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November 10, 2015

How to be an inventor

It turns out drinking beer in a shed is the first step to becoming a successful inventor. At least that was the case for Gavin Smith and Will Tamblyn - South Australians who have created a futuristic holographic display called Voxiebox.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Daniel Marks

When you first talk to Gavin Smith and Will Tamblyn about the Voxiebox – a product that started as an idea hatched over a beer, it seems like an obvious idea.

The digital display device the pair have invented is capable of exhibiting a range of 3D media – whether it is live action captured with special depth recording cameras, mathematical graphs, geographical terrain, or video games, using their unique holographic technology.

The resultant output has volume – it occupies physical space and allows people interacting with it to move around and view it from different perspectives.

But, of course, the idea can’t have been that obvious because currently there are no devices like it on the market. And what was particularly not obvious about the whole thing was how to make it work.

“I used to drive my parents nuts by taking everything to pieces and never putting them back together.” – Gavin Smith

The ability to move from idea to actuality is the first important step in making it as an inventor, according to the pair. They explained this, and a few other essential steps to CityMag, during a lunchbreak from their dayjobs in IT.

Be prepared to persist

“It’s the difference between having the idea and actually following through on it that is the important stuff,” says Will.

Given that Gavin and Will spent many months in the early stages of the Voxiebox’s development tirelessly following through, even though they had none of the requisite equipment – at one point even resorting to hacking a kettle and carving a helix-shape from a sweet potato – they know all about persistence. But Gavin says there are some things they discovered that can make the process smoother. 

“That’s getting easier to do with all the advances in manufacturing and rapid prototyping and 3D printing and all these really amazing things that are available today,” he says.

Spend your whole life learning

Their ability to solve problems in the development process was underpinned by intelligence (of course), but also by years of experimentation.

“When I was five years old, I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said ‘I want to be an inventor’,” says Will.

“I used to drive my parents nuts by taking everything to pieces and never putting them back together. I like to see what was inside stuff and how they worked. I’m still not good about putting them back together,” adds Gavin.

“It’s an understanding of mechanics and optics and electronics and because of that we have reasonably good skills at being able to visualise how things work and how they might be made better.”

Making something is only half the battle

It was only once Gavin and Will had gotten to the point where they were almost sure their invention would work that they decided to do a Google search and see what other people were doing in the field.

To their great disappointment, they found an American company – Voxon – had made almost exactly the same thing they had. Fortunately, Voxon had seen Gavin and Will’s work too and were interested in collaborating rather than competing. Voxon was re-birthed with Gavin and Will as co-owners and they say their three American counterparts have been vital in getting the Voxiebox out of the shed and into the market.

“We probably could have got the technology close to where it is now, but without Ken – our chief computer scientist who is writing our graphics engine… our software would be nowhere near as advanced as it is,” says Will.

“The business side of stuff and the access to networks and sales and venture capitalists, is equally important as a working prototype, and we’d be nowhere near where we are now without the other guys at Voxon.”

Support is invaluable

Apart from their business partners at Voxon, Gavin and Will credit a string of South Australian organisations and individuals with keeping them afloat as they’ve attempted to develop the Voxiebox in their free time around raising families and working dayjobs.

“We’ve been working on this for six or seven years now and those official support systems are only just starting to fall into place,” says Will. “ Some things are improving, but the loss of the Fab Lab is a huge thing.”

“They’ve lost their funding,” says Gavin. “Fab Lab was very important for our development because we suddenly had access to really high-tech equipment and we could prototype stuff really quickly. It’s just a great place where people can go and learn. People who are artists or designers or inventors can go and find the tools to make them more productive and so they can do things they never thought they could – for that funding to be pulled is crazy.”

Editor’s Note – Since the time of original publication, the Fab Lab has re-opened at the St Paul’s Creative Centre, but those behind the organisation say they still need more support. 

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