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Unboxing Vestaboard, a magical, Internet-connected message board

May 21, 2021, 2:24 PM UTC

The smart money for years has avoided the quirky yet innovative corner of crowdsourcing projects for new hardware. The Laser Razor, Coolest Cooler, and the Zano Drone all attracted millions of dollars, but then flamed out.

The less smart money? I guess that’s me. I not only backed the Pebble smartwatch in 2013 on Kickstarter, I bought two at $120 each with plans to keep one pristine in its box as a collectible. The watches arrived only six months late but within a few years Pebble was toast. The Titan Note I backed in 2017 on IndieGoGo for $139 was supposed to deliver a small puck-like device that would record conversations and produce a text transcript. The effort was suspended by the site’s “trust and safety team” for mysterious violations, and it fell apart within months. (I did get a refund though.)

But my crowdfunding dreams have finally returned a great prize this week. Well, at least I think it will be a great prize.

Like any former New Yorker of a certain era, I have a warm place in my heart for the old departure and arrival board that used to hang above the throngs of commuters and Amtrak travelers in Penn Station. Manufactured by an Italian company called Solari, the board displayed letters and numbers with tiny, magical flip counters. As the flaps on the counters flipped around to spell out that a new train was arriving, they made a delightful whirring sound that embodied the emotions of travel: the sense of getting moving, and the feeling of staring out at constantly changing scenery.

That enchantment is harder to come by today. Penn Station removed the amazing gizmo in 2000 in favor of a silent, all-digital replacement. Boston’s South Station, the other terminus of many of my rail rides, took down its Solari a few years later.

So imagine my surprise and delight when one of the weird hardware projects emerging from the January 2018 CES show was a split-flap sign board that you could put in your house. The idea of the Vestaboard was to hang it on a wall in your kitchen, front hall or where ever else, and hook up it to the Internet to follow Twitter feeds, Google calendar feeds, or other flows of words and numbers which would make the counters whir and clack. It was more than a Kickstart: Vestaboard had its own website to take orders and a seemingly working prototype it showed off in this video.

Company founder Dorrian Porter said he was inspired by the huge departure and arrival board at the Gare du Nord station in Paris. “I don’t know how anyone catches their train because you just stand there and look at it and watch it go,” he says. He started taking preorders with deliveries promised to start by year-end.

I didn’t jump in right away. But, later in the year, I couldn’t resist. I put down a deposit to get my very own Vestaboard. There were some…delays. Turns out the company didn’t have a “full” prototype done until November 2018. In December 2019, Dorrian emailed customers to admit “we are behind schedule from our planned Fall 2019 launch.” Then deliveries were supposed to start in April 2020. With COVID, the start date was pushed out to June. June arrived and the new start was October.

I began to think my personal split-flap board might end up like the Laser Razor—lost in limbo. But, lo and behold, in March 2021, an email arrived saying my actual Vestaboard had been manufactured and could arrive by the end of April. (April’s delay excuse was “due to global transportation issues.”)

Suddenly yesterday, a Fedex truck dropped off a cardboard box about the size of a TV but much heavier. The Pressman Vestaboard had arrived. I unpacked it, read the minimal set-up directions, and plugged it in.

The 132 separate split-flap bits all spun around through their letters, numbers, and symbols. Then nothing. The directions said the board would display a welcome message and a six-digit code to enter into a phone app to get the thing working. But my Vestaboard was utterly blank after the boot up sequence.

After a few more tries, I emailed customer support. The response: Sorry, the 45-pound Vestaboard can’t be activated unless it is hung on a wall with a metal frame and wall plate. The installation requires some serious planning and effort.

Sigh. Maybe I’ll be able to report on the joy of my personal split-flap board next week.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

I want a house with a crowded table. The Epic Games v Apple trial rolled on this week but the highlight of the entire affair comes later today when Tim Apple, aka CEO Tim Cook, takes the stand. The direct examination by Apple's lawyers may be pretty snooze worthy but, fingers crossed, maybe the sparks will fly when Epic's attorneys get to cross-examine Cook?

A snap of the world. In new product land, Snap unveiled a pair of augmented reality glasses but the company isn't putting them up for sale yet—they're just for software developers and favored creators to play around with for now. Here's betting that another contender in the AR glasses race, which also includes Apple, Google, and Facebook, beats Snap to market.

Very a-Fordable. In other new product news, Ford said the electric F-150 that President Biden got to try will go on sale in 2022 starting at $40,000 with a range of up to 300 miles. After applying the current $7,500 federal tax credit, the EV model will be about 10% cheaper than the entry-level gas version of the pickup. And, I guess, one-upping Ford on the whole celebrity EV debut strategy, Fisker says it will give Pope Francis an electric popemobile next year based on its forthcoming Ocean SUV.

I just want access to the inside of your heart. On Wall Street, millennial brokerage Robinhood said it will give its customers the same early opportunity to buy initial public offering shares as big institutional investors. That means ordinary folk will be able to buy at the IPO price, which usually–emphasis on usually–pops immediately higher when the shares start trading. Healthcare apparel maker Figs will be the first company going public to participate in Robinhood's new "IPO Access" program. There will be no typical IPO for Harry Potter mobile game developer Jam City however. Instead, the L.A. company will merge with a SPAC called DPCM Capital, launched by Uber’s former chief business officer, Emil Michael.

Access denied. The Google-owned A.I. startup DeepMind has ended previously unreported efforts to gain more autonomy or even spinoff from its parent. Given the $500 million Google paid for DeepMind in 2014 and the likely billions of dollars it has since invested in the company's A.I. efforts, "the proposed structure didn’t make financial sense for Alphabet," the Wall Street Journal reports.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

All those new electric pickup trucks, popemobiles, and just general cars contain batteries that have a finite lifespan. Ian Morse reports for Science magazine on the coming environmental challenge of recycling all of those dead EV power cells. Problem number one? Just getting into the batteries.

Nissan’s rectangular Leaf battery module can take 2 hours to dismantle. Tesla’s cells are unique not only for their cylindrical shape, but also for the almost indestructible polyurethane cement that holds them together.

Engineers might be able to build robots that could speed battery disassembly, but sticky issues remain even after you get inside the cell, researchers note. That’s because more glues are used to hold the anodes, cathodes, and other components in place. One solvent that recyclers use to dissolve cathode binders is so toxic that the European Union has introduced restrictions on its use, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined last year that it poses an “unreasonable risk” to workers.

“In terms of economics, you’ve got to disassemble … [and] if you want to disassemble, then you’ve got to get rid of glues,” says Andrew Abbott, a chemist at the University of Leicester and Thompson’s adviser.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few great long reads I came across this week:

The FCC’s big bet on Elon Musk (Recode)
The billionaire’s space internet project could connect millions of remote American homes. If it actually works.

Letter from Los Angeles: The Anxiety of Influencers (Harper's)
Educating the TikTok generation.

The Over-the-Top Library with a Secret Treasure (Daily Beast)
It would be understandable if, after taking in the ornate reading rooms and grand hallways of the St. Louis Central Library, you deemed your thirst for literary splendor sated. However, tucked into one of those walls is an elegant but easily missed double door underneath a broken pediment leading to a true treasure trove filled with items that would fetch eye-popping sums at auction.

The Pleasures of LearnedLeague and the Spirit of Trivia (The New Yorker)
How Shayne Bushfield has preserved the quietly oppositional delight of knowing things you don’t need to know.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Startup Tenstorrent aims to build A.I. chips that beat Nvidia’s best By Aaron Pressman

The lesson from Squarespace’s debut: Profits aren’t always enough for investors By Lucinda Shen

Twitter to resume giving blue checkmarks to users after four-year pause By Danielle Abril

This stock is reaping the benefits of the new ‘green’ cryptocurrency chia By Anne Sraders

Take-Two’s CEO speaks out about a busy video game pipeline and the latest tech trends By Chris Morris

Deutsche Telekom aims for majority stake in T-Mobile US by 2024 By Christiaan Hetzner

How crypto and NFTs could help regular people become real estate tycoons By Erik Sherman

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

I will not be able to include anything in this section more amusing or diverting than the neural net-powered Blob Opera by Google that Danielle shared yesterday. But just in case you're in more of a sky gazing mood, there's going to be a blood red full moon due to a lunar eclipse next Tuesday night. Timeanddate.com has the full details about how, when and where to catch the spectacle.

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