Kickstarted is a Radii series covering new technology from China that’s been successfully crowdfunded and is on its way to a wider audience.
In a nutshell, HEXA is a fully programmable six-legged robot that can walk, climb, dance, and presumably much more, once its Software Development Kit gets bent and hacked by more users. Though it’s aimed initially at a tech-fluent Maker audience, Vincross bills HEXA as a “stepping stone into the fast growing field of robotics,” and their long-term goal is to provide a full ecosystem — software, hardware, and user community — for robotics enthusiasts.
They’re off to a solid start: their Kickstarter campaign, which ended last month, more than doubled a $100,000 fundraising goal, and attracted more than 400 backers. Vincross just finished a promo tour of the US, one of their core markets, where they had HEXA ambling around the New York Stock Exchange and a Wall Street Journal tech event.
At the height of this buzz, we pulled Vincross COO Andy Xu to ask a few questions about HEXA, how the industry of robotics has so far failed to live up to its promises of future, and why China has an edge on quickly and nimbly prototyping new tech in the field.
— Vincross HEXA (@VincrossHEXA) October 17, 2017
What is your elevator pitch for HEXA? How does it stand out from other consumer-oriented household robots?
The challenge that Vincross and HEXA confront is that today, innovation in consumer robotics has been slow to take off. As a society, we’ve yet to realize our vision of truly useful and innovative household robotics. One of the main reasons that there’s been a lack of progress is because innovators and developers don’t have an accessible robotics platform to experiment and create on. That’s where we come in. Vincross provides the whole ecosystem — software, hardware and community. We provide individuals a tool with which they can create fascinating robotics functionality. Our aim is that this helps to accelerate advancements in consumer robotics.
What are the major technical challenges you’ve faced in developing HEXA?
We wanted to build a lot of the components of HEXA ourselves instead of sourcing them from a third party. By taking this approach, it meant we could better customize things like mechanical structure, servos (the motors), and even operating system to give HEXA specific functionalities and fit our needs. While this is definitely the right approach in the long run, allowing us to have more product control and also bring down costs, building out many of the components ourselves led to technical challenges in product development.
Who is HEXA best suited for? It seems that especially in using the MIND software, your target customer is someone with a bit of programming background and a Maker’s mindset?
Exactly correct, for the launch of this first product, it’s more geared towards a techie, innovator, maker audience and other people who want to get involved in robotics. We’ve also found that there’s crossover between people who were early adopters of drones and HEXA.
Besides this type of tinkerer, are there built-in applications for HEXA in a wider consumer sense, that wouldn’t require any coding ability?
Yes, we built HEXA so that anyone can easily operate it and build on it. You don’t need to be a programmer to use HEXA. You can easily control HEXA using our HEXA app on your mobile phone. This allows you to do a variety of different movements — walk, crawl through tight spaces, climb stairs, even dance. Using the HEXA app to remote-control HEXA, you can also see what HEXA sees through the camera pairing. It’s pretty cool!
People can also download more skills from our Skill Store, where developers upload and share their skills for HEXA. With the launch of our product, we’re excited to see all the interesting new Skills that people will be developing.
Furthermore, by using our 3D simulator, you can easily create robotics movements piece by piece. What you do is pair the simulator with your HEXA and you can give commands such as, move leg #2 forty-five degrees then rotate head 90 degrees at a pace of XX, and so on. In this manner, you either just control movement or create new movements.
What advantages has Vincross’ location in Beijing given to the development of HEXA? Are there benefits to being in China that give the company a leg up over robotics startups in the US or elsewhere in the West?
Yes, there are definite advantages to being based in China, mostly related to China’s strong expertise in hardware and manufacturing. This also allows for a speed of innovation that I think is unique to China. For example, with HEXA, we were continually tweaking the product to make it better. From ideation to development in the factory, we were able to make changes to the product in a timeframe of two weeks. I highly doubt that Western markets can operate with that same speed and nimbleness.
Does Vincross maintain an international presence? What overlap or flow between tech scenes in China and Silicon Valley have you noticed?
We’re based in Beijing and are building up operations in the US. We’re focused on building up US and European customers because these regions have an audience of highly engaged innovators and creators who like to experiment with the “next big platform.” It’s an ideal audience for us.
— Cheddar (@cheddar) October 4, 2017
What are your next steps now that your Kickstarter campaign has finished?
We’re also running a Chinese [crowdfunding] program on JD.com, and we’re now focused on building up distributors and sales in the US. Another focus is supporting and growing our all-important developer audience.