Monday 28 November 2016 6:00 am

Making Hackaball, a breakout product for the Internet of Things and a computer you can throw

THE Internet of Things (IoT) promises to change the way we live, work and learn. The giant network of smart objects controlled by software, and ultimately people, paves the way for cutting-edge smart homes, connected cars and a wealth of wearable devices.

This world built on technology is also a market with the potential to be worth $1.7 trillion (£1.4 trillion) by 2020.

With this in mind, Made by Many, a London-based digital product innovation consultancy that has worked with ITV, the V&A and Skype, set out to discover the skills needed to make products for the IoT which is growing in step with the number of mobile devices. It came up with one that would also teach children the skills to control and respond to the IoT: Hackaball, a computer you can throw.

Encased in silicone rubber, the ball is packed with sensors and changes colour and makes noises when thrown or dropped. It connects to an app for iPad, iPhone or Mac so that children aged six to 12 can programme and personalise it with their own games. This helps them form the basic skills to make a connected device do what they want.

“Understanding how to talk to computers and connected devices, and get them to do what you need, is a core fluency for all children growing up today. Hackaball introduces technology to children in a fresh way that was co-designed by children themselves. It’s more than a toy,” says Tim Malbon, Made by Many founder.

“We see Hackaball as a revolutionary product – a toy that prepares children for the connected age whilst nudging them towards healthier, active play.”

The award-winning ball, named by Time as a top 25 best invention of 2015, certainly has its fans. Claire Copeland, senior lecturer in education from London Southbank University, says: “With Hackaball, every step of the programming cycle can be experience first-hand – plan, build, test, debug, refine – with instant results. It is really motivating.”

For Made by Many, there was another purpose to developing Hackaball: uncovering the skills needed to make IoT products. Malbon explains: “In the end, collaboration was the key to success. We brought together a diverse range of experts – from software developers, industrial designers, electronics engineers to business consultants – and the result is Hackaball.” With London on its doorstep, the consultancy was able to access all of this expertise in one place.

Launched today, Hackaball started out as an intern side-project for Made by Many. The project caught the imagination of internet backers and smashed its $100,000 Kickstarter target to win $241,122 in crowdfunding. The initial production run sold-out and the first 4,000 toys have been shipped. Pre-orders for the next production run of the ball are being taken.

The connected toy was developed in conjunction with industrial design consultancy Map using a new way of rapid prototyping, or what Malbon calls the make-test-learn approach.

“Prototyping IoT products is incredibly easy now. Platforms like open-source Arduino hardware mean that you can create a basic connected device very easily, and 3D printing lets you mock up physical objects quickly. So making a realistic prototype of a new product that connects to the internet is pretty straightforward. This allows you to test it out with real people to find out whether the concept works or not before committing to making it for real,” Malbon says.

However, turning the prototype into a design ready for manufacture was more difficult. Made by Many also found there was a shortage of UK firmware engineers to programme the code that runs on the chips in electronic products. It was forced to turn to a partner in China called GadgetLab for the right skills.

So, what’s next for the consultancy? “We’ve already secured work with clients on IoT projects and so it’s great to see our R&D investment in Hackaball paying off already,” Malbon says.

As for Hackaball, the former intern project is now its own start-up, aiming for investment to scale manufacturing to reach a wider consumer market, and develop new ideas.

Indeed, it is much more than just a toy.