The official Electronic Tour Guide project blog

Desktop Silicon Valley. The story of creating an electronic device and business project from the scratch.

Posted: September 21, 2012 at 6:25 pm, Category: Stories,

Today looking back, I catch myself thinking that all that experience and knowledge, which I obtained while developing, are of greater value than the immediate result of my efforts. Having a coherent idea of the process and numerous pitfalls accompanying such ventures, I’m seriously thinking of more ambitious project, about which I’ll write maybe a bit later.

As for now, I’ll tell you how the current project was developing step by step…

The Interactive audio-book Prague Electronic Tour Guide. Klubnikina.
Katya Klubnikina as a happy tourist with the first prototype of the device.

Part 1. Backstory.

So, some time ago, five years ago to be precise, I decided to completely switch to Linux OS and use it for absolutely all applications that I need for my work. On the one hand, this decision was a result of my thoughts about evolution of electronics and media, on the other hand, it comes from my understanding of a dead end track for “consumer” paradigm. It was also a desire to demonstrate capabilities of open, community-built software tools for work on professional projects, which cover not only software development, but also all sides of a complete audio-visual product development.

It has to be said, that before this project I was engaged in so-called “visual communication” for 13 years, particularly I drew graphic design, shot commercials and made motion design. Later, using bundle of programming knowledge kept from school and student years, I became interested in interactive software development including widening web-industry.

And it would be ok, when all of a sudden…

Bit by bit, at first half afraid and overcoming difficulties as a neophyte, I discovered that practically everything I’ve done before, I could do using Linux. Moreover, I was surprised to discover that the modular structure of the system architecture itself can incredibly facilitate tasks that earlier seemed to be not so much tedious as time consuming. Accessibility of documentation, large and active community of users and developers and, finally, an understanding that the world of software and electronics is far wider than a popular image of “smart phone applications” + “servers and web-sites”, all of it prompted me to look deeper into the subject and generated a lot of various ideas merging my previous experience with new “electronic” horizons.

As the final result, I became really interested in different kind of embedded devices and micro-electronics as such.

Part 2. The idea.

So, it was a year later from the described events, it was winter 2008 to be precise. Time to time I looked over web-pages such as and weighed up what and how one can apply to the ideas wandered in my head. I was following what is published by “veteran” enthusiasts and looked at the prices of boards and components in the light of new ideas.

One day flying to Prague, I was looking through tourist ads in one of the Inflight magazines, that one always finds in the front seat pocket, and thinking over obsession with “multi-tasking” for pocket electronics. I was thinking that it would be much easier to make simple, cheap and single purpose embedded devices, rather than to squeeze everything into one box with a screen. Two days before, I bumped into the advertising of an interesting tiny Gumstix board on the mentioned above web-page and I was thinking to purchase it. Weighing, what one can plug to such a small computer, I remembered the work of a well known artist Kaffe Matthews. I don’t remember the name of the work, but the idea was very simple: Kaffe had installed speakers on bikes and changed sound depending on coordinates of GPS navigator. Eureka! Two ideas came into the one thought: it can be an interactive audio-book, where a switching interface is your geo-coordinates. Approaching Prague I was already planning device characteristics and content structure.

That’s how the idea of an interactive “Prague Electronic Tour Guide” audio-book came into being.

The idea appeared to be so bright and obvious, that I was quite surprised to discover nothing similar in the Internet. Gradually the business-model was also crystallizing. Next day being inspired by the project, but realizing that it’s going to be a tedious venture taking more than just a couple of months for a person without a serious experience in software/hardware development, I started to look for a partner. I looked over different options, one included a share-holding and giving away an entire development to a potential partner, another option would be a possibility of a single order for a fixed sum. One way or another, after a while I met Eugene.

Eugene liked the idea and we signed a contact and outlined a technical summary. Eugene suggested not to be fixed on Linux-on-chip board, but design a low level microcontroller (MC) version at once, arguing that it will decrease production cost and simplify morphology. I thought about it myself, but I stood in awe of low-level hardware development and was not so sure that we could shoulder such project outright. Eugene dispelled my doubts assuring me that it’s simpler than it seems and that he could finish a prototype in a couple of weeks. I agreed with that at one condition, that he makes a test prototype under OpenWRT with GPS stick.

Then a couple of weeks passed, then another and another. Meanwhile, I was living at my friends’ and they were already clearly making hints that enough’s enough. Finally, after many persistent calls and requests to show me at least something, Eugene showed me an application, which switch on a sound file depending on the location. Not being able to stay longer in Prague, I had to be “satisfied” with such slight progress and flew home, hoping to get a report about an micro-controller based prototype if not in a couple of weeks then at least in a month.

After a month Eugene contacted me after many persistent reminders from my side and informed me that he was almost ready to start, just he needed a soldering iron and an oscilloscope! Another month passed by and it emerged that the MC, that my partner ordered for the device, was an engineering sample (it was the newest Xmega at that moment) and a) they were not available for a serial production, b) due to economic crisis it was not clear whether they would be in a serial production at all, c) capacities of this controller were several times higher than necessary (and the controller itself was chosen not to suit the task, but obviously just to potter about). It was the final nail in the coffin of my patience and I began to think about alternatives.

Another couple of month passed by. I was bogged down in my business and, being quite disappointed in my current partner, I was looking for a replacement without any enthusiasm. However, on the one hand to meet a situation head-on and on the other hand to satisfy my growing interest, I surrounded myself with books about microelectronics development, bought Arduino and began carefully to design and assemble my own hardware. It became obvious after some time that this project is quite simple from a technical point of view and, if I undertook to do the work myself, I would had a working prototype by September-October. However, I was not so confident in the electronic part and thought that microchip technology can hide some of the finer points, which I couldn’t immediately see. Meanwhile, more than half a year had passed, and I made a second attempt to find a development engineer, this time I had some success.

I met Denis in Spring visiting Prague. We briefly talked to the point, negotiated conditions, and already in a week I received a call from Denis, where he invited me to come and see a prototype playing music. And the prototype done by Denis on a perfboard indeed cheerfully played mp3 files! This time it was clear that it all merged and we could proceed to the second stage, which implyed thinking over the content. So, I talked to my friend Anton, who is also an expert on Prague and an author of one of the best guide books about this city, we negotiated conditions of our collaboration and volume of texts, and I flew back to London reassured. Here, for justice’ sake, I should note that a couple of months ago I was going to make an intermediate pilot version of the device and even ordered some text-compilations. However, I was so much disappointed by the result, that I decided that such scanty content is just not right for the idea, and it doesn’t make sense to waist time and money to create something intermediate. It is necessary to make the fully-fledged Work.

Part 3. Return to cradle.

By the end of summer (and more than a year has past from the very beginning) it all started to crystallize. We chose a nice case (it was done even at the first stage of the project though), I prepared design, started to write software for maps and was waiting for the text to be completed and news from Denis. The news didn’t make me wait too long…

Already at the early stage of the project, when Eugene and I decided that we should make an electronic device from scratch, I started to think how to make nice-looking device. The idea to try myself as an object designer tempted me for a long time and it was a perfect occasion to fulfil this. Rummaged in the Internet, I quickly discovered that my resources for development of my own case from scratch were pretty limited in the light of forthcoming expenses for text translation and sound recording. Therefore, I decided to look around for available cases on the market and see which of them I could modify in such way, that it would on the one hand fit all desirable components and on the other hand leave a space for designer’s manoeuvre. Finally, I found an excellent case and supplier. It appeared that the supplier has a partner in Czech Republic, which was rather convenient. I sent a request and received some samples in a week. We decided to create PCB and interface panel for this cases.

I have to mention here that I checked thoroughly all drafts, estimated dimensions and started to prepare design being confident in arrangements. The case samples were sent to Eugene (it was in the first winter, as I mentioned earlier) and later was handed over to Denis.

So, after 9 months from the project start, unforeseen had happened. It turned out, that dimensions of those case samples we received from our Czech supplier are kinda not the same as I asked for. To be precise they had completely wrong dimensions being one and a half times smaller of what I requested. I didn’t think too long and wrote directly to the supplier informing them about the issue. Soon I was presented with a bag full of case samples, none of which (!) satisfied the desirable criteria and, moreover, later I received an invoice (!) instead of apologies. I went crazy getting such response and wrote back an email, where I expressed everything that I thought about them and their service including details of work we’ll have to remake thanks to them. As a result, I received an email with sincere apologies and … an offer to pay just for three cases, which were received as free samples (!) almost a year ago. I decided to not to be drowned into unnecessary exchange of emails and agreed with those conditions, transferred requested money and finally received the desired boxes. And it’s still not the end of the story…

And so, at that moment we decided to finish the current version of the device using the smaller cases, since both PC boards and design were done specifically for them. We decided to go for it in spite of our thoughts that even if we manage to squeeze in everything, we won’t have enough battery capacity.

The Interactive audio-book Prague Electronic Tour Guide. The first design of the device.
The first design of the device.

One way or another, I made an exterior design and was busy with a prototype for a push-button keyboard. Meanwhile Denis took a quick ride to St-Petersburg and brought ready-to-go PC boards. At first, I planned to create a tactile interface as was done on some pocket players. However, later it was clear that it’s not possible to place all component into such tiny box. Even if we managed to do so, close distribution of sensor contacts wouldn’t give a desirable accuracy and could inappropriately complicate not only a firmware but also the interface itself, not to mention an additional cost of sensor IC and PC board + complications of mounting.

The interactive audio-book Prague Electronic Tour Guide. PCBs and keyboards.
Different versions of boards and custom interfaces + masks for applying soldering paste for the first version of the board.

There was a thought to make a simple one-button interface that would satisfy my initial idea to create “Zen-device” for people, who are tired to look at the world through the screen and like just to wander around the city and enjoy its natural look. The idea didn’t change, but quantity of functions did grow from that time. Therefore, I was trying hard to design an inexpensive keyboard without ordering plastic button panels and complicating assembling. Finally, when I mastered a flexible PC boards etching for our experimental keyboard, one rainy London day I received an email from Denis: “I was fired, my visa is expiring, I think I’m going back to St-Petersburg”.

The interactive audio-book Prague Electronic Tour Guide. Flexible keyboards
My first experimental flexible keyboards.

Denis is a person who loves freedom and travelling and very passionate about electronics. I suppose that lost of visa and permanent job in Prague were only a part of his genuine motives. It could be and it even happens quite often, that the process itself, twist and turns appearing during the work on the project and even simple personal circumstances, all became the reason for loosing an interest. Of course, I was quite disappointed, but packed my suitcase and flew to Prague to get instructions fully understanding that I have to take care of the project all along.

By that moment I became skilled in engineering and neither circuit drawing nor volumes of data sheets couldn’t scare me, but still I had many questions. As soon as I arrived, Denis organized a three-day “recruit course”, where he explained in details where and which peripheral devices are initializing, how inter-component communication functioned, and I made by myself the first device using soldering bit and the fresh boards he brought from St-Petersburg. This device I was using later to develop the first version of firmware.

Part 4. A miser pays twice.

Autumn has come, an it was clear that I missed the second season and I could leisurely do everything step by step. I finished software for map editing, finished the first version of firmware, made a handy editor integration for UART debugging. I also invented how to structure the content and store the data and, finally, I ordered Russian sound recording and Russian to English translation at the same time. The translation was done by my good London friends Mikhail and Maria and was excellent, but sound recording…

Since I’m involved in all kinds of video production for a long time, I decided that it would be the best to find a sound-engineer or a “sound- designer” as it’s popular to call it now, which certainly has bunch of good voices to chose from. I posted inquiries in the specialized communities and received some replies from fairly good sound-designers, who sent me voice samples. I chose a person from Moscow named Oleg. From the very beginning I planned to make a story with some elements of “radio-play”, that would make possible to include “roles” and structure the narrative based on timbre of voice, which would perfectly fit into prospective “non-linear” structure of text representation. Oleg sent me two excellent demos with man and woman voices, we signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and I sent prepared texts to Moscow hoping to get final audio-files in a month and a half.

In principal, it was plenty of time until the next Summer, and, being not hurried by circumstances, I believed that if not in 6 weeks, but at least in a couple of months including all endorsements and revisions I will have everything to assemble the first prototype with the content. Meanwhile, I decided to start the website and printed promo.

As the reader might guess, my main business also kept me busy in addition to this project. I made web-design and video. There were many clients and I was overloaded with work. I decided to hand back-end development over to my colleague Vlad. I drafted a technical description, prepared mock-up, negotiated the price and, relieved, sent it to Vlad.

Meanwhile Summer 2010 was approaching. I polished off the firmware, designed new boards fitting new cases, found batteries and GPS module and even invented an elegant way to make a keyboard and fit it inside. I started to ask Oleg about results of sound recording. There were some results, but they were far from expected…hardly half was done with the third of the text missing. Oleg apologised, promised to finish ASAP and complained weekly about some “acts of God” such as broken hard-drive or office removal and so forth.

In the meantime I accepted the situation in its present state and decided to translate the text into many languages. So, I started to search for translators posting adverts on freelance-oriented web-pages and finally found a contractor. It was a small translation agency represented by a single person named Anna. Anna offered a good price for French translation and distributed other languages among her colleagues. So far I made a progress with Russian sound, was experimenting with structure and waiting the remaining part of English sound, which was ordered from Oleg too.

I have to admit, that I had in mind to finish bilingual version that Summer and prepare full multi-language version by the next season. Easier said than done. While I was fighting with sound and discovering new missing fragments (!), the translation was ongoing and Vlad was working on the web-page. By Summer I received the first translated texts. I found good voices for other languages and sent the texts for recording. It was soon clear that some languages had quite good quality, but some needed to be edited. It was all expected and I suppose, Anna was expecting this as well. All that Anna sent was edited with discussions and arguments, but there was a progress. Little by little all readers started recording more or less satisfied with the texts or were correcting the texts during recording. All languages were recording apart from…French.

Summer was almost over, months have passed and there was no French translation. I received it in Autumn. I sent it to readers and received a very short reply: “what is this?”. I found my friends friends French experts and got from them a quite expected resolution – illiterate balderdash. I contacted French readers and asked them whether it would be possible to correct the text during recording for additional payment. There were some problems with other languages as well. However, their verdict was decisively negative, readers refused to correct the text in this way giving as a reason that they sometimes could not understand completely what the author meant. Therefore, I had to sent it away for editing to professionals (to translate it again per se).

Meanwhile, with skype and numerous telephone calls I managed to cadge the English and remaining part of Russian sounds from Oleg. I gave the sound for cut and hurled all effort into web-page.

Part 5. The most dramatic or “our fellow filcher”.

Debugging of the web-page and server part was going at top speed. I changed a lot while working and thinking about logistics in the frames of chosen business model. I corresponded with Vlad and tried to find compromises understanding that there were going to be heaps of changes, and my budget was running low. I asserted myself that maybe it’s better to simplify the model and undertake the website on my own.

Summer and then Autumn were gone. The third season was gone. It was clear at that moment, how the work could be done. Sometimes my inner caution and simple human lack of self-confidence usual for beginners impeded my ability to make wise decisions right away. Sometimes trite human factor was stronger than common sense and commitments of all kinds. I do not incline to reason in terms of “indiscipline” and “lack of professionalism”, since quite understandable human weaknesses and personal problems are hidden behind them, such as lack of motivation, malformed self-appraisal and problems of communication. I believe, that also Eugene, who claimed to “finish the prototype for a couple of weeks”, could theoretically make it. And I even absolutely sure now that he could. And also my personal observations confirm that the true reasons for a failing start were not technical lacunas (however, it was also the case, see the illustration with antenna), but in part lack of experience, in part serious problems with personal motivation and, as a result, with self-appraisal.

So, I was giving myself over to these kind of thoughts in Autumn 2010, especially that London weather this time excellently favours the development of sad melancholy. My clients cooled down, money were running short. There was an innumerable sound editing looming ahead, and I was seriously thinking whether I should make a website from scratch. Since anyway there were no clients, I wanted to bring my framework to a suitable state, and moreover it was a whole Winter for endless polishing to the state “as I like it”.

Well, one autumn gloomy evening I switched on Moscow radio online stream to hear news from Motherland tuned well with my current mood and…

And I…, at first I couldn’t believe what I heard… stirring signature tune, news of science and technique, Sergey Parchomenko and a director of the project “GPS tour guide” in publishing house “Vokrug Sveta” Ilia Kucy. Good evening…

I was thinking – “Oh! Interesting, what is it?” Yada yada yada, little by little and… there was MY TEXT! voiced by MY READERS! and after that bragging word for word repeating MY TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION written for Oleg saying that our wonderful developers invented such wonderful… (oops) iPhone application.

I reacted foolishly. I listened to the end the hoax, switched off the radio, computer, soldering iron and mobile phone, bought bucket of beer and plunged into the deepest three-months depression. It was clear now why the text recording took a whole year, it was clear all these endless wanders from the subject “when I finally get a signed NDA?”. My idea was filched! Never mind the idea. Ideas flying in the air and I don’t have anything against that somebody’s ideas are developed by somebody else. At the end it’s the main point of all process of development, it’s the core of evolutional development, and at the end we all convert ideas of one another to create something our own. But these bastards didn’t invent anything their own, they just appropriated simply and impudently something completed and presented this as their own achievements.

Well, by December I recovered from shock. (And it’s, fucking, an unreal shock, I wish, these impudent people could read this. It’ compared to a feeling when you bear a child for many months and then she is stolen from you in the hospital and sold to unknown lady, who is infertile, but quite rich and influential to grease midwife’s palm for such exchange. Here is a visual and vivid image, that you strongly feel it. Women’s audience, I believe, will understand me for sure.)

So, recovered from this incident, I decided that my despondency was groundless. Partly because the business-model of these silly filchers quite obviously led to a dead end. I didn’t announce that it’s going to be a original electronic device, and as a smart-phone application the whole idea looses not only its charm, but also it’s not possible to realize due to limitation of carrier, channel throughput as well as battery capacity (just try to switch on GPS for a couple of hours on your pocket gadget). It could be possible to make a cut version for tourists or to collect money “for every street” obviously realized apparently by filchers.

I had almost everything ready and it was necessary just to polish small things and finish the web-page. Having that in mind I focused on the web-page and decided to take the horse by the horns refusing to handle somebody’s else code. As a result I had done everything from scratch “as I need” and meanwhile resolved a lot of problems connected with logic of transferring devices between rental points and managing work with partners. I leisurely finish design and by Spring I had the first fully-fledged test device.

The interactive audio-book Prague Electronic Tour Guide. Вся история разработки плат.
PCBs all together. From the first version until the final prototype. (Look at the tiny wire on the first device. It’s a developer concept of GPS antenna!))

In April 2011 I went to Prague to find rental partners and test the device in the right environment. The first tests was of benefit to me. I discovered some technical defects and poorly thought out little things. Nevertheless it was clear that it’s possible to assemble the pilot set of devices. Here I bumped into a couple of surprises, however they seemed to be unimportant compared to the previous twists and turns.

The interactive audio-book Prague Electronic Tour Guide. GPS modules and antennas.
Some GPS modules and antennas tested during the working out..

Part 6. Final. A couple of flies for some Czech comrades.

The first – the batch of cases ordered from the same Czech supplier arrived on time (that means that they arrived two weeks after I placed the order, which is almost immediately by Czech standards. Those who know, will understand.) However, there was jack-in-the-box. A courier delivered the order and instead of standard invoice for a bank payment… there was an invoice to pay by cash which included the sum for that bag of case samples. I should think that those guys had some financial difficulties and decided to go for a deal with a conscience and forced me to pay for all their junk in my no-way-out situation.

The second trip – manufacturers of the boards. By the way, I found out that the best manufacturers of boards in the Eastern Europe, you won’t believe me, are in the science city Zelenograd situated near Moscow. They do everything quickly with high standards and at low price. BUT according to the idiotic modern Russian laws, the company needs a licence for external economic activity. It’s very tough to get it and, as a result, it’s a subject of considerable corruption gain for top officials loafers. So, I couldn’t even think to place an order in Russia, pay for it using my Czech account and bring it to Prague. And the Czech manufacturers are a) almost three times more expensive, b) clumsy and sluggish as cats on valerian.

Reluctantly once again, I found more or less affordable manufacturer in Prague and order the boards there. You can’t imagine how surprised I was, when I discovered that the whole set was printed on 1.5mm textolite (and we discussed it three time emphasizing specification). It wouldn’t be such a big problem, but the boards couldn’t fit to the case! Well, being downright angry and mad with the whole situation, in the heat of the moment I promised a director, who came out to communicate with a client in person on this occasion, that I’ll create a special Facebook page, where, using my advertising and marketing experience, I’ll tell how I was crossed up and “eliminate all problems with their clients” for at least a couple of months. And when I was almost ready to leave this abode and go to their competitors, I remembered that I forgot a receipt, which anyway I could add to my accounting statement. I came back and was stopped this time by a very friendly director, who asked me how many boards I need offering to do it as soon as possible just for a prime cost. Finally, we came to an agreement, shook hands, but there was still an aftertaste.

The interactive audio-book  Prague Electronic Tour Guide. The first boards from the set.
The first boards from the set.

In the meantime the season was in full swing. I decided to postpone launch of the project until the next season being aware that it’s not possible to do something reasonable in a hurry and that I needed time to prepare promo-materials, negotiate with sub-partners and eventually assemble the whole set of devices. (I assemble the first set manually and have to mention that I became quite skilled in SMD soldering with 0.2mm pitch, so, I can work in a Chinese factory now :)

This Spring I found partners, sticked small but nice “bows” on firmware and launched my brainchild.

The project “Prague Electronic Tour Guide”, results.

As a result we have 8.5 hours of stories about Prague on six languages including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Russian. More than 100 locations (!), it’s an average book, by the way. Not linear, specially structured narration (regards to Borges and Jan Potocki). One can go for a walk around almost all central part + Vysehrad (Vyšehrad) + Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) + Petrziny (Petřiny), a bit of Andel (Anděl) and even Zhizhkov (Žižkov) was not left behind. And it’s just a beginning. In the next version… ok, I won’t rush fences and give you spoilers…

Finally we have a wonderful device for people, who like to wander around the city along or with a friend, without tour-guides and without maps with two or three standard tourist routes. One can go anywhere, the smart box will not only tell stories about what you see, but also give hints where you can go. It’s all accompanied by role-playing inserts and musical arrangements. I made a device that I wanted to see (hear?) myself, since I hate group tours with trite boring stories, but love to walk around unknown cities having rest in cafés time to time to have a drink feasting eye on architecture of a city, furtively observe its inhabitants, enjoy warmth of branched streets and be filled with a real vivid spirit of a city, genius loci.

Here is the story. If you are going to be in Prague, you are more than welcome to try the device yourself!

The interactive audio-book  Prague Electronic Tour Guide. The final design of the device.
The final design of the device.

P.S. don’t think it’s a promo-text created by a professional copywriter. I wrote it myself, honestly from the first person. Apart from understandable wish to tell about large-scale project (well, and boast a bit), I also would like to inspire my colleagues to develop electronic devices and not to be afraid of interesting, but difficult and impossible projects at the first sight. Don’t be afraid of unexplored! Who dares wins!

I would like also to give my heartfelt gratitude to my friends and my wife Olesya, who supported me all together all this time, didn’t let me to be dejected in difficult moments. I’m grateful also to all, who one way or another was involved into the project or just helped me with useful advices and simple warmth of feelings and sympathy. Special thanks to all my hospitable friends, who accommodate me in Prague. Thank you all! I love all of you very much!

As a matter of fact I realize that it’s just a beginning. Now I have to promote this idea, which is a separate and, for sure, not an easy story. Also I have to start thinking about next version and other projects left behind for the time being.

Jump to comment form | comments rss |


Please leave your comment here