Monday, February 24, 2014

ISS Above




Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined by Liam Kennedy who is here to talk about his project ISS-Above.  Thank you for joining us Liam.


Thank you for inviting me to share about the ISS-Above.  Very happy to be here.


As someone who tracks the International Space Station almost daily your project obviously caught my attention, would you care to tell us all about it?  



Sounds like we are both cut from the same cloth.  If we were friends on Facebook you would see how often I post things about the International Space Station - when it’s going to be visible and such too.   I’ll often stop people in the street if I am out when I know the ISS is flying over and point it out to total strangers.  Those that don’t run away at that point are often amazed that you can see it - and some even have no idea we have a manned space station orbiting above.   


I also run the web site http://www.lookuptonight.com and I have used that to share what’s going on in the sky to southern california residents.  


In 2010 I wrote my first (and only) App for the Windows Phone called LookUpTonight.  That App was pretty simple - but it does allow you to view much of the information that’s available from the http://heavens-above.com web site (and a few others) on a Windows phone linked to your location.  That of course includes details on the ISS passes.


So.. that’s the story of how I’m always sharing about the ISS and here is the “backstory” to how I ended up building ISS-Above


In June of 2011 I came across what I thought was a very neat Kickstarter for a device called ISS-Notify.  This was going to be a simple little lamp that comes on whenever the ISS is passing overhead.   It sounded pretty neat so I backed the project. It was the first Kickstarter I backed.  Unfortunately although the developer certainly did his best to build the unit something must have gone wrong during the design / manufacturing as none of the nearly 300 backers of that project have heard anything from the developer for nearly a year.  


I guess I just got fed up that I didn’t get my ISS-Notify - so I decided to build something myself.  That’s what the ISS-Above is.  It’s definitely inspired by the idea of ISS-Notify - but also quite different in what else it does - and how it works.  


The ISS-Above is built on a platform of a single board computer called a Raspberry Pi.   I wrote the code on the device using the Python programming language.  The code downloads the orbital elements of the ISS from NASA every few days.  All the calculations for when the ISS is going to pass nearby is done on the device itself (unlike how ISS-Notify would have worked - which needed access to Heavens-Above.com)


Of course the ISS-Above flashes/lights up whenever the ISS is “nearby” - but it is also configured to send a Tweet TO the ISS when  it gets particularly close.   In this way it will become a “beacon” to those in the ISS as they orbit the earth.  The more people have one - the bigger the virtual “wave” will be to the ISS.  


It also has it’s own web server running on the device.  This allows anyone who is connected to the same network as the device to bring up a web page that contains much more information about the active or future passes of the ISS.  If the ISS is on an active pass of your location the web page switches in to “overflight” mode and that allows you to send a customized tweet - and to view more detailed information about the


Tracking the ISS isn’t the hardest thing to do, as your own campaign mentions any smartphone can do it right now.  Why make a specialized, stand-alone device?  


I totally love all the Apps that you can get for your phone that tell you when the ISS is visible.  I have just about every kind of ISS and Satellite App for my phones/iPad.  I can’t get me enough of those.   


HOWEVER - when it comes down to it I just don’t refer to my phone all that often to find out about the ISS and when it’s coming over.   And - I don’t need any more apps that beep/flash or remind me about anything.  I guess I am on “notification overload” as far as messages there.  


What the ISS-Above does is it can sit on a shelf/wall in your office or home and just be that reminder to ANYONE who can see it that the Space Station is nearby.   “ANYONE” is the key here.   The device doesn’t only light up for times when the ISS is visible (usually close to sunrise/sunset) - it lights up WHENEVER it is nearby.   


Being built using a Raspberry Pi means there are lots of options available for different types of displays including both LED/RGB lights and LCD displays.  That’s the flexibility inherent in the platform used.  






Well obviously there are enough people who agree with you that you’ve already doubled your goal! Are you surprised at how well the campaign has gone?  


You never know how something like this is going to go.  


The Kickstarter was not the beginning of this project for me.  Clicking that “launch” button on the project was actually the last step in a development project that I started back in late October 2013.   


Between that start in October and now - I have : developed the first units - installed a “public” one in a local cafe near Caltech, displayed them at a local Mini Maker Faire in San Diego, and ran a world-wide beta program.   


So - I knew there was a lot of interest in it - but I still did not know if that interest would translate in to people wanting to buy it - especially at price of over $100 for a complete ISS-Above.


I will say I am VERY HAPPY to have so much support


How surprised are folks at seeing how often the ISS travels over head thanks to your simple device?  Do you think it produces a greater appreciation, not just of the ISS, but of our space endeavours in general?  


That is one of the absolute delights.  The one that is sitting in my local coffee shop is great at showing just how frequently it comes over.   I often hear customers saying “is it coming over AGAIN?”.  What comes next is often a question “Why?”.   


That result.. having someone be surprised about the ISS.. and beginning to ask other questions is THE reason I wanted to get this product out there.   I believe that is the great opportunity with the ISS-Above.  It’s cool.. and inspires interest and further questions.  Questions about space / science / NASA / astronomy.  


What had me take this on is the vision I have for how this device can become a world-wide wave to the space station.  I’m looking forward to the map for ISS-Above devices becoming filled with dots in every corner / every continent of the globe.   Each of those “dots” to me will represent increased awareness and appreciation for space.   


Are you surprised at how many people backed at just getting the software?  How about going through your first batch of the PiGlow complete models?  


I’m not surprised - as there are many people who will already have a Raspberry Pi.  I have received feedback from the backers and also Beta testers indicating the ISS-Above is a very much appreciated new use for their devices.  


To be honest - I am more surprised (and very happy) at the number of people who are buying complete units.  As of today there are 90 complete units purchased.  The PiGlow is the most popular of the two versions I am supplying.  It was great to have the first batch sold out.   


The “Complete” units are being purchased mostly by people who have no knowledge or interest in really getting to grips with a whole new computing platform.  They just want something that works right out of the box.  


I did not want the level of computing proficiency be a barrier to adoption of ISS-Above.  That’s why I’ve designed these units to be plug-n-play.  The backers will just take the units out of the shipping box, plug in the power, plug in the ethernet and the device will start working with no further setup required.   


Even those who have purchased the software on an SD-Card will be able to just plug the card in to their own Raspberry Pi - and as long as they have one of the supported display devices it will also just work without any additional configuration.   


How did you discover Kickstarter?


I discovered it when I heard about the ISS-Notify project in 2011.



A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?


Yeah.  Good question.  I didn’t just launch the Kickstarter and hope for the best.   I’ve gone to a great effort to create an interest about the product.  The Beta test was a great example of the pre-Kickstarter effort.   The online mentions of ISS-Above is THE REASON why I have so many backers so far.   


I have also received many questions from potential backers - I respond to those questions very promptly.  The result.. those get converted in to backers.   I believe being responsive is one of the MOST important aspects of the Kickstarter.   


You’ll also see a few other updates to the project.   Last week I installed another ISS-Above in to the offices of the Planetary Society in Pasadena.  I also gave them one as a Trivia prize for their weekly Planetary Radio show listened to by millions around the world.


What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  


I am using all those approaches (except paid advertising).  The major click-throughs / backers have come via articles on Universe Today, RT.com, news.CNET.com.  


I’ve personally met some of the science/space bloggers through the public outreach I have conducted over the past 14 years or so.  My experience as the past president of Orange County Astronomers, a Griffith Observatory Planetarium Lecturer and as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador has allowed me to build a network of related industry connections that has definitely supported what I am doing now.    


I also sent an ISS-Above up to a very popular online TECH show called TWiT.TV.  Leo Laporte is well known for his tech shows and his producer just happened to place it beside him on a desk just prior to his show on Feb 2nd.   The device did it’s job and Leo just happened to see it blinking.. saw the name that was on the front and guessed this was something to do with the ISS.  His producer than just gave him a sheet that I sent explaining what it was.   The result was a five minute impromptu review of the ISS-Above.  There was an immediate interest that resulted in backers to the Kickstarter and further sign-ups on my web site.  The video for that is available online





I’ve also been engaging with the “twitterverse” by tweeting and retweeting appropriate tweets.  The Rasperry Pi community has been particularly helpful - especially the accounts belonging to the hardware devices I am featuring (the PiGlow / Ledborg).  I even had one of my tweets re-tweeted by the guy who invented the Raspberry Pi (Eben Upton CEO of the Raspberry Pi Foundation).  Quite a few of the backers have clicked through from Twitter posts.


I was also over them moon when I received an email from NASA Johnson Space Center.  Their public affairs officer had “noticed’ my project and was very interested in it.   He wanted to make sure the Tweets were tagging THEM (@NASA_Johnson).  They are Mission Control for the ISS - so that seems only appropriate.  All the devices that go out will be tweeting them.  


I think when NASA starts seeing tweets from 200 or more locations around the world when the ISS is passing by - they’ll notice even more.   



Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?


Prepare a lot.  Have your story down. Take every opportunity to share about it.  Locate online communities/web sites where your target audience hangs out and post about your idea there.  Look at Reddit.com and post to appropriate areas there too.   Above all be responsive to your backers.   



Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?


Thank you.  I appreciate the questions. I think I’ve rambled on enough already.  Thanks for listening.  


Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!


Thank you for inviting me to share about ISS-Above