Music on the move was Carl Thomas’ vision, imagining a future where wireless services streamed directly to your headphones.
However without a background in product design, electronics, programming or even the funding that would be required to make it a reality, he turned to every modern means available.
Crowdsourcing, enlisting designers via online communities and 3D printing prototypes have brought his Audiowings headphones from a simple ‘wishlist’ of ideas, to being held in Richard Branson’s hands as a winner at Virgin Media’s Pitch to Rich start-up awards.
“There was this emerging trend where people were beginning to connect objects to the Internet of Things,” says Thomas, recalling the idea’s beginnings.
“At that point I thought it would be good to think about how I could fuse two of my passions to this trend: technology and music.”
Thomas arrived at the concept of Audiowings: luxury audio headphones that synchronises directly with online music services, such as Spotify, enabling users to listen to their favourite music on the go, without the burden of headphone cables.
As well as featuring a built-in storage system, the device would also connect wirelessly to the Internet using 3/4G or WiFi, giving users the ability to plug into YouTube and enjoy music from around the world.
Thomas searched across the globe for a product designer using online freelance work sites, eventually finding Bristol-based Ben Mazur.
“I went in with a few sketches of what I was looking for and Ben really helped with the process of taking the sketches, putting them into CAD and making them rounded and starting the process of rapid prototyping those into something tangible.
“From that point onwards it was about refining that design and optimising it for our target audience, and how best to start iterating on the design so we had something a bit more compelling for the people we were looking at providing it to.”
In the process of starting his own design consultancy, Ignitec, Mazur was, in his own words, one man in an industrial unit with a laptop and an Ultimaker 3D printer. Tools, however, that were key to the development of Audiowings’.
“One of our selling points is that we do the whole process with a heavy emphasis on rapid prototyping, 3D printing at every stage,” explains Mazur.
Since founding Ignitec, Mazur has invested back into the business, which has rapidly grown into a four-person team. One of its biggest purchases has been a Stratasys Objet30 Pro, which gives the designers the ability to produce high resolution prototypes.
“From the very beginning we’ll use one of these little open source printers, which we use for very quick, crude mock-ups,” explains Mazur. “Then we go right through to a Stratasys Objet 30 Pro that we use for making beautiful finished products.”
This process has been enabled by the decreasing costs of both the 3D printers and the materials. For Audiowings, Ignitec built over 30 concept models of their design iterations to test the aesthetics, the ergonomics, and the comfort levels.
Once the final design fitted Thomas’ requirements, a prototype pair of the headphones was built using the Stratasys machine. Using VeroGrey, a durable rigid opaque grey material, the finished model was cleaned up and painted to resemble the finished product.
“For us it’s been transformational, having something tangible to show to people – and let’s make no bones about it, people buy into stuff that they can physically hold, can see the product close up and get behind it,” admits Thomas.
A physical product helped gain interest, making it to the final of Virgin Media’s Pitch to Rich.
A national competition for start-ups, the finalists’ ideas were put in front of Sir Richard Branson.
The idea won Audiowings the People’s Choice Award, receiving a prestigious mentoring program from some of the world’s leading business minds, a dream for a product still in its infancy.
“If we’d done this five years ago there would’ve been a large amount of cost involved,” remarks Thomas.
“For us to be able to 3D print something really quickly and then iterate upon that saved us masses of costs in the process.”
Work has continued with Ignitec on the development of the project and the complex software and interface designs that will be needed to compliment the headphones.
Already in discussions with major audio-streaming companies, things are looking promising for this little idea that has gone on to make a big noise.
Inspiration, technology and collaboration mean success for Carl Thomas and Audiowings