Launching a new gadget in this era of consumer electronics is both seductive and scary. While the changing economics of manufacturing and the explosion of connectivity has created a massive opportunity for hardware startups, tech giants have come stampeding into the market with big budgets and ambitious plans.
Amid this groundswell of startups on one side and tech goliaths on the other, Brian Gannon firmly believes in the possibility of carving out a space in the middle where an independent hardware company can not just survive, but thrive.
The founder and CEO of San Francisco-based California Labs has taken his first step into this jungle with the recent launch of Loop, a new category of family communication devices designed to allow relatives to more selectively and easily share video and photos among a smaller, more intimate circle of contacts.
The retro design is sleek and simple and suggests an old radio with knobs on the side instead of a touch screen.
Gannon has 20 years in the tech industry, including a decade working on video display and processing products at Maxim Integrated. He left Maxim in 2013 to found California Labs and began rethinking the role of connected video displays in the home.
Around this time, his father, who was living in Boston, got sick, and Gannon said he could “feel him fading away.” Living across the country in San Francisco, Gannon felt that perhaps if his dad could see his one-year-old grandson more often it might give him energy.
So he bought his father an iPad to do video chats. But watching him go through various app setups, and the various follow-up steps needed to launch and share images and chat got Gannon thinking. “You become aware of all the friction,” he said.
So Gannon rigged his own screen that let him just send photos directly from his phone to that screen in his dad’s room. “It was a little bit less effort for him, and eventually we were able to add livestreaming,” he said.
From there, a gradual evolution happened, from personal project to product. Coworkers and family members were hooked by the idea of having a device that allowed for a more intimate, yet still immediate, sharing of content among a chosen circle.
“I started to wonder: Is there something bigger here?” he said. His startup was accepted into the Highway1 hardware incubator and, in 2015, raised some funding from Resolute Ventures. About a year ago, Gannon debuted a beta version of the product, which he also showed off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year.
The Loop of today is a portable gadget with a non-touch screen. It connects to the Wi-Fi network in your home and allows users to create personalized, private connections with other family members via the Loop app. This allows a user to directly share photos or videos with other Loop users through private channels on the Loop device. It responds to basic voice commands and also allows direct video calls between users.
Loop officially went on sale in September. The cost for one gadget is currently $249. Gannon said that because people buy them for their families, they often buy two or more, and there is a discount if a customer buys multiple Loops. The company has a deal to put the devices in Best Buy stores, but word of mouth seems to be propelling sales.
While Loop was being developed, the market for voice-activated personal assistants in the home has exploded, thanks to the success of Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo, and now Google’s Home. Loop is a different beast, but the release this past summer of the Amazon Echo Show, with a screen for watching content, treads much more closely on its target market and sells for a comparable $239.
Loop still offers something different. But the challenge for Gannon is to communicate just how and why his product differs from the competition. More recently, Loop has started allowing people to create public channels of content that users outside their immediate circle of friends and family members can watch.
Still, the central pitch remains the same. Gannon said Loop is targeted at mainstream users who find themselves frustrated when they try to make a Skype call and the microphone doesn’t work. Or who feel that Facebook exposes too much of their content to people they don’t know. Or who worry that their kids get exposed to all sorts of ads and junk while trying to catch up with posts from family and friends.
Gannon remains confident that there is a robust market for a dedicated device that is easy to use, reliable, and not made by a giant brand name whose business model is based on advertising or trying to get users to buy other stuff.
“Loop is the simplest way possible to say connected to my family,” he said. “People are looking for a private way of staying connected. When we built this, we wondered, will anyone care? But we’ve found that people get it.”