Creating a Hackable Flashlight

Christian Carlberg, who makers might recognize from Battlebots, has designed a cool new programmable flashlight that he’s getting beaucoup bucks through Kickstarter to develop. We asked him to write up this account of what he’s up to. I don’t know about you, but I definitely want one of these lights when it’s available. -Gareth

Christian writes:
When I told people at the Bay Area Maker Faire that I was going to make an open source, programmable flashlight, some called me crazy. Now, seven weeks later, my project, HexBright FLEX, is one of the top ten most-funded Kickstarter projects to date, raising over $170,000, with over 2000 backers who think I’m not so crazy, including MythBusters legend Grant Imahara.

Some Backstory
For fun, I decided to build myself a simple, “dumb” flashlight with the help of a friend, Terry Cooke. I made the body out of hexbar stock that gave it a unique look and a very comfortable grip. I choose a powerful CREE LED, the XM-L. Terry did the board layout. The result was a sexy, compact, and powerful light. I called it the HexBright PRIME and started thinking about improvements. While making the PRIME, we kept changing the program, kept re-flashing the board. It made perfect sense to make the upgrade USB-compatible so we could talk to the microprocessor directly. And we figured we might as well make it a rechargeable flashlight if we had a USB plug to play with. I got excited: a powerful, rechargeable light that I could program however I wanted. This was going to be a very flexible light for all users, so I called it the HexBright FLEX.

I had this idea and nowhere to go. The PRIME was pretty simple and cheap to make, but the FLEX was quite a bit more involved. Then a buddy of mine told me about Kickstarter, a crowdsourced funding website. This made perfect sense — I could generate seed money to develop a really innovative light, the HexBright FLEX.

I made the Bay Area Maker Faire 2011 my target date to launch HexBright on Kickstarter. I enlisted the help of my friends to get a website together along with video and pictures. I literally filmed the day before Maker Faire and launched on Kickstarter the first day of the Faire.

I spent both days at the Faire handing out fliers. Most people were interested, but more than a few people were skeptical. That’s OK, I’ve been called crazy before. When I built combat robots for television, people thought I was nuts for spending months building something that got destroyed within minutes. Then I won the BattleBots super-heavyweight championship. Twice. I have been invited to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, then in NYC as a guest of Matt Lauer’s on The Today Show, and I consulted for an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Invenstigation that also included a cameo. One day, I bought a Happy Meal with a toy replica of my combat robot in it. Now that’s crazy!

While at Maker Faire, I bumped into two friends of mine who did not think I was nuts: super-techies Jeri Ellsworth and Grant Imahara. I knew Jeri from a past job we worked on together and Grant from back in the combat robotics days before he became impossible to reach by email. Grant was super cool and gave me a HexBright video review.

After Maker Faire, I concentrated on the Kickstarter site. An interesting, unexpected thing happened/ People started emailing me with really good advice. HexBright FLEX is crowd-funded and also crowd designed. People told me what was important to them, which USB plug was best, some good thermal management tips, and ideas for aftermarket accessories.

The Result: The HexBright FLEX is a powerful, USB rechargeable flashlight you can reflash your own source code to an Atmel ATmega IC. The ATmega was chosen for cross-platform capability. There are also unused pins that you can run additional hardware or sensors off of for the hardcore hacker. Want to add a photocell sensor? A speaker? No problem.

You might be asking by now why would anyone want a completely programmable light? I don’t know. I want the public to figure that out. So far, there is one guy wants to bolt his FLEX to his airplane’s tail and blink out his call numbers in Morse code. Another simply wants to dial it to the perfect reading light level so as not to disturb his sleeping wife in bed. There are a bunch of folks who want to keep it connected to a USB harness for their robotics platform.

And this is the other half of my plan: build a community of users who can swap source code and aftermarket design changes for some interesting and creative lights. I don’t know where this will eventually lead, but I know there are a lot of crazy people out there and I bet the results will be brilliant. [pun intended]

HexBright on Kickstarter