History of Sandman
Sandman Clocks is the brainchild of Palo Alto Innovation (PAI), a group of designers, engineers, and businessmen who love gadgets and want to create something we are proud of. We got tired of thinking, why doesn't that exist? So we decided to create those products ourselves, and we can't wait to share our creations with the world!
The original Sandman Clock is PAI's first product and we are certainly proud of it! Make sure to grab one today. The Sandman Doppler is the newest product from the PAI pipeline and is now shipping! Learn more about it here.
Learn more about PAI at our main site: paloaltoinnovation.com Also, check out this interview, it does a great job explaining what we are trying to build at PAI
Please read on for a more in depth history of the Sandman.
It all started with the original Sandman clock back in 2015. A simple 4 port USB charging clock. We realized that a power strip next to your bed to charge all your devices was becoming commonplace. Multiple cell phones, backup batteries, fitness trackers, smartwatches, and many more USB charging devices. The need for the Sandman clock was obvious, something that could charge all your devices, clean up your night stand, and have a display that allows you to glance at the time without getting blasted by phone notifications.
Clocks with USB ports weren’t a new idea, but none were done properly. Back in 2015 the products on the market were all flawed in some way or another. They either had too few USB ports (one or two), an ugly design, or a screen that wouldn’t dim properly. After buying many of the products on the market we decided that we were going to fix all of these problems with the Sandman Clock.
We started with sketches and decided on a design we liked. Some of our early designs were more interesting than others, but we ended up with a simple and neutral design that wouldn’t stand out but would still be attractive enough on its own.
Here is the evolution of the design of the Sandman clock from sketch, to cad, to render!
Some of the things we decided on from the very beginning were built in cable management channels, big numbers so you can easily see the time from across the room, and multiple USB ports to accommodate all your devices charging overnight.
On June 9th, 2015 we decided to launch on Kickstarter with a truly cringy video:
Our Kickstarter was a massive… failure… as we didn’t meet our goal after the 30 day kickstarter campaign.
While we didn’t meet our goal, we did get a bunch of great feedback and decided to still move forward with the product. The main thing we didn’t have that people wanted? An alarm. To be totally frank, we didn’t think an alarm would be necessary as the devices the Sandman would charge would be your alarm clock. Why duplicate features? We wanted to make a clock, not an alarm clock but customers had spoken! So we added an alarm, battery backup, and revised the product from top to bottom. We even took this opportunity to redo our logos!
At this point we decided to go to our first Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and started preparing for that to officially launch our brand! We designed everything in house: the industrial design, mechanical engineering, circuit boards, and firmware. We even designed our own packaging! It was a busy time… but eventually it was show time and CES was here.
Our CES booth was small, 10x10 and was downstairs at the Sands convention center in a start up area called Eureka park. We had a tremendously positive response to the Sandman and people loved our company and vision. We met so many people and it was a blast, but man did our feet hurt after.
Once we got back from CES (and took a very short break) we started working on preparing the Sandman clock for mass production. This was all about manufacturing, part sourcing, and knowledge transfer with China.
At this point we then took our first trip to Shenzhen, China for the Beta build of the Sandman clock! This is the initial build of the product where we find and fix any issues before mass production.
Once we fixed as many issues as we could, it was time for mass production of the Sandman Clock! And then before we knew it, they arrived in our office!
We held a pretty awesome launch party and shipped out hundreds of preorders. We even made a Sandman cake!
At this point the development of the Sandman has been completed and we took a little bit of a break!
We would continue to market and sell the Sandman Clock!
Throughout the process of developing and marketing of the Sandman, we learned that people enjoyed the product, but always wanted… more. So very quickly we started working on our next Sandman product.
We decided to work on an accessory for the Sandman, a Bluetooth speaker that would sit underneath the Sandman and be powered by the Sandman USB ports. This product changed and evolved quite a bit as we spent time tweaking and adjusting it. We also spent a bit of time working on acoustics to make sure this Sandman speaker product sounded as good as possible.
At this point, we were designing a USB powered Bluetooth speaker, which wasn’t that special or different, so we started adding feature after feature… Eventually we decided that we weren’t designing an accessory, but were in fact designing a brand new product, and the Sandman Doppler was born.
The design of the Doppler starts with the same screen size as the original Sandman clock. Not to toot our own horn, but we think we truly nailed the screen look and size on the previous product, so we wanted to build on that. We used the screen as a starting point, and from there, determined where the speakers and corresponding bass port would go. Originally we narrowed it down to a choice between a vertical design and a horizontal one. We ultimately decided to go with the horizontal design that we see today.
Another interesting tidbit is we had actually had two designs for the front look of the Doppler and couldn’t decide internally on which design we wanted to go with. So, we decided to put it up to vote for our fans.
Our fans overwhelmingly preferred the metal speaker grills of the “love option” and so that is what we went with.
Along with taking our time with the exterior design of the Doppler, we also wanted to make sure the speakers on the product sounded spectacular. We took apart numerous speakers and spent way more money on hot glue and foam than you’d expect to ensure our mechanical design was as good as it could be. In order for a speaker to sound as good as possible, it has to be airtight (other than the bass port) and making a product airtight isn’t easy. We certainly made some mistakes, and learned lessons for the future, but we are very happy with the way the product’s acoustics ended up sounding and a lot of that work was done at this point.
While we wanted to keep the same size and look of the Sandman display, we did want to add a bunch of other symbols to create a bottom dashboard (day of the week, weather), a top light bar, and most importantly multiple different colors for the clock display. So we decided to design our own display! This took… a while to get right… But we eventually did!
We had learned our lesson from our previous Kickstarter and were optimistic about launching the Doppler on that same platform. We made an awesome video, got a lot of interest and feedback from our pre-campaign and spent A LOT more time on the Doppler campaign. Fun fact: the lease for our office was ending around this time, so we also had a move thrown in there as well. It was a chaotic time… but we planned and prepared, and planned and prepared and early in the morning on July 17th, 2017 we hit the go live button.
Based on early feedback from our pre-launch campaign and the amount of work we put into it, we were confident we would hit our goal, but we didn’t expect it to happen quite so fast. We ended up hitting our goal in 38 minutes and raised over $60K in the first day!
The Kickstarter campaign ran for 30 days and our Kickstarter ended with a little over $151,000 raised! Thanks again to all our backers and our early supporters!
Once the Kickstarter ended, the real engineering work began. We had to take our prototype and make it an actual product.
We did an entire new revision of all parts of the Doppler while keeping the same exterior design. I’m talking new circuit boards, display, front screen, speakers, speaker grills, internal housings, USB boards, software stack, app, everything. We were pushing towards having a fully functional, working prototype with as much production type hardware as possible for CES 2018. As a part of this revision, we did make some minor changes to the Doppler to improve it’s manufacturability and the overall end product. We moved the microphones, and light sensor to the top of the Doppler. We also added speaker baffles to further improve the acoustics and changed the type of lights we used on the main display.
We put in some LONG hours before finally getting to CES in Vegas, but we achieved what we wanted to. A working prototype that… totally stopped working at the show. This prototype was finicky and flaky to say the least, but the real problem was the CES show floor was total death to any Wifi devices. This prevented us from doing any real demos on the show floor, but trust us, it worked well back at the house we rented for CES!
This show went well for us and we were again exhausted… but we learned from our first CES and our second show was a little bit easier. Once we took a couple of days off we moved onto the next big step in the Doppler’s journey… Tooling.
Injection molded tooling for the Doppler was started a little bit behind schedule at this point because of the number of changes we made before CES. We then had to tell our backers that we would be delivering late (by one month), something that while common in Kickstarter projects, we really did NOT want to do but sadly we did, and ended up doing a lot.
As soon as we started tooling, something which is a massive financial investment… things started going wrong with the most important part of the Sandman Doppler. Before we launched the Kickstarter, we sourced and experimented with a piece of hardware called the Chip Pro. It was a linux computer that was designed to be embedded into smart products like the Sandman Doppler. The Chip Pro gave us a powerful CPU, lots of I/O, Wifi/Bluetooth, Over the air update support, and DSP support.
Oh, the best part? The Chip Pro was only $16 and readily available! Frankly, this product was a PERFECT fit for the Doppler and they truly did a lot of the leg work as the company that made the Chip Pro (Next Thing Co) also released a product called Dashbot (later rebranded as Voder) that was functionally similar to the Sandman Doppler.
Well, a couple months after we got a fully functional Doppler, and opened up tooling based on the Chip Pro, the company went bankrupt.
This was truly a punch in the gut and we underestimated the extra amount of work this would add to the project. But we persevered and found a new solution, called a Technexion PicoSoM. We re-did the boards (again), found a way to make minimal tooling changes and mount the PicoSoM, and started porting our software over to the new hardware. This was a pretty big effort, but we got it done, just in time for something else to go wrong…
This time, the issue was with the Audio chip (DSP) of the Doppler, something which as you can imagine was pretty important for a clock that features speakers and Alexa. While the product was working, we weren’t using all the features of the chip and we were working with the supplier to tune and tweak the chip to work better. The audio DSP we were using was made by a massive company called MicroSemi, which had been acquired by another even more massive company called MicroChip earlier in the year (the deal was finalized in May 2018). After a couple months of working directly with the team that used to be at MicroSemi, they stopped responding to us and we found out that MicroChip decided to drop support for the specific MicroSemi DSP we were using by laying off the support team. We could have waited for MicroChip to hire people to that team again, but there was no guarantee of that, so we made the frustrating decision to rip out the entire audio system and replace it with a part that was going to be supported.
This required another redo of the boards as the audio system is pretty central to the Doppler, microphones, DSP, codec, amplifiers, speaker outputs, etc. So we got to work on another respin of the boards and editing our software to make use of a different audio system centered around a supported DSP. Acquisitions like this happen all the time and are usually difficult to predict and impossible to plan around, even if you try. Our team at PAI is small which has its advantages and disadvantages – being as small as we are allows us to be nimble and agile allowing us to make these types of decisions and changes with minimal bureaucracy and oversight, we just get it done. But, being this small also means that getting companies to take us seriously can be a challenge, especially when we need support or answers quickly. If someone at Apple or Tesla needs an answer, they will get one as quickly as they want. It’s not that easy for us most of the time.
Once we finished the board design and got them up and running we decided to put it all together into something we called Dev-1 or our first Doppler development kit. This Doppler was the first one that had production hardware, the PicoSoM (mounted on the outside of the plastic for easy access) and the new DSP + Audio system! At this point, we got to actually take a Doppler home and use it on a nightstand for the first time. It was very exciting! We also took Dev-1 to the audio testing lab to test it’s speaker performance and it’s microphone response performance for Alexa.
Building up Dev-1 allowed us to discover some last minute integration issues with the hardware/software and a couple of small changes to the tools so we could refine the Doppler injection molded tools to a point where we could start an alpha build of the product. This was a massive step forward and we started with a 20 unit Alpha test.
These Alpha builds were done in our office with production parts shipped in from our tools in China. The Alpha build is a super important part of the process and allowed us to build up a small number of units ourselves to see how we can tweak and improve things.
We decided that we would share these Alpha units at CES 2019, our third show!
CES 2019 was really great for us. The Booth was busy, the Doppler Alphas we had looked great, and boy were we tired.
We have had couches in our CES booth the previous 2 years so you could take a break and charge your phone, but since we had a bigger booth this year it had some unforeseen consequences… Many people fell asleep in our booth…
We had a great time, and check out those snazzy shirts!!
CES also allowed us to thoroughly test out the Alpha Dopplers and we continued to find issues. We expected to find these issues and in general were very happy with the Alpha build. Some of the issues we were fixing: fit and finish of the front window, tint of the front window, fit of the speaker grills, consistency of color of screen and main body.
Once we thought we fixed all of these issues, we worked with our Chinese suppliers to begin production of a small overseas Alpha build, which would be the first time a Doppler circuit board would be manufactured without our team involved. The Chinese team would then do what we did with our Alpha build and verify some of these issues were indeed fixed. We also started fine tuning some of the many color choices we offered our Kickstarter backers.
These overseas Alpha had a couple other purposes mostly centered around supply chain issues. In 2019, lead times on electronics parts could sometimes be up to 12 months and we had to switch around parts in order to make sure we had enough parts on hand to do our production run of Dopplers. Doing this overseas build allowed us to verify that the parts that we could actually get our hands on would work properly and reliably for the Doppler.
While all of this was happening, we were also working on our smartphone app and the Doppler software to communicate with the app. The way that app works is by communicating with the Doppler initially over Bluetooth low energy (BLE) and then having BLE securely transmit the customers Wifi credentials to the Doppler so the Doppler can come online. This allows us to connect the Doppler directly to the internet for things like Alexa and weather connectivity, along with its base functionality: getting the time.
This app went through quite a few different designs, but we ended up with something that we think looks great!
Our app wasn’t the only thing we were working on, we also were hard at work on our packaging design, something we think turned out awesome. We started out with mini designs to allow us to iterate fast and figure out how the folding would work.
While we were working on the packaging, app, and supply chain issues we were also working on improving the efficiency of the product. We created multiple jigs and fixtures along with instructions and QA documents to help our Beta build go as well as possible.
And before we knew it, we were on a plane to China to oversee the Beta build of the Sandman Doppler!
This trip was very positive and being able to work with our factory in person was incredibly beneficial and the Beta build went well. We managed to take a couple Beta Dopplers home in our suitcase, but the remainder had to be shipped to our office.
The idea for the Doppler was originally conceived in Early 2017 and launched on Kickstarter on July of 2017. Finally, after overcoming what seemed like a constant stream of setbacks, in October 2019 we had units in our warehouse! We had originally planned for the Beta units to arrive in February 2018 so while we were very late, considering all we had gone through we weren’t that late.
The problem? The software on them wasn’t quite ready to go. Let me tell you, this was incredibly frustrating, but luckily software is much easier to change than hardware. This very early software build had a couple of issues, but the big one was with BLE disconnects and Alexa not logging in properly, both HUGE problems. So, we got to work fixing this.
While we were working on the issues with the app, CES 2020 was on the horizon and we decided to go even bigger this year.
CES 2020 was a whirlwind, but we had an awesome time. We showed off the Beta Dopplers (which looked awesome) along with some of the different colors we offered to our Kickstarter customers.
We had the couches again, which led to some more sleeping visitors while they charged their phone and we even had a BIG surprise show up in our booth.
Check out the size of the team we had at CES2020:
The show went very well for us again and we got a lot of positive feedback on the Doppler and at this point, we just needed to finally ship some to customers…
While we were meeting Shaq and working on the bugs in the pre-Beta software, we also decided to hit the “GO” button on the production run of the Doppler hardware – a huge milestone! We knew we could and would reflash the software on the Doppler so we decided to get the production process started ASAP. In hindsight this decision was SUPER important, because guess what happened in China in January 2020? Sigh.
We ended up getting about 2000 Dopplers packed up and ready to go before the ports closed a little early due to Chinese New Year and Covid. Sadly, we missed the last boat out before everything got shut down, but in the grand scheme of things our entire Chinese team stayed safe and healthy, which is the most important thing.
After we recovered from CES, we got back to work on the Beta software issues and ended up solving most of the problems around the Beta app. We continued to work in blissful ignorance until Santa Clara county announced their shelter-in-place order in mid-March forcing us to quickly adapt to working remotely – something that is quite difficult with a hardware product like ours.
Luckily we managed to get over 70 units into the hands of customers before we got shut down. Another huge milestone!
Initial feedback was very positive from our Beta testers, but we certainly had some polishing to do while we were learning to work from home. We started working on this while waiting for the production order to arrive.
It took a while for China to open back up enough to get our shipment out to sea, but it eventually got loaded into a container and was headed to America.
Usually sea shipping takes 3-4 weeks door to door, this took more like 2 months due to Covid-induced freight and dock worker issues. But sea shipping got significantly worse a few months after, so we got lucky here again. Another milestone! Production Dopplers in our warehouse!
But we couldn’t ship those Dopplers, we still had work to do on the Doppler software and app and we did have one more hurdle to accomplish: Alexa certification.
Amazon had implemented the Alexa Built-In certification process during the Doppler’s development cycle and it’s a constantly changing beast. The certification process has a couple of different steps to achieve and many hoops to jump through, and while we had been working towards this goal for a while Amazon kept moving the goalposts.
The specifics of Amazon certification are confidential, but it consisted of a strict third party security audit, acoustic test, functional test, and finally a branding audit. This process took quite a bit of tuning and testing to make sure the Doppler was all up to snuff.
Once we were confident we had tested and tuned enough we sent off many Dopplers (a total of 8) for certification and crossed our fingers. Eventually (months later), we got notice that we had passed Alexa built in certification! Another milestone down!
While we were waiting on certification, we continued to improve and tweak our app and Doppler software with feedback from our beta customers.
Once we got Alexa certification and had tweaked the app so it worked a little better, it was time to open up the Doppler boxes we got from China and begin reflashing them to this newest firmware.
To do this we created carts of Doppler power supplies and upgraded our network to handle up to 200 Dopplers upgrading themselves automatically. The process was repetitive but efficient and in November 2020 we finally did it! We started shipping production Dopplers to backers! This took us about 1000 days after our Kickstarter launched, but we did it!
Up to this point, the Doppler had quite the journey, but it wasn’t quite over yet. In fact it was just getting started. Based on initial feedback from our customers (and our own issues with BLE and the product in general). We decided to totally redo how the Doppler communicated with the phone app and switch to a cloud based solution.
On top of this massive shift in the Doppler we decided to bring app development in house allowing us to improve the part of the product that needed the most work, the app.
This cloud update was a massive undertaking for a team our size but we felt that it was necessary to improve the product further.
With this updated we also added a myriad of other features to the Doppler like blackout mode and more volume steps. We also spent a lot of time tweaking and tuning the audio system of the Doppler to make it sound even better.
We also added a new setup mode which we feel greatly improved the Doppler onboarding experience.. All of these changes have culminated in a product we are truly happy to have created (even though it took a while). Fun fact,: the actor who starred in our Kickstarter video is the voice of the Doppler when you first plug it in
It was finally time to put the Doppler on Amazon and start really pushing sales of the Doppler!
A lot of companies would have declared the Doppler finished at this point, but not us! We have many many more features we want to add to the Doppler. Stay tuned to the news section of this site as well as your email for news on the new features we will be continuing to add to the Doppler.
Looking back on the entire history of the Sandman, it has been an awesome experience and I think it's truly an exercise in perseverance. For those of you who managed to get to the end, we hope you learned something about PAI, Sandman, and product development. Now, we would really appreciate it if you could support us by buying something from our site, or telling a friend. Here is a coupon code for 10 % off :) If you think we missed something or had more in-depth questions on the history of Sandman, feel free to reach out to us at email@example.com
Thanks again for learning about the history of the Sandman brand – we are just getting started and have many more products coming!
-Alex Tramiel, CEO of Palo Alto Innovation