Engineer Spotlight: Josh Vekhter on the Whoa Board’s Touch Sensor and Tech Born from Art

September 24, 2016 by Ebony Calloway

An interview with Josh Vekhter from Foolish Projects.

An interview with Josh Vekhter from Foolish Projects.

Josh Vekhtor and his father, Akivo Vekhter, are the founders of Foolish Projects. Contrary to the name, the products created by Foolish Projects are anything but. Just recently, Josh and Akivo met their funding goal on Kickstarter for the Whoa Board. The Whoa Board allows what Josh calls "glow-y things" to become touch-sensitive, making it attractive to developers and artists alike.

We recently got to talk to Josh about the Whoa Board, its development, and the future of wearable tech. 



AAC: How did you get into engineering? How was Foolish Products started?

J: It's really something that I grew up with. I ran a little aluminum anodizing operation out of my basement at home with my dad when I was in high school. We anodized paintball guns and really focused on experimenting with different masking techniques. Here's a super limited selection of projects.

This was called Topaz Anodizing. Foolish Products as a company was incorporated for the purpose of distributing the Whoa Board, but we won't be done until the name is an oxymoron 😊.

AAC: Now that you've hit your funding goal, what's next for the Whoa Board?

J: Good question! Right now, we are busy organizing our first production run and, in parallel, are consolidating the lessons from our own prototypes into a firmware library which will (hopefully) make it easy to execute projects that work reliably.

In the past week, we finished integrating a few suggestions for the board that came up during the Kickstarter campaign and we figured out how to make the board drop-
in compatible with these NRF24 modules.

Pretty excited about that because it means that there should be a (hopefully straightforward) way of having the board communicate over Bluetooth (using this library), which should make for some fun applications.
AAC: Are there any other projects that Foolish Products is working on?
J: This is another past project, Let's Get Lost. There are a few other ideas digesting, but it's too early to talk about them.
Certainly, one big focus for the coming year will be supporting people doing work with the Whoa Board. We're pretty excited to see what applications the community discovers, and are excited to grow organically based on interest.
AAC: What was the inspiration for the Whoa Board?
J: There are two answers to this question. As an investigation in turning EL (electro-luminescent) materials into capacitive sensors, the Whoa Board started as an art project. This genesis is documented here in gifs!
As for when we decided that we were going to take this prototype and do the work of getting it out to a community? Well, that happened after a visit to Berlin. There I saw a small, but very excited, fashion/tech community. They were getting to host the first Fashion Hackday. It felt like this community could really make use of the tool we had sitting on our shelf, and so we decided to go through the exercise of getting it out to people.
Some other examples that convinced us that we had some hope of finding a community if we got the project out in the world:
AAC: Can the Whoa Board be used with other things besides lights?
J: Well first off, the Whoa Board can control EL elements and LEDs, and I believe it's the only board out there designed with this in mind.
That said, the Whoa Board is a close relative of the Arduino Leonardo, and is capable of doing most things that you can do with that board. It is an even closer relative to Adafruit's Flora; it's totally capable of doing any of the projects listed here.
To give a more complete feature list, it has a micro USB connector, which can output keyboard or MIDI instructions, which can be used to trigger audio or other effects though a computer. It has analog read pins so you can listen via microphone and use that data to respond to things. It is designed to be compatible with the NRF24 wireless radios, which are a much cheaper, open alternative to XBee radios. They can be mesh networked and can even be configured to talk over BLE to a phone.
More generally, it speaks the following three serial protocols: SPI, UART, I2C, and can communicate with any module with those outputs.
AAC: Are there any plans to expand the functionality of the Whoa Board?
J: We tried pretty hard to make the Whoa Board a project that is flexible enough to enable a diversity of totally new projects. We are shipping all of the core features we wanted the board to have, in addition to a few more experimental ones (like NRF24 support and the ability to accept an external EL supply which the Whoa Board can sequence and perform sensing on).
Any further plans will develop in conjunction with the community.
AAC: Can the Whoa Board work with other programming environments besides the Arduino?
J: As an Arduino board based on an Atmel processor, it is compatible with the Arduino IDE and Atmel Studio. This is all we'll ship with support for.
We are considering adding support for a library called firmata as well. This would allow some limited programming capability from a wide array of programming languages, including Python and Java (and processing). We definitely won't have this done when the first production batch of boards ships, though.
AAC: What were some of the challenges that you had to take into consideration when developing the Whoa Board?
J: The biggest technical challenge by far was getting the touch sensing working reliably. The sensor design that we are shipping has a number of conceptual moving parts, each of which needed to be tuned in tandem with the others in order to get to our current level of sensitivity and stability. There were lots of subtleties in everything from choosing the appropriate components to reducing noise by twiddling firmware bits on the processor.
Navigating the breadth of skills needed to create and manage a crowdfunding campaign was also much more challenging than we expected. One of the hardest parts was crafting a video that provided some background on what EL materials are, while also explaining how the Whoa Board enabled something that previously wasn't possible with them.
AAC: Are there any plans to get into the software side of engineering or does Foolish Products mainly focus on hardware?
J: Depends what you mean by that. There is some reasonably complicated low-level software (which will be open source) that makes the Whoa Board tick.
We don't have any plans to start developing a complicated web app/service, but one software direction that is somewhat interesting is the potential for the Whoa Board to be applied in translating designs and interactions from VR into the physical world. In general, we like the idea of hardware that works without depending on the internet. We believe that this makes for much more long-lived products.
AAC: What do you think is the next emerging area in engineering?

J: Anything related to climate change. How can we better understand what is happening? How can we make social changes to react to those insights? How do we use less energy and still provide people with the services they want to receive? How do we most quickly move to closed-loop energy systems, where as a species we don't rely on the planet's energy reserves for power.

How do we move manufacturing/waste disposal to closed-loop models, where the costs of manufacturing things are transparent and the disposal/recycling strategies are considered ahead of manufacturing.

Another big motivator for working on this project was because we saw the opportunity to start the conversation about disposal for "smart clothes" as early as possible. Fashion is the second dirtiest industry in the world (after oil and gas), we believe that "smart clothes" will soon be an "emerging" area. Let's make sure that when they are, people are already primed to think about garment lifecycles and disposal!

Here's a broad view:


Huge thanks to Josh for his time and insight! 


All images courtesy of Foolish Projects.