When it sits on your bathroom counter, a new device called Droppler measures how much water you're using and gives real-time feedback. But once you've trained yourself to take shorter showers—and you're no longer using the gadget—you can turn it into a drone or a video camera.
Founders at Nascent, the startup making Droppler, think that this could be the future of electronics: instead of tossing out new technology a couple of years after buying it, the guts inside can just be transformed into whatever you need next.
The company studied 600 electronic products, and found that a kit of less than 15 modular parts could build 80% of the gadgets on the market. The shape and the software might be different, but the things that make your Nest or drone work—and what give it its environmental footprint—are basically the same.
"There's all sorts of ramifications of that," says Baback Elmieh, founder and CEO of Nascent Objects. "We live in a world where there's so much waste. On top of that, all of these things are locked up—the only people making decisions about what went into your product are the people at the company that built them. What we've done is we've packaged these things into modules, and then we have this technology to change the shape of the product."
Nascent's basic modules, like a sensor and camera, fit into 3-D printed brackets that can be customized for any form. It's a fundamental difference from other modular projects, like the Puzzlephone or Fairphone, which are stuck as single products.
"Modularity to this point has been all linked to a single product category," says Elmieh. "A PC, a smartphone, a smart watch. All of these have a set industrial design shape, you can plug things out to change the functionality, but you can't change the product."
The Droppler, like other Nascent products to come, is so simple to change that—if you want to—you can turn it into something new for a day or two, and then change it back.
"Imagine you're going away for the weekend," he says. "As much as a product like Droppler is about conservation, in and of itself it's actually kind of wasteful when you're not at the house. It's sitting there at your home and it's doing nothing for you over the weekend, nobody's using water for your home. If you take out one of the modules and you stick it in the camera, now you've got a really nice GoPro-like camera where you can take pictures. Or if you're going to a party, you can stick it in a speaker and listen to music."
The company started with a drought-tackling product because they're based in the Bay Area. After 15 years of working on tech startups, and for companies like Google, Elmieh wanted to do something to give back. "We never really had a chance to use the skills and technology that we had to solve a real local problem," he says. "It seemed like it was a perfect fit. We had a local problem, we had the technology to solve it, and the question was how are we going to go solve it, rather than should we do something about it."
The developers partnered with Jiaying Zhao, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who studies behavior change and water conservation. "She found that it's actually pretty simple to get people to conserve water," Elmieh says. "They just have to know how much they're using. Water is an invisible resource, and most people actually don't have any idea how much they're using."
Unlike some other water-tracking gadgets, Droppler doesn't need to attach to a pipe to work. "It's a speech recognition pattern that we've trained with hundreds of hours of audio representing different types of sinks and showers, and it can tell the difference between all of them," he says. "It can tell when the water is on and when the water is off."
Each day, the device shows a bar representing your water budget for the day, and as it tracks your use, the bar slowly disappears. Just seeing that information is enough to make people change, Zhao's research shows. At the end of the day, you can look at a report and compare your usage to friends.
The team worked fast, building the basic product in about a month. They built their wireless speaker, one of the products that Droppler can turn into, in about a week.
The platform is now open to everyone, and Nascent hopes to fill it with hundreds of interchangeable products. Product designers are already beginning to use it, building entire working electronics by themselves.
"They're doing the work on this system that it would take maybe a 100-person team in a big company to do, because you'd have to have electrical engineers and mechanical engineers," he says. "All that stuff is packaged inside modules and the printer takes care of the rest. So it's a democratization story to a certain extent."
Eventually, even non-designers might be using the platform. "We're hoping—maybe two to three years from now—that if this is as successful as we hope it can be, that this would be a little bit like Wordpress," Elmieh says. "You want to build a product, you have an idea, just like you have a website you want to build, and the only thing between you and that is your determination and time on a toolkit that's going to walk you through these things. We're not there yet, but that's where we want to go."
Nascent is crowdfunding Droppler on Indiegogo, supported by a grant from the Shock the Drought campaign, the same project that is giving Californians free rubber bricks and smart showers to save water.