Nearly two years after "the world's thinnest watch" was supposed to arrive to Kickstarter backers, the project has announced that it's pretty much done for. It's a disappointing update in the long saga of the $1 million campaign for CST-01, what was once supposed to be a stylish, 0.80mm-thick E Ink bracelet that displayed the time. The CST-01 project has been detailing its troubles for a few months now, but last week it informed backers that it no longer expects to fill all preorders or to find another company to take over production. It now expects to either liquidate all remaining assets or, if unable to find buyers, open up all designs and distribute and sell off as many remaining parts as it can.
One engineer slept in a van instead of getting a hotel
The project has run into quite a few issues, but the broadest one is that the watches just aren't easy to make. Little more than half of them are fully working after assembly, according to the two engineers behind CST-01, which means that the costs to make them are effectively doubled unless they can resolve the underlying issues. At this point, they can't. As they explained in an earlier update, their project is basically out of money. One of their engineers supposedly went as far as sleeping in a van outside of the production factory so that he didn't have to pay for a hotel.
The campaign for CST-01 launched in January of 2013 and originally planned to have watches, which sold for $129 each, delivered to backers that September. A few months after the campaign's conclusion, the project detailed its first issues: the need to find a new battery, the need to build a custom battery management circuit, and having to wait longer than expected on other parts. Delivery was pushed back to the turn of the year as a result. By February 2014, the schedule kept getting pushed back bit by bit as new assembly issues kept popping up, including getting the watch to actually be thinner than 1mm, which was supposed to be its maximum target.
Not long thereafter, the campaign went silent for a while. In September 2014, it posted another update apologizing for the communication lapse, saying that its manufacturer, Flextronics, had finally assured it that the next sample run would get everything right. Finally, in February of this year — two years after the campaign ended — some of the first watches were supposed to have started shipping. It's not clear how many made it out, but this is where the yield issues came in. Fewer watches were being made than expected, and even fewer of those were actually working. By May, CST-01's engineers said that they would need another $1.2 million — double its original funding — to finish production. They had hoped to find a partner to take that on, but last week's update suggests that's unlikely to happen. "At this point," they write, "the future looks bleak."
Remember how Kickstarter "is not a store?"
This is obviously not the first Kickstarter campaign to fail, but it's among the more successful and exciting projects that haven't managed to come to fruition. In some cases, that's been because of a campaign poorly spending its backers' funds — willfully or otherwise. CST-01's engineers have delivered a general account of how their funds were spent, though that hasn't removed every concern. (That said, publishing a photo from inside of the van that the one engineer was sleeping in didn't hurt.) The engineers also note that they plan to "[redistribute] money as required by law."
Spending breakdown published by CST-01's campaign. Additional funds were spent on R&D, fees, and other costs.
CST-01's failure to ship also emphasizes an issue that has long plagued Kickstarter: as much as Kickstarter likes to say that it's not a store, Kickstarter is totally a store. For a huge number of campaigns, "backers" are really just "buyers" placing a preorder, but backers don't always understand that there's a chance they may not receive what they ordered. In the case of CST-01, backers were funding the watch's creation and would receive a watch once it was made — but since it couldn't be made with that amount of money, there was ultimately nothing for them to get. It's an unfortunate possibility for many campaigns, and the end result is a lot of unhappy backers. And, in this case, likely unhappy creators, too.
It's likely that we'll see another update or so from CST-01 as it continues to wind down. The project still has to determine if it'll be able to find a buyer for its parts or if it'll be opening up its designs. But for now, it looks like very few of the world's thinnest watch are going to end up out in the world.
From the Verge Vault: Hands-on with the CST-01 (2013)