2013-12-12

From Building Mac OS X To Building... A Vaporizer?

Taking what they learned at Apple and Juniper Networks about the integration of hardware and software, these two engineers set out to build the perfect smoking experience.



Hardware and software development are pretty different. But they clearly have some overlap and mutual appeal because these days an increasing number of programmers seem to be developing for the ultimate UX, the physical world. So we figured we'd find a good example--Mark Williams, a former Apple dev and Sasha Robinson, a former Juniper dev who partnered to try and build the best handheld vaporizer out there. We asked them about working on a software UX versus an object for the real world.

"Hardware pushes back much harder than software does, because the real world pushes back a lot harder," says Williams. "Achieving the same level of elegance of user experience is a bit harder than in software. And with software it’s easier to achieve your optimal user experience because software has fewer limits."

On the flip side, Williams says, "software can be really abstract and esoteric, while hardware brings with it a whole lifetime of physical experiences that people already have. The ultimate goal, as I learned at Apple, is a user experience that integrates hardware and software."

How This Hardware Project Ignited

The Firefly took about four years to develop and started with the two working on concepts in Robinson's basement. Williams and Robinson say that they just didn't want to smoke anymore, and after meeting at Burning Man it seemed like their priorities were in line to try to best handheld vaporizers like the PAX or even tabletop models like the Volcano.

Robinson had burned out developing proprietary software for high-speed network boxes at Juniper, because he was working long hours on a product he knew no one would ever interact with directly. He spent four years doing welding and metal work before joining the design consulting firm MOTO (which was bought by Cisco in 2010). And Williams was ready for a change after five and a half years working on OS X for Apple. The two collaborated after hours on Firefly for about six months and then both left their jobs to fund and develop the product full time.

"In terms of where we met, it was through a Burning Man decompression party in San Francisco and then camping together at Burning Man," Robinson says. "And through a lot of talks about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to create a next stage in both of our careers. And we saw this product that we both wanted to have in our lives as an opportunity."

Williams and Robinson brought complementary skill sets to the development process. Williams has strong visual and spatial skills, so he worked on a lot of design aspects, while Robinson planned and executed much of the firmware that manages things like the heating element. But both are adamant that every detail, whether it related to the buttons on the device, the cleaning mechanism, or the mouthpiece, was ultimately a collaboration.

"Sasha and I developed together under a common vision," Williams says. "With the Firefly, we knew that the hardware and the body had to be super robust and strong to deliver the actual physical experience. But to do so we needed a brain-executing software in the background to give the digital control that we wanted, but still allow for the user to feel an analog experience."

Treading Carefully Around Regulations

As with any product that is marketed for (ahem) tobacco, Williams and Robinson had to work with import/export and tobacco lawyers to make sure they were complying with U.S. customs and import laws.

"You do have to spend a lot of money on lawyers just to have them tell you that you’re doing something or shouldn’t do something that's kind of obvious," Robinson says. But both know how high the stakes are for complying with regulations. "When you’re importing stuff into the U.S. the jurisdiction is federal," Williams says. "So you have to be really sensitive and respectful of that."

In terms of designing the product for a user who might be in an altered mental state, Robinson's thoughts seemed to echo his view that an "operating system’s job is to disappear." The goal with the Firefly's design was total accessibility involving minimal effort or practice.

"When you create a device that is as easy to use as possible and has as little decision making involved as possible, you’ve created a device that’s accessible for anybody in whatever state they happen to be in," Robinson says. "What we focused on is the easiest, most approachable experience."

The Firefly has a bigger footprint and more weight than the PAX, which makes it feel substantial and almost luxurious. It's heavy for a portable, though, and wouldn't be very subtle in a public space. Testers also found that battery life wasn't very long, about enough for one smoke session--either the extra weight wasn't coming from a bigger battery, or the heating element draws a lot of power.

The entire front of the device is held in place with magnets, and you remove it to fill the bowl. It's a nice mechanism, but you have to be careful to align the front exactly when you put it back on because testers found that it didn't snap perfectly into place on its own, and using the device with this misalignment affected the vapor quality. The unit Co.Labs tested got pretty hot near the heating element, but not dangerously so. Sometimes there was a little bit of particulate in the vapor, but overall testers had the same reaction: "It's smooth."

"Smoothness comes from actually getting to enjoy all the flavors and active ingredients and not just a single one," Williams says. "That’s why we built our heating architecture and our control mechanism around this system that ramps up the heat each time you inhale to 400 F. We digitally control it so it doesn’t get beyond that, and so along the way when you’re taking five- or 10-second inhalations, you’re basically ramping up from room temperature to 400 and you’re getting the vapor of everything along the way."

The Firefly retails for $270 and comes in three colors. Williams and Robinson say they want to eventually work on expanding the Firefly into a line of products after this launch. "We’re actually super eager to get back into the workshop," Williams says. "That’s what we really, really love to do."

[Image: Flickr user Mycatkins]