Today Betabook is the featured design project on Kickstarter. I thought it would be interesting to take a moment to reflect on what that means – not just for Betabook, but for design.
Bruce Sterling calls design fiction “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” When I think about design fiction, it is as if there’s a little chart of comparison and contrast in my head:
From this perspective Kickstarter is a very special place for design fiction. Sure, science fiction films have had an analogous cultural impact, albeit on a longer timescale. Nobody will deny the influence of a film like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on design in the second half of the 20th century. Artist Greg Borenstein has done some great thinking on the topic of iPads and Star Trek. But the cause and effect relationship on Kickstarter between the story of an idea and its execution is irrefutable.
William Gibson‘s oft-cited quote “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” rings true for our experience over the last two years developing the Betabook. The prototypes have worked their way into our daily routine on a fundamental level, transforming much of our creative work into a hybrid analog/digital process. With the design finalized and our supply-chain in place, this is a story we are excited to finally share.
Tablets are the original rewritable tools for written communication. They have contributed to the development of philosophy, commerce, education and general literacy. Once people got in the habit of writing stuff down on a temporary portable surface the idea stuck – for centuries.
Then something funny happened. A couple years ago when portable touchscreen computers came out they called them tablets. But they’re not tablets, they’re computers.
A tablet computer doesn’t have the focused single purpose of a traditional tablet. It may be that switching your tablet computer on actually distracts you more than it helps you get stuff done. Despite the futuristic design of a lot of tablet computers, they are far from future proof. Instead they’re destined to become junk within a couple years thanks to planned obsolescence.
The Betabook is a real tablet, in the tradition of stone, wax and slate. It’s an ancient technology redesigned for a digital world. It gives you a satisfying creative experience using an “interface” which has stood the test of time. But it does so with the most seamless, lightweight, and easy to erase material ever to grace the surface of a tablet.
Curious to try it out?
If you’re in Berlin, join us next week for our Kickstarter launch party at the Betahaus. We’ll be playing drawing games with our friends from VizThink Berlin and you’ll have a chance to get a hands-on demo of the Betabook. If we reach our fundraising goal by or before the party we’ll buy everyone in attendance a drink!
It was late October 2012. We had just returned from three months of near perfect sunshine in Portland, Oregon to the grey and dingy early winter of former East Berlin. After a couple weeks, the euphoria of Demo Day had died down and reality began to sink in. Prospective clients for Video Sprints didn’t have reasonable budgets for our services. Our business model was flawed. After a brief period of flirting with the idea of developing Video Sprint software, we headed south to visit Pati’s family for Christmas and put our plans on hold for the new year. We finally were reckoning with something we’d been hearing the whole time at PIE about our business: “that’s cool – but how does it scale?”
January 2013. We were artists in residence in the Frankfurter Kunstverein. We spent that cold and snowy month living in an art museum and producing our most experimental video to date: a portrait of four artists called Another Dimension. On long walks taken through the winter streets of Frankfurt, we looked ahead to the coming months of the new year and decided to focus on our individual strengths for a while. Pati went on to expand her client roster of corporate design agencies in Berlin. Gabe took directing work in California, did lots of public speaking, and produced new video artwork.
But there was something else. Something gnawing at our consciousness the whole time. A parallel story of what was and what could be that was stubbornly, persistently calling us to act. In short: something which could scale.
You might have seen us using it when we were at PIE. Fervently scribbling notes during a presentation or drawing storyboards for our videos. Truly, there were moments during PIE where our daily use of the prototype created cognitive dissonance to the tune of: “Why are we working on Video Sprint when we could be working on this?!” Working on what, you ask?
Betabook: a portable whiteboard in the form of a book.
So here’s that parallel story:
Early February 2010. It was a typical grey-skied winter afternoon in Berlin. A group of designers, makers and tinkerers gathered together in one of Berlin’s first coworking spaces – the Betahaus – for a workshop on Open Design. Among the participants was Jay Cousins – a recent transplant to Berlin from Sheffield, UK. Jay was leading a workshop on creating self-made plastics. Jay’s enthusiasm caught our eye. As the only video production company present, KS12 became the workshop’s storytellers. When Jay sat for an interview, he uttered a one-liner which would set the tone for our friendship. “Basically,” Jay said, “everything should be delivered in beta“.
Fast forward to the Spring of 2012. Jay was cleaning up his apartment when he came across some old notebooks. After reviewing the contents and salvaging only a couple pages in each book, the waste created struck him as a problem to solve. Then inspiration hit. He took the empty notebook binding and affixed a piece of whiteboard plastic inside: the first Betabook was born.
Jay approached us about helping him to make a Kickstarter video to get the Betabook out into the world. We said we’d think about it after we had some time to test his prototypes and so in the summer of 2012 we left for Portland with a Betabook in our production kit. After using the prototype for a couple months, it became clear to us that it had a bigger future. So in the beginning of 2013 they developed a supply chain, built and tested dozens of prototypes, and in the summer of 2014 founded Betabook LLC. The design was improved from a rough proof of concept to a refined and beautiful object. Which brings us to the present day: mere days before the launch of Betabook on Kickstarter.
Betabook is a product born in Berlin – but the minimum viable product was road-tested in Portland, specifically at PIE.
If we hadn’t used it intensely during our time in the incubator who knows if we would have been convinced of the value. After all, at that time the prototype was just a scrappy old journal binding with a piece of duct tape and a sheet of dirty plastic glued inside. But besides the practical testing we did at PIE we learned countless other lessons which have had an impact on our ability to move forward with the Betabook. As graduates of film and design schools, PIE served as our crash course in startup business. Mentors like Renny, Rick, Nick, Kirsten, Marcelino Alvarez, John Jay, Amber Case, Brad Berens, Jason Glaspey, Andy Baio, Mat Ellis and Brad Feld – among dozens of others – gave us invaluable insights. Our classmates served as mirrors for us, helping us to see ourselves as entrepreneurs even if at times we felt like amateurs.
Next week we are launching Betabook on Kickstarter. If you want to help spread the word before we launch, please encourage people to sign up here for our email list:
It’s been a while since we updated the KS12 blog and its been for a good reason. We’ve been in what the startup scene calls “stealth mode” working on a new project together with long-time collaborator Jay Cousins called Betabook – the whiteboard tablet for the digital age.
If you’re in Berlin we hope you can join us for our Kickstarter launch party December 2 at Betahaus. We’re looking to raise funds to finance the first production run of the Betabook. If we manage to meet our goal before or during the party we’re gonna buy everyone in attendance a drink!