design to multiple companies, with just minor changes to the electronics and enclosure and some branding on the box & in any software. That is what these companies excel at. They can spin a new design with minor tweaks overnight & have a new prototype ready for testing the next day.
I don’t see how employing the services of one of these giant companies in China to help realize an idea is in any way contrary to the concept of crowd funding a start up business. Even if the electronics is 100% the same (and let’s face it, this is essentially a single chip design, so it would be hard for the electronics or the specifications to be much different from one product to the next if they are based on the same SoC), the ParaShoot team have other ways they can differentiate their product. They can also market, sell and support it locally (the others I would need to buy from a site in Russian or direct from China).
One of the allegations is that the team claims to be developing the product still, and yet these “competing” products are out there already. That’s how the ODM world works though if I want any customization work done to their reference design. Even more so if they are adding new software features – the ODMs are great at making hardware changes, but their software skills are often lacking. I would also note that the team stated the funds were solely to cover production expenses like FCC approvals, components and tooling. That would imply to me that most of the design work was complete. Ramping up to full production doesn’t take these ODMs long.
If, as the ParaShoot folks say, Kickstarter out of the blue shut them down, with plenty of time remaining for them to have reacted differently, that leads me to wonder why any projects would choose them. Why, especially when suspension is permanent, would they shut down a project without first at least reaching out to the creators to ask for clarification? Or without even dropping them a note explaining why. With over two weeks to run before any money was taken, they had time to reach out & ask before it was too late to suspend.
And if they have valid concerns about a project, why not let the people putting up the money know what those concerns are? Kickstarter is getting its revenue from those backers too – I think they deserve some transparency from the company.
I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt & back them again on IndieGoGo; in fact I already have. You may reach a different conclusion, but I hope you do so after an appropriate amount of due diligence and not just because of some comments online. If you choose to back one of these projects you are investing in the company (albeit not for equity), not pre-ordering a product. Do your own research, and try to understand what the funds will be used for.