The first supercapacitor-powered portable speakers are open source |

The first supercapacitor-powered portable speakers are open source

Posted 09 Dec 2013 by 

Jen Wike (Red Hat)
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Sam Beck is the guy behind Blueshift, an open source sustainable eletronics business that is all about building cool stuff. Helium speakers are the company's first product to market and will be the world's the first supercapacitor-powered portable speakers. Not to mention the design files are open source.

In this interview, Sam shares with me his unique business mindset and why he's not afraid anyone will steal his thunder, even while they might have access to his design.

If we build stuff that's cool enough, we'll find a way to make money.

Sam grew up in Anchorage, Alaska and went to college at Columbia University in New York City where he studied physics and art. He got his start with open source eletronics when he moved to Portland in 2008 and began building a bike stereo system that ran off of a dynamo hub (a bicycle part that generates electricity) and used capacitors as backup power. It was a few years later that Sam realized he could use supercapacitors as a primary power source.

Read more about the first supercapacitor-powered portable speakers in this interview.


You made the files for your supercapacitor power supply board open source. Why?

I posted the power supply files because I'm serious about this being open source. Although there is still design work to be done, I wanted to show that this isn't just a theoretical idea—and that as it develops, we will continue to make the design available publicly. It's a way to develop trust with our customers and potential customers.

We have working prototypes. I'm listening to Brad Mehldau via Bluetooth / capacitors right now.

Also, the power supply is the heart of this system, and it's the piece that I want to see others use. Blueshift isn't open source because we want to have other companies copy our speakers—we're open source because we want to encourage the development of other durable, sustainable electronics. Broadly, we want people to be able to build cool stuff that's different from what they can buy today. The power supply is a key building block toward other supercapacitor-powered products. Blueshift can't develop every possible application of the technology on our own.


What makes Blueshift different?

Consumer electronics today are built around a business model that doesn't care very much about consumers. Products are sold through distributors and retailers, who each need to get a cut. So in the end, most consumer electronics products are marked up four to five times from the build cost to the retail price. Because of this reality, consumer products are designed with cost as the most important factor.

On top of that, if you're a huge electronics company, it's in your interest to build products that don't last as long, because you would effectively be eating into your own market down the road. This is a misalignment between the interests of consumers and the interests of electronics manufacturers.

The idea behind Blueshift is that resolving this misalignment presents an opportunity to build better products and sell them at fair prices. The Internet is the key ingredient. It allows us to design great products without huge engineering and IP protection costs (open source). It allows us to reach customers without an expensive retail distribution network. And it allows us to access a global supply chain efficiently.

Plus, the patent system is lame. I can't imagine spending tens of thousands of dollars to get a patent, and then expecting to spend hundreds of thousands more to enforce it. Blueshift is about building cool stuff. If we build cool enough stuff, we'll find a way to make money without patent litigation.

Tell us about your experience during your crowdfunding campaign. Why Crowd Supply? What are your greatest challenges? 

You can see ours here.

When you see other people raising tons of money through crowdfunding, it always looks like magic. My experience has been that there is a little bit of that—there are contributions coming in from all over the world from people I've never spoken to—but it's also a ton of work. Convincing people that it's worth spending a lot of money on a product that they can't touch yet is hard. It's also a numbers game—it takes a lot of traffic to make a sale. Finding a ton of traffic (especially the right traffic) is hard.

Crowd Supply has been great. I've met with the team there several times, and we've been emailing daily. They had a very good idea from the beginning of how the campaign would go, and what it would take to make it work. They helped out a ton with media outreach, plus more basic things like actually naming the product. I'm really glad that I went with a platform that wants to be actually involved with the campaign—as the only full-time person at Blueshift, I could not have made this work on my own.

Helium speakers

How do you find the appetite for open source?

People are excited about that aspect, but I don't think that has made a huge difference on sales at this point. People want to see a great product and see how it can make their lives better—the business model is secondary. That said, open source has made a big difference in that I've gotten a lot of interest from designers and engineers since this campaign started. I think that the open source community has helped to drive a lot of traffic my way, and I keep getting useful ideas from people who wouldn't bother to think about what they could do to help a traditional company.

Do you feel everyone should open source their design files?

I don't feel there is any moral obligation to make everything open source. There are kinds of innovation and invention that are capital intensive, and patent protection can be an incentive to do that type of development. 

That said, every open source project makes the open source idea more powerful. I do think that projects that rely heavily on existing open source technology should stay open.

Open source hardware is already changing the world for the better, and it's really just getting started. There's no going backward. It's a question of what the designer is trying to accomplish. I think that my generation is going to keep pushing in this direction—collaborate, build awesome stuff, and figure out how to get paid for it later.

sam beck

Who is the team behind Blueshift portable speakers? Is it your first product to market?

I've been working on this project full time for the last year or so and am the only full-time person working on this project. But I've had and have lots of help. Several engineers (two electrical and one mechanical) have already contributed to the project. I made our crowdfunding campaign promo video with my friend and director Chris Flanagan; another friend, Brandon Jiaconia, did the sound. And there has been a lot of outside assistance for our branding, marketing, messaging, and media strategy. This is our first real product launch, although some friends have ended up with Blueshift bicycle speakers!

One of the biggest advantages of creating the product as open source hardware is that all of the people who have contributed know that while they are helping me out personally, they are also contributing to something larger.

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I'm sorry but although I like the OS idea and the interesting tech, this "portable speakers" thing is nothing but a ghetto blaster on steroids.

People whose lives will be made miserable by arseholes toting this contraption (a virtual certainty) won't care a whit if this new source of noise pollution is powered by capacitors or coal.

Fun tech this may be, but I see it as a net disbenefit to society because its only purpose is noise pollution of public spaces.

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Nobody of Import

They've not hit their limit yet. As for golodh's them no heed. (Hint for you golodh: It's ENTIRELY too late to be naysaying something like this based on your expressed thoughts- they already DO this with the junk that they're making right now... So, you'd rather they did it in ways that're throwaway and bad for the environment (Li-Ion isn't exactly NOT a pollutant...)? I see people like you as a net detriment to society because you're willing to see things a s net disbenefit when they're not- because they don't work as you FEEL that they should be...)

Go on over there and bankroll this.

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Really, the comment on abuses of nice portable speaker systems is neither here nor there. Portable stereo equipment exists and will continue to exist with or without Blueshift. The specific type of product isn't really what the article is about.

Also, there is nothing inherently bad or abusive about portable stereo equipment. Why should people who use portable stereo equipment responsibly not be able to get it just because some people abuse the privilege?

I have both a good sized portable stereo (radio, CD, tape, microphone, and mp3/aux input) and a pretty good Bluetooth speaker (though I generally use the eighth inch stereo input, just like on the portable stereo), but I don't use them obnoxiously.

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Paul Palmer

I think Golodh has a point when he focuses on what the invention will be used for and it is simply rude to try to dismiss him as Nobody does. When someone points out a flaw in a design, the proper response is to try to solve that problem by improving some aspect of the design, not to build your ego by poking holes in someone else's work. That is what Golodh should have done too so he sort of "asked for it".

I am wondering if the Open Source trait is the proper trait to be emphasizing. Is that the most important thing that the project brings to the world or does the open source aspect imply other benefits that are the ones actually appealing to readers and workers but which, being implicitly felt, are valued but being covered up by the emphasis on open source? I do mean this to be a question.

I'm not sure what is actually being made or designed or put forward here. There are too many side issues brought up, but it seems like a consumer use for supercapacitors is the key. Are those currently only used industrially?

In my own work, I design many products (twenty or thirty on my website) which have the particular trait that they severely conserve material resources by being designed to last "forever" (I'm currently using a hundred years to stand for forever but I hope to stretch that out a lot eventually). The avoidance of waste and the elimination of what I consider to be the barbaric garbage industry and their practices is the point of these designs. (Note: not management of garbage, not reduction of garbage, not recapturing anything from garbage, not efficient destruction of garbage but total elimination) Somewhere in the Blueshift discussion there was also a reference to the conservation aspect of the designs. Is this really the most important thing being felt (as in my own designs) with open source just being a way to get there? My designs, being on my website, also happen to be open source, though they are not on the level of detailed blueprints.

So I am wondering if the design and construction of eg. this portable boombox, is made by socially new and radical designs for a better life on any level or is it to be made according to the wasteful, oppressive corporate designs we all know, to be thrown away into a dump, like all the other crap that is being made? How does the open source nature of the design help in that?

Let me partially answer that question. Design itself, as a part of the manufacturing process is a wasteful enterprise. If it is done in corporate secrecy, having to be copied and reinvented over and over by people who are living consuming and wasteful lives, then the design operation itself, quite aside from the product being designed, is a waste. By using open source, the design process itself is streamlined, and made less wasteful. That is a valuable goal. But in the larger context, it is rather paltry, wouldn't you agree? Compared to manufacturing, the design phase uses relatively little inputs. Some food, transportation, housing, energy - not much of those compared to all the people wasting inputs in manufacturing. But it's something!

You can find my designs at

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I am quite a bit skeptical about this project. Is it a real thing or a scam?

The project gets great attention in media (I can only wish that other new open source projects would get similar attention), but yet the project’s site supplies almost zero real information, but it is full of buzz words: Locally made, Open Source, Sustainable, Anti-corporate, High tech (Bluetooth, Supercapacitors).

Some concerns:

What makes this project Open Source? I was unable to find a mention of an open source license on the project’s site. It does have the “Open Source” page which fails to describe the open source hardware idea (it just saying that open source means community-owned and patent free). The only real information present there is a PCB design for super capacitor charger based on TI bq24640 reference design. So where is the schematic, bill of material, or some other documentation? I also was unable to find any community involvement here. No mailing list - there is a possibility to enter an e-mail to join a mailing list. Is there a mailing list archive or something I can read without being added to a distribution list?

What makes this project Sustainable? Not using plastic for the case? How about MDF which is excellent for speakers and made locally in Pacific Northwest instead of imported bamboo? Using super capacitors instead of batteries? Maybe…

Bashing the industry: So who is making the components the project is using? Who spent millions on developing these components? OK, not everything is right with the industry, and there is a lot of cheaply made “disposable” products. But as far as I am concerned it is consumer driven… Obviously we love consumerism… we love to buy new gadgets, we love to replace our cellular phones every year, we love spending money, we hate being stuck with old technology. The message is clear to the industry, and that’s what they do. Now even with that being said, modern electronics fails rarely... we replace it before it fails.

Supercapacitors are now more affordable and can store more energy than before. They can also be charged faster than rechargeable batteries. Still their energy density is 50 times less than that of rechargeable batteries. This means that they will need to be recharged more frequently, which will be annoying to users. The rechargeable batteries development process also doesn’t stand on one place. Sanyo Eneloop batteries for example can be recharged 2000 (and possibly more) times and have very low self-discharge rate. That would give about 10 years of use, and after that you can replace these batteries with even better new ones.

The claim that the speaker can be charged in 4-6 minutes is suspicious. It will need relatively high current (10A or so), at least the shown PCB prototype doesn’t have wide enough traces to handle such current.

6 hours on full volume… maybe, depending what the full volume is. If my calculations are correct 4 capacitors will store 10kJ of energy (or about 2.8 watt/hour), so if everything is perfect and no loses anywhere we are getting about 0.45 watt output. In practice it will be less, it will be some loses in voltage convertors, in amplifier, also circuit will not work when capacitors are discharged below certain voltage. So the output will be about 200 mW if we are lucky. Now that could be enough for a speaker working in relatively quiet environment (transistor radios used to have 0.25W speakers)… not for parties or outdoors.

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Paul Palmer

Serge makes excellent points. Where can people view this "open source" design? Is already open or to be open? I searched but found no place to view the design.

How are the components put together. There is no hint given but it looks like they are soldered in in the usual way of throwaway electronics. How can the capacitors be replaced? Or tested? If one of them shorts out what is the plan? To throw away the whole unit and buy a new one? Or to struggle to remove soldered tabs without destroying the unit? Are there any test points on the circuit board to troubleshoot it with test voltages or frequencies specified? Where do the components come from (aside from the bamboo box)? On the schematic, are any components specified by proprietary names or are they all revealed to be off the shelf components which can be found in any electronics supply place? Is the finished stereo box going to sell for the astronomical price of $500 or is that just the recommended crowd source support level? Do any of the components make use of slavery metals like columbium or tantalum and if so, are they so identified and can those be removed for reuse of the metal?

I could go on but the idea is simple. Is this designed in a special way to make it repairable, long lived, testable, efficient, conserving and renewable or is it just ordinary design but published on the web. Making it open source is a small step but not the whole story by any means. Does the unit actually live up to the grandiose claims?

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Hey everyone - this is Sam Beck, founder / designer at Blueshift.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments. I would like to clarify some issues that have been raised - if you have more questions or would like to get in touch directly, feel free to email me personally - sam [@] blueshiftPDX [point] com.

1. Is this project actually open-source?
Yes. The power supply based on BQ24640 reference design that some of you have referred to is the key piece of this system - at this point, our working prototypes use the TI reference design plus a separate class D amplifier. The design will be integrated onto a single board, along with the Bluetooth module.

So, there is still work to be done - as it gets done it will be published under an appropriate license. It would be nice to have all that work completed in advance, but at some point a business has to find customers and confirm that there is demand for a product. My idea of how this business will work (expensive parts, direct-to-consumer sales) is not particularly conducive to finding investors, so we needed to raise money to finish development this way.

2. Is this product actually sustainable?
It is a step in the right direction. I don't mean to be tongue-in-cheek saying that - but it's a consumer product, if sustainability is the ONLY goal we should all just sing together.
What makes it sustainable:
Durability / longevity. I expect 20 years of life out of every part, including the supercapacitors - and all the parts can be replaced. At this point, my image of how that replacement will work in the real world is that the entire PCB can be replaced (in the event that it fails, that Bluetooth is replaced with a new standard, that a superior power source becomes available, etc). In terms of repairing individual components on the board, no specific plans have been made to make that easier, but it is a good point, and any input into how that should be achieved would be taken gladly. It is likely the capacitors will all deteriorate over time at a similar rate, and if they ever need to be replaced it will make sense to replace all of them at once.
Beyond that, I have chosen materials that I think make ethical sense. MDF is full of formaldehyde and I don't like having it in the shop. Bamboo is great acoustically, and I don't think there's an argument that it is a 'bad' choice - although if there is, someone should please make it!
If this product is going to make a real difference with respect to how sustainable our culture is, I think the biggest impact it could have is in encouraging others to think about alternative power sources, and more broadly to think about DIFFERENT WAYS TO DO STUFF. If everyone does the same thing just because it makes sense (e.g. lithium batteries), where will innovation come from?

3. Does it live up to 5 minute charge / 6 hours playback claim?
Yes. I can show you the math, but Serge is about right. Actually each 2.7V / 350 F capacitor stores about .35 W*h. So, the actual average power per channel at full blast is less than 200mW. It's the system efficiency that makes it loud - and Serge is also right, it's not insanely loud. But it is loud enough for most purposes, I've seen as many as 20-25 people dancing to it - people who were in no way compensated for their dancing I might add.

4. Does it live up to other grandiose claims generally?
Look, I designed and built this system, so maybe I'm biased - but I believe in it, and I am about as cynical as anyone.

The sound is good - natural, no DSP, and flat enough for my ear to about 100Hz. It charges in 4 minutes as currently configured, from the point at which it stops working (* not 0V) to a full charge.

DigitalTrends has a prototype right now, they'll be writing it up hopefully Wednesday next week and then we'll have an unbiased review of the actual system.

I hope that helps convince you all that this is a legitimate project in progress. The issues that you have all pointed out are the issues that any new hardware business - run by a first time entrepreneur, with a tiny budget - might have.

Again, please get in touch if you have questions, or if you feel any of what I've said is not in the spirit of open-source hardware. Thanks!

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