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The Strange And Twisted Tale Of The Poco Handheld Computer

The Poco is a new kit that lets owners snap together a programmable handheld video-game player. But it started life in 2009 as something completely different. The original concept was to make the first HD camcorder with a 14-megapixel photo capability, with a footprint about the size of a credit card.

The inspiration for this was the Flip Video camera, which was introduced in 2007 and sold in the millions as a cheap and easy way to capture digital video. My goal was to improve the design using new mobile-phone technology to produce a similarly easy-to-use product, but one packed into a much smaller case.

What happened next is a story about the need for adaptation in the face of changing circumstances. Fortunately, my family has some experience in handling what happens when concept meets reality: My father, Iain Sinclair, is an industrial designer who styled over 100 gaming systems for Saitek, and my uncle is Sir Clive Sinclair, who created the popular Sinclair line of home computers in the 1980s.

To create my camcorder, I first sourced an ultrathin 2.4-inch AMOLED (active-matrix OLED) display from CMEL that seemed brighter and clearer than anything I’d seen before or since. A suitable camera SOC (system-on-chip) came from Ambarella. I also learned about a camera module from a German company that could handle HD video even in low light, and capture 14-megapixel still images. Test results for the combination of the SOC and camera-module sensor were comparable to those produced by a much larger Sony camcorder.

I added other technology such as postage-stamp-size supercapacitors from Murata to power an LED flash. To keep the credit card footprint, I chose a magnesium body with ultrathin walls (expensive but otherwise impossible to achieve using the cheaper alternative of injection-molded plastic).

I circulated the design in 2010 and immediately received a licensing offer from a well-known camera brand that agreed to place an opening order for 10,000 units. Other global distribution offers followed, and I was introduced to three of the largest camera manufacturers in the world. What could possibly go wrong?

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Problems began when CMEL developed supply issues and discontinued the AMOLED display. Seiko stepped forward and offered a replacement thin-film-transistor display. It’s not as nice as the AMOLED (or as energy efficient) but still good, and it’s actually easier to hook up to the Ambarella SOC, eliminating a complex bridging circuit.

Then, the company that supplied the camera module went bust. A few months passed and I heard that Olympus was entering the market with a similar size camera module based on a 16-megapixel camera sensor from OmniVision, which I could use with a rival SOC from Zoran (now part of Qualcomm) that generated less heat—important, as tests showed that the magnesium body got very hot with the original SOC.

My engineer and I visited Zoran in China in 2012, which reluctantly allowed us to use its labs and borrow reference development boards (it usually deals only with camera giants). Returning from China, we met with our Hong Kong manufacturing partner, a meeting interrupted when the skyscraper we were in caught fire!

In late 2012, we finished the new design. Everything fitted in the miniature form factor we needed. At last, phew! Right?

Not so much. Months later, having finished the PCB design, we were told that Zoran was pulling out of the camera market. It was time for a complete rethink.

In 2014 I learned that the Raspberry Pi Foundation was developing a new model Raspberry Pi in a smaller size, the Pi Zero. In addition, a compatible 5-megapixel camera module was available. I decided to use the US $10 Pi Zero W (which included Bluetooth and Wi-Fi) to replace the SOC module and evolve the Poco into a pocket computer for gaming, education, music, and photography. To keep costs low, we changed the body material to a durable glass-reinforced polymer. We added twin joypads for gaming control.

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Feedback from customers was that they wanted more battery power for gaming, and they also wanted a kit they could assemble in under an hour: The existing design took around 10 hours, as the product was originally designed to be sold primarily preassembled by retailers.

Back to the drawing board. We settled on a snap-fit design: The biggest challenge here was providing enough space for densely packed components to breathe, and to allow for swelling of the lithium battery, all without the assembled casing springing apart. After a few months we had working samples—and plenty of extra space under the hood for hardware hacking! The Poco was officially released in late 2018 and has become popular with makers and retrogamers, who use software emulators to run classic games.

In particular, positive feedback for the Poco has come from schools, which were becoming frustrated with the single-use nature of many maker kits—for example, a robot construction kit that was built for a single lesson but rarely touched again. However, once they’ve assembled the Poco, students can enjoy programming games for it using Pico-8, onboard software that simulates a simple idealized game console, or using the built-in camera to record observations in a nature class.

Indeed, because of the flexibility inherent in the current design, it’s easy for us to offer custom variations to consumers and businesses, such as a medical version incorporating antimicrobial silicone rubber keypads to test the reaction times of patients with head injuries.

Part of being a successful product developer is to soldier on through hard times. The lessons I’ve learned are these: Keep things as simple as possible and avoid too much high technology, while keeping abreast of emerging trends. Try to spec components already used in mass market products. Be prepared for new product development to require serious investment, and never rely on one supplier.

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