2014-06-24

Co.Labs

A Smart Multimeter That Could Supercharge The Maker Movement

Voltset is combining hardware and software to mobilize the maker experience.



The multimeter is about to grow up. Long a mainstay in the toolkits of tinkerers, the electricity measuring tool is so clunky and complex that it can be more of a distraction than an aid. That’s why two engineers from Denmark set out to reinvent the wheel—err, nob—through a product called Voltset.

Instead of awkward nobs and confusing symbols, the Kickstarter-funded Voltset relies on a small hardware component the size of large key chain, which holds two probes and connects to a smartphone. Once it starts shipping, the Voltset promises to bring an age-old tool to today's growing class of makers in an all-too-familiar form factor.

Mobile Maker Hardware

Voltset founders Michael Bruun-Larsen and Tom Wang said they had to ask themselves how they would design a maker’s tool for the 21st century when beginning their project two years ago.

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"We thought, ‘Well, it’s obviously more helpful to base it on the smartphone that everybody brings and just make it an extension of what you already use,’" says Bruun-Larsen.

Designing features like the USB port, they thought of worst-case scenarios like a dead computer battery.

"The two sockets on the top are for the regular banana sockets, so you can extend into the stuff that you are already doing," cofounder Wang says. "Voltset doesn’t have a battery, so if you have a phone you'll always have these mini probes that can save the day."

It also includes multiple sensor compatibility with extensions, which the team has been utilizing in its collaboration with solar technology educators KidWind.

"We are using ambient light sensors in Arduinos with a Bluetooth configuration, to measure relationships between solar energy output and the sun," says Bruun-Larsen. "The idea is that you buy Voltset once and you will have it for the rest of your life so that when new technology comes along, you just upgrade the extension."

Going to Kickstarter with an early prototype instead of a finished project has helped Voltset get more feedback to shape the product. "We wanted to make this into a hub but we didn’t know we’d receive such a variety of requests," Wang says. "It’s kind of overwhelming and it’s all very specific and high-end."

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For those high-end requests, corporations are already finding uses for internal solutions to the likes of on-call technicians.

"The technician would take the readings while out in the field through LTE, Internet, or something else, then share it instantly to the headquarters where they have the really experienced technicians look at readings and guide them."

Bruun-Larsen says one man requested a Voltset to create automated notifications when his car has problems. "He wants to customize Voltset and put it in his car so when his car batteries drops below x amount of voltage, the car will call him personally."

An Open-Ended Hub

As for the Voltset app, Bruun-Larsen says they wanted its software to be customizable for users. "We came up with the fact that we really needed to design it in a way in which it's really open-ended so that people can take it in whatever direction," Bruun-Larsen says.

After spending excessive time manually measuring, writing, and then calculating numbers at their previous jobs like Intel and Agilent, Voltset engineers wanted built-in Excel—something he says helps in checking power levels for Rasberry Pi and Arduino.

"By automatically recording measurements, the Excel has built-in equations. You wait five seconds per measurement, go to the next point and measure another five seconds, and then you can tap a 'generate report' option or even share with other users."

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The team is working on a free SDK for all to hack and tinker with, so an API and relevant development tools are available, says Bruun-Larsen.

"If you're a newbie and have to learn things from scratch, you can customize the application to suit that kind of user," he says. "If you're an advanced user you just code it and pre-program it for whatever use case you need."

Other software capabilities allow for educational means that go beyond measuring and recording.

Simplified icons—such as a graphic of a lamp—will instruct users how to accomplish specific tasks that are useful for everyday household issues. "The idea is that tips for that task can be shared with the Voltset community on ideas of how to best fix a lamp," Wang says.

The founders have been approached by classroom teachers who want to use Voltset as a learning game for young makers. Bruun-Larsen says the app would show kids where to find the battery in any given product, then allow them to try matching the correct probes.

Voltset has also been in talks with maker-space chain TechShop for similar educational projects for its customers, which Wang says will roll out in about a year.

Even though they’ve already doubled their campaign goal, the Voltset team hopes for more funding to include features like current clamps, automated voice commands, and more mobile casing.

"The Kickstarter goal is the bare minimum for this new playground we’re building," Brunn-Larson says. "The more units we can build, and the more users on the platform, the better an experience it will become for all involved."

[Photos courtesy of Voltset]




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