Interviewed by: Ahmed Siddiqui
Kyle and his team, Eyes on Demand, won the robotics track of MEGA Startup Weekend in April. He spoke with me about his MEGA experience, and startup success.
AS: How did you hear about MEGA Startup Weekend?
KF: I heard about it from my roommate at the time, Peter Watts (created +Music and Swarm.fm). He won 2 previous music hackathons and highly recommended Startup Weekend, so I thought that was a pretty strong signal that I should go. When I was signing up, I decided to do something completely different and chose the robotics track. I haven’t done any hardware hacking since college, since I live almost entirely in the software realm at my startup. I was really glad I did, too, since it’s helped rekindle my love for electronics.
AS: You won the robotics track of MEGA Startup Weekend: what did you build and why?
KF: When I got to the event Friday night, all I could remember was Peter telling me that whatever I do, I must pitch an idea. I showed up by myself, so I didn’t actually know anyone there. I just started introducing myself to people, brainstorming on ideas of cool stuff to build, and listening to what people had built in their spare time. One of the folks I met there, Matt Garten, (who later joined my team) was telling me about a sonar system he had build that calculates the distance of the nearest object in front of the attachment. My Mom, Kathy Fleming, is blind, so I thought it would be an interesting tool for her to use; however, at the time I thought of it more as a cool hack and less as a business.
When the time came to finally present our 60 second pitches in front of the room of 80, I hadn’t come up with a business idea yet. So, (with Matt’s permission) I threw an iPhone into the mix, added a story about my Mom, and presented to the room the idea of a sonar attachment to the iPhone that lets blind people “hear” what’s in front of them using the change in pitch. My intention of finding someone else’s group to join immediately afterwards. To my surprise, a good dozen or so people came up to me and wanted to help me build it. I gathered up as many different skills as I could find and our team ended up being around 8, which was probably the largest.
Over the next 12 hours, I tried to employ all the techniques I remember my cofounder, Joel Resnicow, using over the past year of Rexly’s existence (our iphone app music startup). We brainstormed a lot and made sure to talk to actual potential users of our product. It evolved from a cool hack into an actual service, which we codenamed Eyes On Demand. We gave it a tagline of “OnStar for the Blind.”
The prototype was an iPhone with a sonar sensor attached to a bracelet. A blind user would press a button that would connect them to a remote operator. The operator could see and hear everything the user could, and would walk the user through whatever problem they had as if it were a phone call to some omniscient personal assistant. When it came time to present what we had built, it was pretty obvious to us that our whole project was story-driven, with my Mom at the core. I must say, it made for a pretty convincing presentation.
AS: What has the response been to this business, post event?
KF: Afterwards we were invited to present at DEMO with a few students’ alpha projects. We talked to a bunch of people who were excited to follow our progress and had lots of helpful insight. We even had an angel investor express explicit interest in investing. I think there’s a lot of real potential here; however, given most of had our own jobs to focus on, the project has slowly moved its way onto the backburner. In the future, I imagine there’s a possibility for one or more of us to pick back up where we left off.
AS: What part of Startup Weekend did you love the most?
KF: My favorite part was definitely the first time we tested the prototype. We had cobbled together a 50% solution by Saturday evening (presentations were on Sunday), and we went back to the main room where a bunch of the other groups were. We gave a random volunteer a blindfold and started testing the limits of our technology. First, we guided them through navigation and nervously laughed as we accidentally ran them into tables and walls on several occasions. Then, we tested to see if we could guide them through serving themselves a meal, which went surprisingly well.
On a whim, we decided it would be fun to see if we could draw a picture, vicariously, through the blind-folded volunteer. Miraculously, it actually semi-worked! At that point, we had attracted a pretty big crowd and were starting to see the tweets flowing in. In triumph, we took the childish drawing of a landscape scene and taped it to the wall in the cafeteria for all to see.
From that point on, we felt this sort of other-worldly drive that compelled us forward. It was sort of an excited social do-good feeling mixed with the feeling you get when you’re overwhelmingly proud of something you create. I imagine this is what being a parent feels like. The end result was that we worked 2x faster and 10x more creatively.
AS: Where do you see robotics in the next year? Next 5 years?
KF: Robotics as a whole is an interesting topic. I’m really excited to see some of the possibilities around search and rescue with quadcopters, as well as human limb replacement. I’m not close to that research so it’s hard for me to judge timelines. Since I mostly focus on consumer-facing applications and not scientific research, I tend to take concepts straight out of science fiction and try to see how they can fit into everyday life. I like to imagine the path we can take to achieve the singularity sooner.
My most recent train of thought (and I’m trying to make this happen in the next 5 years) is around ubiquitous biometrics and wearable environment-measuring devices. Basically, I want to turn people into cyborgs to make them healthier, happier, and more productive. I think the best way to do this is to give them the tools to be more cognizant of their bodies and minds and how they are being affected by the world around them.
AS: You also have another startup, Rexly – tell us about that company and what’s happening with it.
KF: Rexly has actually just been acquired by Live Nation. The deal was in process at the time of the hackathon, but it wasn’t finalized until just now, so I’m excited to be telling you about it! (Read more about it here: http://gigaom.com/2012/07/16/live-nation-labs-buys-rexly-opens-s-f-office/)
Live Nation Labs is a new group within Live Nation tasked with redefining their online presence. Our team and the folks running Labs got really excited about the synergy between a user’s music player and their concert experience. Rexly was brought on to focus on the mobile side of things, using our music player as the first of many in a constellation of interconnected apps. Joel and I giggle at the thought of remaking a 6,500-person company’s entire suite of mobile apps. It’s certainly going to be challenging.
As you can probably tell from my answers, I’m incredibly excited about the future in whatever form it takes. I love how events like Startup Weekend bring us all together to make incredible things. Of course, that’s just the beginning and that’s when the real fun begins.
Congratulations, Kyle and the Rexly team from all of us here at Startup Weekend Bay Area!