It's time to talk about the downside to these Kickstarter gizmos we keep buying. Do we have any bummed-out Pebble watch buyers in the house? Anybody buy an iPhone dock on Kickstarter only to have it obviated by the Lightning connector before you got it? I suspect there are many different versions of Kickstarter gizmo disappointment. Mine is the Remee lucid dream mask from Bitbanger Labs.
A Brief Foray Into Lucid Dreaming
Lucid dreaming is a highly desirable state of consciousness in which you realize you're dreaming, but you remain asleep. With practice, lucid dreamers can learn to control their dreams, fly around, breathe underwater, talk to Aristotle, go to a Jimi Hendrix concert, whatever they can conjure. Lucid dreaming was celebrated in cult films like Waking Life (my favorite movie ever), and there's an awesome list of other references on Remee's Kickstarter page.
Conventional wisdom holds that one way to begin lucid dreaming is to remind yourself that you're dreaming. That's what the Remee lucid dreaming mask is supposed to do. It uses a timer, and its red LEDs blink patterns over your eyelids while you sleep. If you time it right, allegedly, you'll see visual disturbances while you dream that will jar you into lucidity.
I've had one lucid dream that I can remember. I was about 18, visiting Hong Kong, jet-lagged out of my mind. I dreamt I was back at my old elementary school, which was uncanny enough that I realized I was dreaming. I immediately tried to fly. It worked for a few seconds. I got about 20 feet off the ground before my expectations about the laws of gravity set in, and I sank back to the ground, forgetting I was dreaming. It was briefly amazing, though. I've wanted to regain that power ever since.
Awakening From The Dream
So I backed the Remee. I knew it was an act of blind faith, and that the thing might not work — if I even got it at all. But I wanted to believe, so I voted for it. The Remee's funding goal was $35,000, and the $80 level got you a mask. It raised $572,891, so it was a pretty massive hit. My mask took seven months to arrive, but founders Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan were communicative throughout the process, so I kept the faith and was psyched when I got it.
In my first few weeks of testing, though, I've had zero results.
For a while, the lights woke me up, so I used the Web-based, light-sensitive programming tool to adjust the timing and patterns, a totally cool and geeky experience. But now I just sleep through it every night.
I didn't exactly expect a magic bullet, but I loved what the founders wrote about dreaming on their Kickstarter. They seemed even more jazzed and inspired than I was. So I contacted them to talk about Remee. And that's where the real bummer set in.
Dreams Are For People Who Sleep
They wouldn't take a call with me. Too busy. So I settled for an email interview. I sent in five questions that I thought gave plenty of opportunity for creative answers. But I got a minimum viable email instead:
ReadWrite: What got you into this problem? Why the interest in lucid dreaming? And where did you encounter the idea that this kind of technology could be used to stimulate them?
Bitbanger Labs: We've both been lucid dreaming since we were kids, but it just happened to come up in conversation in the summer of 2011. We had already been working on some tech projects and were intrigued at the idea of marrying the two ideas.
ReadWrite: How did you know there was a market for this? How widespread is the knowledge of the possibility of lucid dreaming?
Bitbanger Labs: We weren't entirely sure how large the market would be — Kickstarter is a perfect match for a product like this, because it allows you to gauge interest while you seek backers. We were, of course, blown away by the response. I think we had an inkling that the community of lucid dreamers on the Web was aching for a new product, but we had no idea how many people to whom we'd be introducing the concept.
ReadWrite: What went into the particulars of the design decisions you made: number of LEDs, kinds of patterns available, timings of the intervals, that sort of thing?
Bitbanger Labs: We wanted to find a nice middle ground between effectiveness, comfort and low power draw. Six LEDs worked well for our relatively small power source, a CR2032 battery. The patterns and intervals, all of which are customizable, were mostly trial and error. We had a lot of time with the mask prior to launch to really fine tune stuff like this.
ReadWrite: How's business? Has the idea caught on?
Bitbanger Labs: People are still interested! I think the idea of controlling your dreams is compelling enough that even someone who has never thought about it can get hooked on the concept pretty easily. We're proud of how many folks we've brought into the world of lucid dreaming, whether they decide to support Remee or not.
ReadWrite: How have your dreams changed since you finished building this thing?
Bitbanger Labs: Dreams? Those are for people who sleep! But really, we're finally getting to a point where things are settling back down and we're getting a normal amount of sleep. We're definitely still wearing Remee ourselves, not just for the effects but to continue to work towards making it better.
The Crowd Funding Blues
Wasn't that kind of depressing? "Dreams? Those are for people who sleep!"
It seems that building the Remee, an inspired mission though it was, just turned out to be another grueling, low-margin hardware grind. Kickstarter allowed me to go shopping for an aspirational gadget, an accessory, and some talented guys knew they could ship it. They did what they set out to do in a bare-bones way. And that's it. It's a gadget, but nothing more.
I don't see this thing taking off. It's awesome to have one, but it's not easy to use. They could never do the kind of support they'd need to do to keep a bunch of run-of-the-mill customers happy. It's an early-adopter-only product. This seems endemic to the Kickstarter model for gadgets.
I talked to my friend (Disclosure: friend.) Micah Daigle about this matter. He's a UX, branding and campaign designer currently consulting under the banner of Collective Agency, and crowd funding is one of his favorite tools to use and problems to solve.
"People just get buried under how much they have to do," Micah says. "This is sort of the dark side of crowd funding. When you have three investors, you only have to impress three people." When you have thousands, you're orders of magnitude more accountable whether you succeed or fail. Crowd funding might get products out the door, but is it really a better way than business as usual?
The Wild West
Crowd funding platforms operate on a continuum. The real Wild West is Indiegogo, which has no screening process, and it has flexible funding, meaning projects can keep their funds even if they don't make their goal. Giving to an Indiegogo campaign is a straight-up donation. You either have to believe in it or not care if it doesn't work out.
Kickstarter is more constrained. It dictates what kinds of campaigns can be run. "They created Kickstarter because they wanted to see creative projects get off the ground supported by patrons from the community," Micah says. It was ideal for films and artistic works like that. Of course backers wanted to see the dream come true, but it was also designed to be about joining a movement.
"What they nailed was a user experience format," Micah says. They bundled the best storytelling device, namely video, a simple, clear call to action, and tiered rewards as an up-selling incentive. Backing a Kickstarter makes you feel like a part of something.
As Micah helped me realize, this foundation gave rise to two basic kinds of crowd-funding project. There's the kind where you give because you believe in the cause, and there's the kind where you're speculatively pre-ordering a product. Enterprising gizmo makers saw this and thought, "Oh, this is a great platform on which to pre-sell my project." As with Remee, Pebble and others, it works after a fashion. But Kickstarters for physical products are set up for a letdown.
Business More Like Usual
There are no guarantees about the end-to-end experience of a Kickstarter project because art has no guarantees. These gizmos are art, just like the films. "It's a donation," says Micah. He thinks there need to be more rules and explicit expectations about the differences between funding art versus gizmos, and they're starting to emerge. "Kickstarter is not a store," as its staff wrote in September.
But there are also new crowd funding platforms coming out with stronger assumptions. Christie Street is exclusively for physical products, which are heavily vetted and come with more buyer and inventor protections. There are also more formal arrangements like Crowdfunder, which is trying out crowd-funded equity for small businesses, which Kickstarter explicitly does not allow.
Failure Of Expectations
But just as much as we need new models for bringing great ideas into the world, we also need to adjust our expectations. "What we need to do is be a lot more understanding of failure as a culture," Micah says. In Silicon Valley start-up culture, "fail fast" is a pervasive mantra. Failure is how you learn and get better. "We need to teach that to people and reset expectations around things," Micah says.
If we're more okay with failure, that makes the risks of crowd-funded projects more acceptable. I knew when I backed Remee that I might not get it, and that even if I did, it might not work. In my mind, it's not a failure. It's a work of art.
If I had walked into a store in a mall and bought this on a shelf, I'd probably want my money back. But I got this whole long, interesting Kickstarter experience alongside my programmable LED sleep mask. Who cares if I never actually had a lucid dream? For me, it was worth it for the story alone.