Harnessing the power of new technology

December 3, 2015

Informatics alumnus Nick Jonas ’09 is reinventing everyday objects, starting with a smart umbrella stand called Raincheck.

A graduate of the informatics undergraduate program, Nick Jonas (B.S. ’09) has forged a career path at the center of some of the field’s main questions: How do we interact with emerging technology? How can we integrate technology into our cultural media? And how can we reinvent everyday objects to harness the possibility of new technology?

Jonas’ latest venture, Raincheck, focuses on the latter question. A foray into the “Internet of Things”—the evolving network of technology and connectivity-enabled objects—the Raincheck box is an umbrella stand that knows if it’s going to rain. It’s a passion project, which Jonas did all the electronic and woodwork prototyping for, on the heels of what he hopes will become a large production pending the success of his crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign.

We caught up with Jonas to discuss how his informatics education informed his career, how he’s chased his passion for reinventing everyday objects with technology, and what advice he’d offer today’s ICS graduates.

Tell us about your post-graduate trajectory.

My passion in school, and what I wanted to pursue out of school, was working in interactive. At the time, it was building really cool Flash websites—fully immersive, interactive experiences. That was my passion at the time. Out of college, I applied to the best places I could think of and ended up going to a place in LA called 65Media. From there, I went to a Swedish digital and film production company and worked in their LA and New York offices.

I then started my own production company called Modern Assembly and did the same thing but ran it myself. We had a studio in New York where we built cool interactive experiences mostly catered to brands and advertising agencies. After about two years, all the work caught up with me and I realized I wanted to focus on building products, and less on building campaigns for brands or advertising agencies. I wanted to build something with lasting value; I was also getting tired of building purely digital things. I wanted to build something physical.

Did you have any engineering experience under your belt?

No, I had none at all. I decided to leave my company to my business partner. Google Creative Lab had reached out. They hired me and I built a prototype at Google. After a few months, a product team at Google hired me to help them build a new product. That was my first foray into building a product at a larger scale. When it comes to physical products, though, my side project Raincheck was my first stab at that. I’ve learned so much along the way in terms of electrical engineering and 3D modeling—every facet of product design.

Do you still work with Google?

Yes. It’s been about a year that I’ve been doing both Google and Raincheck on the side. It’s only me. I have this newfound passion for reinventing ordinary objects using technology. That’s what Raincheck falls into. There’s this new dimension of products with Internet connectivity. The Internet of Things has been growing for the past few years. It’s given us an opportunity to completely reinvent ordinary objects from the ground up and rethink the things we have lying around everyday.

What’s the premise behind Raincheck? How does it work?

There are eight lights and each light represents an hour, so the stand tells you the next eight hours of weather. If it’s blinking blue that hour, it’s going to rain. If it’s blinking white, it’s going to snow. If it’s a steady blue light, it’s going to be clear. So you’d know if you need your umbrella based on that. It also knows when the sun is rising and setting, so it will dim its lights in response giving you a subtle indication of time of day.

It also connects to your Wi-Fi. I think that’s one of the trickiest parts of building a product like this. That was probably the trickiest part by far, actually, because there’s no keyboard and no screen. A few months ago, this was one of the reasons I almost didn’t do this project because I couldn’t crack it. The way I ended up doing it: All the electronics are based off of a new microcontroller board called the Particle Photon. This is a new company that’s taking huge strides in helping inventors create products like this through a chip that allows you to connect to the Internet easily. How it works, basically, is this chip—this is something I tried to roll out myself, but I just couldn’t do a good job of it—launches an ad hoc Wi-Fi network. You open an app and it automatically sees this ad hoc Wi-Fi network and connects to it. Through the app, you enter your Wi-Fi credentials and it sends information to the umbrella stand. The umbrella stand then resets and connects to your own Wi-Fi.

Tell us about the Kickstarter campaign you have lined up for Raincheck.

I really enjoyed having Raincheck in my apartment. I’m in a six-floor walk-up in Manhattan and it’s painful if I forget my umbrella. If I left my building without my umbrella, I wouldn’t want to climb those six flights again. I realized how helpful it was, so I wanted everyone else to have it. I wanted to make it for everyone!

I like messing around with electronics and seeing what I can do with them, but what really drives me is that other people can interact with it. Woodworking was a hobby of mine, but my real passion is building a product.

What are some other ways to reinvent ordinary objects in the same vein as Raincheck?

There’s ways to expand Raincheck, like making a larger one for businesses, like a hotel or restaurant, or even making a smaller one that people can carry around. It could also be used not for rain or weather, but for surf swell or snow conditions for snowboarding, extending it into action sports.

What were some of your notable experiences with ICS?

A lot of the professors left an impression on me, like André van der Hoek. Some professors I remember having good take-away lessons, and the classes were really difficult. I remember going to hospitals with a team and helping design new systems for them. It inspired me to help fix what’s currently antiquated. Hospitals are so important, but I’d never gotten an inside look at them. It shocked me to see how much improvement could be made with what we were learning.

It was also really interesting to build my first program and games with artificial intelligence. I’ll never forget boring things like building a Ruby compiler, because they remind me of what I don’t want to do. I learned important lessons at the same time.

How did your time with ICS impact your current work?

It gave me the foundation and the principles to build things. That’s really vague, but it should be. What I learned at UCI was discipline and the foundations of computer science, which can be applied to a lot of things—from writing software to building a house.

What’s the Kickstarter campaign process like?

It’s nerve-wracking; I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s my first time doing something like this. If I don’t get it, I feel like it’s going to be disappointing, but at the same time a flood of relief. If I do get it, I’m going to panic that I actually have to make it. There’s an anxiety of not knowing how it’s going to turn out or if the Kickstarter is going to fund. I’ve been learning a lot along the way though. Kickstarter has been helping me with marketing in terms of how to position myself. They’re fans of the project so they want to see it be successful. I’ve also learned a lot about crowdfunding based on behavioral patterns of users.

What kinds of feedback have you received about Raincheck?

The feedback has been mostly positive. My favorite reaction, and what I want to get in everything that I make, is ,“Oh wow, why doesn’t this already exist? Why shouldn’t my umbrella stand tell me if I need it?” That’s the aha moment I want from people. I want to showcase the beauty and simplicity of the product as well, which some people have recognized. A lot of people are confused: They don’t know how it could know [the weather]. That’s still great, because you don’t have to know, it just does its job. A lot of people don’t know how a TV works, but you still plug it in and watch it and it’s beautiful.

Raincheck is an attractive product aesthetically. Did you work on the design, too?

I built everything from scratch. I built the electronics, which I had to learn. I built all the wood and did all the programming. For this final production build, I’ve hired professionals, but all the prototyping came from me. Woodworking has been a real passion of mine. I love to, after working on a computer all day, go into a wood shop and work with my hands and build things, whether it’s furniture or things like Raincheck.

What advice would you offer students graduating with ICS degrees?

Not to sound cliché, but don’t take half measures. Find what you truly want to do and chase it. Take risks early in life. Take advantage of being young and take risks now because you can afford to.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think we’re on the brink of a product design revolution, and the Internet of Things hasn’t been cracked yet. I’m really excited to see what happens when we do crack that nut. I also would love to work with anyone from UCI who’s interested in this. I’m always looking to collaborate with people.

You can reach Jonas at nick@raincheckbox.com.

— Story by Courtney Hamilton