We’ve reached out to Gimmy Chu, co-founder of Nanoleaf, to ask a few questions about the Aurora and to ask when they will be launching their nonagon lightbulb! Check out our interview.
What is Nanoleaf and what’s your personal story?
Nanoleaf was co-founded by myself, along with Tom Rodinger, and Christian Yan. We’re all engineering grads from the University of Toronto, and met while competing in the World Solar Car Challenge on U of T’s team. It was a story of three people with different personalities immediately clicking on a shared passion — green technology. After graduation, we went our separate ways to forge out and begin careers… but were reunited a few years later. I don’t think that nagging desire to create things that were better for the planet ever left any of us. We hungered for a purpose that we just couldn’t find from working for other people.
Our first invention (even before Nanoleaf) was a solar power cell called the Nanogrid. During prototyping, we went looking for a unique lightbulb to build into the product, but couldn’t find anything efficient enough. I mean, LED lighting was supposed to be a massive leap forward in energy efficient lighting, but everything we saw kind of sucked. So, we designed our own light for the Nanogrid. It nearly doubled the efficiency of anything else we could find on the market and we decided to run with it. It’s kind of the ultimate pivot — from designing batteries to designing lighting. The early prototypes were so compelling, that we all quit our day jobs and moved to China to start sourcing components and make a go of it. These prototypes ultimately became the Nanoleaf One — which debuted on Kickstarter, raising over $200,000 in a couple of days. We haven’t looked back since.
The modern lighting industry has evolved into a massive gorilla, pumping out the cheapest lighting possible while creating products of questionable quality and longevity in order to keep consumers buying. Products are designed to fail, and that’s how the gorilla feeds itself. We find the concept of planned obsolescence offensive and think about lighting differently — we’re not in this to create products, we’re in it to create experiences that have true, lasting value for real people.
Today, everything that we do at Nanoleaf is an outcome of our philosophy: Smarter by Design. We’re as focused on sustainability as we were on day one. We’re also fortunate enough to have grown and attracted kindred spirits to our team. Nanoleafers believe that industry must play a crucial role in solving the current climate crisis and ultimately in moving humanity into an age of true economic, social, and environmental equilibrium. Our civilization needs this harmony if we’re to thrive beyond another generation or two. Achieving it will be a massive undertaking, and our response to that challenge is ‘game on.’
Where did the Aurora concept begin?
From an epiphany that the lightbulbs we were creating were fundamentally flawed. Our designs were solid, but the concept of the lightbulb was conceived in another era for another purpose… I mean, lightbulbs haven’t really changed much in the last century. In a time where every other technology has been evolving at a dizzying pace, the lightbulb didn’t. You still have to screw it into a fixture. You still have to flip a switch to operate it. It’s a very constraining experience. Once we realized that fixtures could be removed from the equation by harnessing technology originally meant for other purposes, the Aurora was born. Everyone who purchases the Aurora will quickly realize that it gives them the freedom to truly personalize the light in their living spaces.
What were you looking to make? Have you achieved these goals?
We wanted to a create a lighting experience that was fluid, interactive, and made for play. The modular aspect of the Aurora is the ultimate canvas for self-expression. You can create shapes made of colored, always-changing light. Or you can pick a color (or colors) and stick with them. It also includes a dedicated white LED, meaning that you can change the intensity and temperature of white light — set it at anything from soothing candlelight to brilliant daylight. Setting it to serve your eyes can help reduce eyestrain and fatigue. There’s an emerging volume of scientific research that suggests a link between light and mood. White light that approximates daylight can help chase off the winter blahs, and that’s a part of the underlying purpose of the Aurora too.
We think of it this way — it’s not light, it’s living paint. You choose your own adventure and make it your own.
How long does it take to get something like this from prototype to our homes?
For a traditional product company, something like this would take several years to bring to market. Our design process relies heavily on Agile practices, and we frequently utilize a methodology popularized by Google Ventures called the design sprint. This allows us to be very efficient with time, and get user feedback very early on (even before prototyping). For us, getting the Aurora to market took about eighteen months. The speed at which Nanoleaf can bring great products to market is something that we’re all incredibly proud of.
Our Achilles’ heel is the creator DNA that runs deep in everyone at Nanoleaf. We shoot for the moon in pretty much everything we do—whether it’s making components more reliable than the other guys think they should be or producing interfaces with zen-like simplicity that control very complex software. We’ve been very selective in creating the vision for Aurora (and the exciting things coming next), and this has allowed us to tap world-class talent and collaborate with experts in a number of fields.
All of it has come together to make the Aurora a highly advanced piece of technology that’s extremely inter-operable. It will work with iOS, Android, Amazon Alexa, and thumbOS. The great thing about thumbOS is that it comes pre-installed on every human being… right there attached to the wrist.
How do you operate the Aurora?
Setting up the Aurora is quite simple. The triangular LED panels snap together like LEGO bricks, allowing you to create any shape that you’d like. Since each panel weighs about as much as a AA battery, the Aurora can be easily mounted on any flat surface without drilling holes or damaging paint. We’re including double-sided adhesive pads designed for this type of mounting.
After the Aurora is mounted to a surface and plugged in, operating it is a joy. You can operate it with your hands (there’s a control unit included), your voice (Siri or Amazon Alexa), or the Nanoleaf App (a free download for iOS or Android devices).
Do you buy the panels individually or do they come as a set?
The Aurora Smarter Kit includes 9 panels to get you started and three panel Expansion Packs sold separately so that you can continue building masterful creations, made purely of light. Each Aurora control unit can operate up to 30 panels, and multiple Aurora controllers can be added within the Nanoleaf App. You could cover your entire wall with light if you wanted to …how cool would that be?!
Come to think of it, we might do that when we redecorate the Nanoleaf office next year.
Do you use HomeKit or something similar to sync things up in your own home?
The first thing I made ‘smart’ in my home were the lights (I’m definitely an eat your own kibble kind of startup CEO). I’ve since added a smart lock, smart blinds, and some other toys that work with HomeKit. The smart home concept was really growing on me — before we started designing smart lighting, I couldn’t have imagined how seamless and convenient everything in the HomeKit ecosystem would be. I have schedules set through our app that turn my lighting on and off at specific times of the day — I love waking up to the lights turning on. I’m one of those people that’s just always had a hate on for my angry-sounding alarm clock.
Before our debut smart light hit the market, there were dents in my bedroom wall from a thrown alarm clock hitting it. Needless to say, my mornings are much happier now.
At home how do you unwind after a long day of work?
I’m a pretty simple guy, and I like to unwind with a beer, play some catch with my dog Cookie… maybe sneak in some video games before I get back into work mode to take calls with the China team. Having a company operating on different continents means that we all donate some of our personal time to maintain really good communication.
What kind of style is your home, and what are you favorite items you have at home?
I like my home to be exactly that, a home. I have bean bag chairs (they are the comfiest and most practical piece of furniture you could ever own), a huge projector screen, and just the essentials. I like to keep my space simple and uncluttered. I truly think that your living space is a reflection of how content you are in all other aspects of your life.
You’ve been radically changing the way a lightbulb works, using triangles and dodecahedrons. So what shape is next, fancy doing a nonagon?
I suggested to our production team that we design and 3D print a little nonagonic bulb for you guys, but they threw things at me.
We have a truly awesome team at Nanoleaf. They can move mountains with tiny toy beach shovels. What everyone here has accomplished in turning the Aurora into a reality has made me incredibly proud of them, and incredibly excited for all of you. We haven’t decided on a next shape yet, but there will be a second release of the Aurora next year in a complementary shape to the current triangle.
Tell us a little bit more about what’s in store for Nanoleaf
Right now, we’re 90% hunkered down on the Aurora. But stay tuned, we’re already working on what comes after. I can’t talk about it publicly yet, but it’s going to make a lot of people in the lighting industry really jealous. And delight a lot of people who buy it. All I’ll say is that you’ll think some tech from a sci-fi movie showed up in your home.
To find out more you can take a peek on Nanoleaf to pre-order your Aurora panels. They expect to be ready to ship the Aurora panels by October 2016.