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Ask HN: I want to build an electronic wearable, where do I start?
46 points by daviddumon 44 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments
I'm a software developer, and I barely know nothing about electronics. Where do I start to bootstrap this project ? My current plan is to learn and try to build a prototype, then setup a kickstarter. Any advices welcome! Thanks

"I'm a software developer, and I barely know nothing about electronics."

That sounds like a familiar recipe for disaster. Most hardware based Kickstarters fail. Even successful ones deliver very late and over budget. I work in electronics and wouldn't do it.

You really need to find someone with experience in bringing products to market. Hardware mass production is extremely difficult and expensive (from prototyping to final layout to component sourcing to quality control) and that's before you get to stocking and delivery. That all requires a lot of investment, time and understanding of the underlying systems.

Second this: there are a thousand things that can go wrong and irrevokably cost money. You need to get that production expertise in somehow, either by hiring or consultancy.

It's possible to learn a lot from people like Bunnie Huang, such as his "Chumby" product which he blogged the development of.

Thanks, I'll check on this guy and his project

Not always the case - I fit this profile and made it to the other side (lifeclockone.com) - OP feel free to reach out and I’d be happy to share my experiences and help out if I can.

Thanks, very interesting!

Thanks for your comment. I want to make up my mind around what's needed to go through this project. I envision it as a toy project on the prototyping/layout side, then find partners for other steps. I guess there exists companies to outsource stocking and delivery.

Can you describe what product or just hardware(hw features) you want to build without sharing any secrets ?

That will help people around here guide you towards a good way to prototype it.

Because there may be a way to prototype what you want without knowing much about hardware design.

Sure! I want to build a wristband that need a flexible rechargeable power source and to be programmed by bluetooth

The battery won't be flexible. You can have multiple batteries with flexible connections but they'll be a likely point of failure. Will you really need that much power? Bluetooth LE really is "low energy" as are many sensors. If it's supposed to make a lot of light, noise, has a motor, or use more powerful RF like WiFi, then the power requirements will be greater.

You've already be directed to Adafruit which is a great resource, not just as a store and product developers in their own right but for all their learn materials and years worth of weekly videos. Here's a breakout board for charging their little LiPo batteries via MicroUSB.


I guess I got a lot to learn before answering the requirements question :/ Thanks for the link !

So, something very similar to fitness trackers and smartwatches? As others have pointed out, no flexible power sources; realistically you're going to end up with a single SoC that already has bluetooth, such as the Nordic Semiconductor ones.

Most of these devices have on-demand displays to save power.

Miniturising it and making the casework function is the hard part. You might be able to build a "desktop" version of it fairly easily..

Yes, like a fitness tracker but with tissue. I don't even know if it's possible to combine lithium batteries and tissues :/

What do you mean by flexible ?

As for the wristband, have a look at hexiwear, and the hexiwear battery pack(which may be wearable). it has BLE and it does support "Firmware Over the Air update", i think.

In my mind, it was something like that :


Flexible batteries you can embad in a tissue wristband for example. But I don't know if it's possible to do so.

Thanks for the link I will check it out asap.

I'm sure it's doable, just be aware that it will take a lot longer and cost a lot more money than you expect.

When your hardware project is "done" - that is, it works as you'd like, maybe you've made a handful of them - you're only really 30% of the way. First you need to test it - EMC testing can be painful and unless you really designed it carefully you'll probably need to redesign parts of it.

One you've got past that, you need to manufacture it. To get a project to volume manufacture means you need to work out all the little details - how will you program it, how will you test it, how much stock do you hold, who builds it. You'll probably find there's things you overlooked, or a part you can't buy any more, and you have to do a board respin.

When you see polished products on Kickstarter that manage to ship in the schedule they initially proposed, that's because they've already done all of this. They've probably spent 6 or 7 figures to get to that point.

I'm not saying you shouldn't do it (and there are paths you could take which aren't so onerous, like maybe making just a circuit board which you sell mainly to the hacker community) - I find the whole process really enjoyable. It's just that it's a lot of work and can be very, very capital intensive. Plan things carefully and be realistic, not optimistic about costs and schedule.

Thanks for your reply, very insightful. I will try to wrap my head around the first steps (like prototyping, and trying to find the right components), and see where it goes from there.

I’m an ex hardware design engineer turned software dev. My advise. Pick the chip that suits your requirements, get a development board and get the software running. Then when you have a non wearable prototype that dies all the things you can hand it off to a design engineer with the “now make it tiny” remit

That's what I see as the simple first step, indeed :) Thanks for the input

This reminds me of the management at my old company. They wasted a fortune trying to develop wearables by tasking people with little or no product development background with the bulk of the work and then spending another fortune on consultants to make it pretty. What they ended up with looked like a Knick off pipboy from fallout.

That executive is on ‘special projects’ now.

Find someone on aliexpress who's already making the product you want to make, contact them and ask them to OEM a version with your software.

Coming from someone who is a hardware/firmware engineer, that's also what I'd do.

Developing hardware is hard and costly. If you are looking to create a consumer-based product, this would be especially true. There's no way you'd be able to manufacture your product as cheap as getting a manufacturer to supply you with a OEM version of their product, let alone having to amortise the R&D cost spent in developing it! And generally speaking, the cost is the bottom line in a consumer-based product.

This is what the Wyze Cam does. They've created a really nice product, but there's no way they'd be able to sell it for $25 had they also developed and manufactured the hardware themselves.

I’ve heard that a significant proportion of kickstarter projects do exactly this

I've searched numerous times, but could not find anyone doing the thing I want to build. That's why I'm playing with the idea of doing it myself

I would start looking at haptics with wearable hardware devices, eg. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2017.0004... https://lofelt.com/ https://www.ultrahaptics.com/ You get the idea and down the rabbit hole you go. please let us all know how it turns out thxs. Myself always wondered about remote touch possibilities.

Bookmarked! Will explore this asap :) Thanks

You have a lot to learn. Go to adafruit, buy an arduino and play around with it. Then, see how you feel. Think about how annoying it is to handle returns from angry consumers or if a kid eats your product. :)

Thanks for the link, I didn't know adafruit :) Will explore it asap

Focus on your safety and health first.

Any wearable needs a power source, and any prototype is going to involve wires and breadboards that are not by default hermetically sealed. In the event your moist skin provides a lower-resistance path for the voltages involved, you might find your project (and self) dead.

Lithium batteries are extremely unforgiving, as well. Try to stick to a single cell, and if you need to put in multiple cells, put safety circuits on them.

It wasn't long ago (January 29th) where a man was killed when his e-cigarette exploded and part of it shredded his carotid artery.

Edward Thorp's 1961 wearable roulette cheating device started arcing when the young women wearing it started to glisten a bit too much in the sultry Vegas casinos.

I'm sure your prototype will be way cooler if it doesn't cost you an eye (safety glasses), your skin (from burns or explosions), or body parts of your intrepid friends and loved ones.

I did not think about that :( That's sound advice!

Depends on how complex your idea is. You could do something like arduino for the POC and then hire a real hardware engineer for the post prototype. You will need some basic soldering skills and electronics knowledge for the POC.

There are a lot of dev kits available for more advanced processors, if you need something more powerful than an arduino. Using them is pretty much the same as an arduino, a lot of the time.

You’ll likely have trouble with fabrication of whatever it is you are making. Hardware is very difficult and you’ll probably end up with low yields on the first things that you make, even with an experienced HW engineer. So make sure you account for that extra cost.

I suggest you reach out to some local makerspace/meetup or tinkerers who have some experience doing this. I did something similar and a local provided me with conductive thread and fabric and I even got to borrow an arduino set from him.

That's actually a very good idea! There some fablabs in my local area, I will dig this way, thanks

I'm currently going through something similar: trying to create a hardware prototype for a tablet-like device. Even getting a board that supports eDP is a pain, and there is very little information out there that explains whether the panels are compatible with anything. I decided to just buy a RockPro64 + some generic LCD panel with an eDP hoping it will just work, but my confidence isn't high and I'm not sure where I'll go if it doesn't work.

I also couldn't find a place with people who know this stuff that could help me. It seems that getting software help is so much easier. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Just in case this fits what you are looking for as a starting point: https://blog.adafruit.com/2019/02/06/new-product-kano-comput...

Thanks, but one of my specific goals is to get a screen that is at least 15" in size. Funnily enough I just realised that the LCD panel I bought didn't come with an eDP cable... so now I need to find that as well :(

Well, I will start by googling every single term you used that I don't know yet : edp, rockpro64, etc ... :)

Depends what you're trying to measure. You really only need an Arduino/Raspberry Pi and some input device (sensor). For example, if you want a "brain wave wearable", simply connect an EEG to the Pi via RS-232 and process the data. It's really just a 4 step process:

1. Acquire MCU (Pi, Arduino, etc.) 2. Acquire sensor (Heartrate, EEG, etc.) 3. Program processor/UI (Python/C++) 4. 3D print enclosure

Make a dope marketing video and $$. Send me a PM if you want help, I've launched a wearable (it failed but there were lessons learned).

Thanks for the feedback. My product will be even simplier, in that I don't need sensors, but it has to programmable somehow

Any suggestions to get EEGs at a discount? There seem to be a lot of interesting products with EEGs.

My experience: I had some fun off and on with Arduinos but they tended to have excessive power consumption for the kinds of wearables I wanted to build and maybe productionise. So I switched to ultra low energy ARM Cortex SOCs like the STM32 from ST Micro. It was way harder than I was expecting (re-learning C was the easy bit!), but still good fun controlling clocks, DMA and other features in order to boost battery life from hours on an Arduino to days and weeks. I was toying with putting it into production but as I started to learn more it quickly became clear with only weekends and occasional weekdat it'd take me a lifetime to achieve that dream unless I had a bucket load of money with which to outsource. Your mileage may vary but maybe do it anyway just for the interest factor; if nothing else I feel I've lifted the curtain on how all these magical devices around us function :)

PS: STM's private (but free) Udemy courses were a great help getting me started. The written documentation online is aimed largely at professional electronic engineers and not so much at newbie hobbyists!

> Any advices welcome!

It isn't realistic that you are going to develop a product from nothing in your spare time. If you don't know anything about hardware, chances are your idea isn't even any good. You didn't even ask a proper question, presumably because that would ruin the fantasy. Are you telling me you can't google how to make a prototype?

Yes, that sounds pessimistic. So I will give you the real advice. If you actually want to bootstrap a hardware project in you spare time, do something that is realistic. Do an add-on board for an arduino or a raspberry pi, or something with an esp8266 that you design yourself and sell in small quantity on e.g. tindie.

How long is that going to take you? Depending on your software experience, maybe a hundred active hours. How many hours would be realistic on average every week your spare time, maybe five? So around six months if you include holidays. Now you can imagine how long your original idea would take.

Thank you, will explore that asap :)

Ignore the people who are not answering your question and putting you down. You can absolutely do this. Find an EE guy on guru or some other place in the u.s. and get on a phone call ( not email). That's how you get started.

I’m also very interested in mixing hardware and software and my friend currently ordered an arduino starter kit that we will work on together. I don’t really have a product in mind, just exploring what is possible with hardware.

For anyone (like OP) that's looking for help with a hardware project, I'm happy to advise. I have lots of experience bringing projects to market, both from an EE side and from the manufacturing side.

Thanks for that, will sure get in touch once I figured out first steps to advance on this project!

Do an MBA -> Join a big hardware company -> Pitch your wearable to them -> become product lead.

Realize, that a software developer's role in this kind of product, is literally the least critical aspect of it.

Well, I'll try to keep up with my software career and explore the hardware side as a toy project for now :)

Check out the Contextual Electronics courses.


Thanks, will check this out asap!

I am in a somewhat similar position : I want to build a linux distro powered phone (postmarketos and/or ubports should be able to boot), and I have no idea where to start. Maybe I'll start by booting up the OS on a raspberry pi and get all the components working on a brick sized prototype and then see if it's possible to use the pi compute module to use as a base for the phone. Any ideas/suggestions are welcome.

Your tool chain is important out of the gates. I'd suggest picking a general ecosystem/SoC provider, engage with their sales, and acquire a development platform.

what sort of wearable? a watch? google glass like? fitbit like? what do you envision it doing?

perhaps look at some of the open source wearables for inspiration [1] [2] etc.

[1] https://openhomeautomation.net/open-source-wearable-platform...

[2] https://www.hexiwear.com/

Thanks for the resources, I didn't event know there was open source wearables! Will check asap

Since you're a software developer why not just start by buying 9usd wearables and reprogram it, bluetooth with colored or black and white screen, heart rate sensor and accelerometer built in.

Lots of people have been doing that and adding new features. Hardware is hard if you don't have the experience.

I have no idea if this guy is any good (I believe the "hardware product" he brought to market was a simple stick-on LED front light for tv remote controls or something like that), but he now consults on exactly this, and his blog/email posts are certainly extremely interesting and plausible:


tldr: it's a huge jump (like 90%++ of the effort) from even a polished prototype, to a ship-able box, let alone one sitting on a shelf in Walmart etc

disclosure: I merely subscribe to his email newsletter, but I too have some h/w ideas I'd love to make into products.

Will check this out! Thanks for the link

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