How Sahara can Transform Remote Learning in Engineering Education

During our journey of finding Sahara’s product market fit, our team has conducted over 70 hours of customer interviews to learn about various pain points during the embedded development process and how our product can best solve these problems.

One of the things we discovered from our customer research was how urgent embedded engineering programs need a solution that can solve the problems that are exacerbated by remote learning. Through 30+ interviews with professors, teaching assistants, and students, we have identified three main pain points that engineering education programs currently experience:

  • Lack of access to lab space/expensive equipment: Engineering programs spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in testing equipment for labs, and students often have limited access to these equipment due to lack of lab space and resources. Instructors currently have to ship development kits to students due to remote learning, which introduces logistical complications and increases costs.
  • Need for alternative to current simulation softwares: Many embedded engineering programs have resorted to using software simulations during remote learning, however, existing software tools on the market do not provide real-time interaction with hardware devices to adequately teach students without access to physical hardware.
  • Difficulty in collaboration for instructors and students: Existing tools and programs are device-dependent and inflexible, making collaboration between students difficult and instructor grading an unwelcomed task.
Engineering programs spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in testing equipment for labs, and students often have limited access due to lack of lab space and resources.

Sahara’s virtual prototyping technology and cloud-based testing platform enables instructors at engineering programs and universities to teach embedded technology courses virtually. Students are able to interact with various embedded devices and circuit boards without the need to access physical equipment or lab space. 

The Sahara platform solve the three main pain points of engineering programs by offering the following key benefits:

  • Monthly subscription and pay-as-you-go model increases flexibility and reduces costs: Engineering programs’ need to access expensive physical equipment and resources makes teaching less flexible and more costly especially during remote learning. Sahara’s software offering means universities can save costs by paying a monthly subscription and more students can utilize the platform simultaneously. 
  • A software solution that is more than simulations: Sahara’s software platform is designed to replicate in real-time the hardware development experience as closely as possible, without needing access to physical components. This makes the learning experience more interactive and realistic by providing simulations of real-world environments. 
  • Cloud-based IDE encourages classroom collaboration and ease of grading: Remote learning has made collaboration especially difficult for students learning embedded technology. Sahara’s cloud-based IDE allows students to learn embedded technology as if they are using a software tool, making collaboration much easier. Sahara also makes grading assignments easier for instructors by providing backend administrative access to TAs and professors, and lets them inspect designs without having to meet the student face to face.

Sahara’s mission is to democratize the hardware development process and make it more accessible to everyone – and we will start with engineering education.

Reflection from the Sahara Team on the Future of Remote Work

In a year that has demanded so much from everyone, many of us have not only needed to adapt to the rapid changes that the pandemic set upon our personal lives, but also had to deal with dramatic changes at the work place.

No one could have predicted the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce, shuttering millions of office doors and forcing many businesses into a work-from-home model. And while the idea of sitting at a desk all day and talking from a square box on Zoom turned many people off, employee outlook and confidence towards remote work is now changing as this becomes more of a norm than an exception.

With the aid of technology, employees are able to navigate remote work and cultivate old feelings of working in an office. Applications that make remote work easier such as Slack and Zoom have been huge assets in this transition —facilitating business communication and collaboration regardless of geographical location.

Here at Sahara, we have embraced the future of remote work both in our product and our mission. Our goal is to make hardware development accessible anywhere by minimizing physical constraints of product development through our virtual prototyping technology. This vision is especially important now that remote work has become the norm.

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Sahara Team’s Top 5 Essential Hardware Products

If asked how often we reached for our digital devices in a day, it’d be one too many times. (Listening to music! Scrolling through social media! Jumping between Zoom calls!) Now that we are living through a pandemic and spend an unprecedented amount of time online, our digital devices are essential to us more than ever. Digital hardware products play a tremendous function in both our personal and professional lives, such as the way we consume our media, decompress from the world around us, and carry out technical objectives at work.

Below, five Sahara members single out their favorite and most utilized digital hardware products, ranging from noise-canceling headphones to handheld massage guns. Here’s to the things that have made quarantine that much more tolerable.

Josh Kimmel, CTO

I have to go with my Raspberry Pi’s (mine are 3rd edition, but there is a 4th edition out there now!). I really like the flexibility and customizability, despite the fact that it still has enough computing power to run a full-blown OS. It’s really useful when playing around with software libraries (especially lower-level libraries) for various applications. I even used it to prototype many of the software/hardware systems that we built for Sahara! The portability is nice as well – these things are super easy to bring around (fits *roughly* in the palm of your hand). For anyone out there who likes to do little home/life improvement projects using computing technologies and associated peripherals, this is definitely the product for you!

Annie Lu, CMO

My favorite hardware product is my Theragun – it’s an amazing tool that makes massaging accessible anywhere, anytime. The Theragun is a well built electronic device that utilizes innovative percussive massaging technology to replace human massages. I have always loved getting massages but they can be costly and inconvenient to book, so the Theragun is a great alternative and has now become a part of my daily relaxation routine before bed.

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Finding Product Market Fit In The Virtutyping (Virtual Prototyping) Space

If you’re looking to start your own company, it’s important to spend your time wisely – because time is money when it comes to running a business.

If Time Is Money, Are You Spending Yours Wisely? |
Time is money when running a startup

For starters, if you’re focused on building or leading the direction of your product, you can conduct a copious amount of market research to understand the lay of the land. However, without speaking to users, you will likely fall into the trap that many startups face: developing a product that doesn’t fulfill an actual need.

According to research conducted by CBInsights, researchers observed 400 failed consumer hardware startups and found that the top 3 reasons of failure were:

  1. Lack of consumer demand (aka not finding product market fit)
  2. High burn rate (most likely caused from not finding product market fit or paying users)
  3. Lack of interest after initial crowdfund (also an indicator of no product market fit)
This Is Fine creator explains the timelessness of his meme - The Verge
Finding product market fit is essential in preventing startup failures!

To ensure your startup doesn’t fall into the trap of failing to find a product market fit, it’s important to de-risk your idea by testing your assumptions. Here are some steps that you can take.

  1. Find out where your users hang out.
    Lurk around and listen (see if users are speaking about your problem. If not, bring up the problem and see how they react)
  2. Determine who your competitors are and what they’re doing.
    What type of users are they targeting and what messaging are they using? (I found a simple google search or searching on Crunchbase based on industry is a great place to start)
  3. Speak to potential users about your idea.
    Get feedback on your idea and ask users to explain their current workflow to see if your product can solve their problems. Resources that can help users better understand your idea include wireframes, prototypes, or hand drawn images. If you’re worried about others stealing your idea, think about how difficult it is to execute your idea. Others will be facing the same difficulty.
    • The best places I found to find potential users are LinkedIn, Reddit, Discord, Twitter, Facebook, or any virtual forum.
    • Keep track of all your interactions. I currently use Airtable, but there are other options such as Microsoft Excel, Google Sheet, Notion, and Trello.
Conditional formulas with emoji – Airtable - Support
Airtable is useful for keeping track of feedback

On your journey to finding product market fit, you may need to pivot the way you engage with users. This will increase your conversion and improve your response rate when cold-emailing or messaging potential customers. Over time you will start to spot users that fit a specific characteristic and share a set of similar issues and pain points. Once you find a group that is receptive to your idea, dig deeper. For the ones that are extremely avid, invite them to your alpha or flag them.

Digging for gold

The process of finding product market fit is like digging for gold. Once you hit gold, or your first paying customer, keep digging to test your assumptions through customer validation to ensure success.

Best of luck!

Why “Virtutyping” is the Future of Hardware Development

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Virtutyping makes developing hardware faster and easier

At Sahara Cloud, we believe that Virtutyping is the future of hardware development.

What is Virtutyping? It’s a shortened term for “virtual prototyping”, a process of physically prototyping a digital product through virtual means.

Virtutypes have most of the important benefits of physical prototypes, but without many of the downsides. Virtual prototyping eliminates a lot of friction that comes with the physical nature of hardware development:

✓ No need for a physical lab setup
✓ Replication debugging conditions on hardware (hermetic)
✓ Collaboration on a shared system as it evolves
✓ Zero component lead-time

With remote working becoming the future of work and the ever increasing need for collaboration, virtutyping will be an essential step in hardware development.

Digital Twinning maintains testing condition for prototypes

A technology that virtutyping utilizes is the concept of “digital twinning” – mapping of a physical asset to a digital platform. Digital twinning is the solution to problems inherent to digital product development persist beyond just the initial R&D.

Even after a product has been launched into the market, product improvements and iterations take time. Many times, new problems with the product emerge that only become obvious when deployed in large scale environments. These problems can be hard to replicate and solve in reality because the exact failure conditions cannot be easily replicated.

Digital twinning provides a way for developers to improve and manage prototypes throughout the life cycle of a product, not just at its conception.

Now that you understand the concept of virtutyping and digital twinning, let’s talk about the technical benefits of using a virtutype platform:

  • Inject test conditions into the digital twin replicates the exact conditions. A wide array of data such as weather conditions, location history, communication delays, and more can be used as information.
  • All testing is hermetic. This gives developers both enormous scale and high granularity. This ensures repeatability and speeds up development.
  • Continuous integration/continuous delivery based on real world pin inputs/outputs and data allows for safer upgrades and more insight into past bugs. Regression testing happens at every step.

How does Sahara Cloud address the need for Virtutyping?

The Sahara platform allows users to develop code on hardware via a web browser without the need for downloading any software or purchasing any electronic circuits.

Developers using the Sahara platform can remotely connect to circuit boards, chips, and test equipment in the cloud – this allows them to build electronic circuits in a distributed manner and with less risk, bypassing the limitations of traditional product development.

The end result is that developers can code and test on remote electronics as if they were physically present, making hardware development more accessible and cost-effective.

At Sahara Cloud, we believe that hardware development doesn’t have to be hard.

Getting Started With Hardware Development

During my journey to learn more about hardware development, I took it upon myself to first start with the basics.

  • What is hardware development?
  • Why is it difficult for people to start with hardware?
  • What are the commonly used beginner hardware devices?

What is hardware development?

Hardware development is typically defined as a product that has an electronic or an electronic + mechanical component to it. This can include products such as a small robot that picks up trash, a roomba, or an electric scooter.

Why is it difficult for people to start developing on hardware?

After speaking to many people, I found that:

  1. Knowledge is niche. Without formal education there’s no source of truth or set path to understand hardware. Sure you can learn C, but where do you go next? I think it’s important to work backwards and have small projects in mind to develop these skills. I found that many users who have completed successful projects either have a formal background from school or have watched a countless number of Youtube videos
  2. Not beginner friendly. When getting started with hardware development. Where do you start? Should you buy a starter kit? What next? Don’t you need to know how to code before you start wiring the product together? It seems a little overwhelming for someone who wants to make a simple product.
  3. Physicality: Even if you manage to purchase your starter kit, wire it together, and hook it up to your computer, the shear physicality makes it hard to scale with bigger projects. First, you need test equipment, then lab space, then proper wires, and maybe more devices. Here’s an example of what a workspace can look like.

What is the most commonly used beginner hardware device?

After speaking to many people, they mentioned they started with the Arduino Uno. This beginner device uses an ATmega328 chip and can be powered via USB, battery, or AC-DC adapter.

A simple project anyone can do is programming how often LEDs can blink. Therefore, you can easily make that ugly christmas sweater you always wanted. Arduinos seem to be the building block that allows you to control LEDs, sensors, and other peripherals to make more complicated projects. The wiring itself seems to be difficult, but hopefully through Youtube videos I’ll be able to learn.

Now that it’s time to try to create my first project, I would typically need to order the starter kit, then wait for the kit to get to me. How long will that take? If I wanted to start immediately how would I be able to do that?

Luckily for Sahara, I can get started immediately, de-risk the project, and ensure I know what I’m doing before buying all the parts. Hardware is hard, but it doesn’t have to be.