We built the first "Digital Hearths" in the months leading up to the 2019 launch of the Local Voices Network pilot in Madison, Wisconsin. The hearths were designed to solve a specific problem: how do you have a cross-cutting, intimate, and vulnerable conversations with people you barely know when you've got a microphone in your face?
Part of the magic of an LVN conversation is that it is both intimate and public, the conversations ride an emotional grey-line that puts a very open and public recorded conversation in the context of an intimate setting. When done well, it is incredibly empowering, but the environment has to be set correctly: no errant technological distractions and no microphones in people's faces... any technology that is present must act like furniture, serving to subtly focus participants' attention on each other.
Over time we hand built about 50 v1 Hearths that lived in public libraries across the country, available for checkout to any local Cortico partner. But poor reliability and high costs made the first version of the hardware incredibly resource draining.
Over a two-year effort, I worked with a dedicated hardware product lead and a team of engineers to make a new version of the Hearth that was: cheaper, easier to assemble, more reliable, and more accessible:
We reduced the size and weight by one-third, allowing the hardware to be held in one hand instead of two and fit easily into a small backpack.
We cut the cost in half by moving from off-the-shelf parts to custom components that could be fabricated in bulk.
Developed a supply chain and designed sub-assemblies that could be put together by contractors and shipped to Cortico for final assembly.
Moved design and development in-house, giving us full control over power, logic, audio, and compute subsystem PCB design, firmware development, and cloud connections.
We launched the Hearth with field partners in Q4 2021 and though there's plenty of improvements still to be made, I think this version has successfully bridged the gap between a bespoke design manufacturable in quantities of tens to a more scalable device that can be produced in the hundreds.
They are beautiful and fun to take through airport security 😎