Minimizing the total bill of materials (BOM) cost necessary to achieve target functionality is important for system developers in any technology sector. But in consumer electronics, this budget slimming can often be an ongoing corporate life-or-death exercise. It’s necessary first and foremost to hit a sufficiently low for-sale price point that’ll motivate potential customers to buy. And at that price, it’s often necessary to enable your company to turn a profit on that sale, too. I say “often” because, following the “razors and blades” business model also well known to video game console manufacturers, you can sometimes use follow-on sales of accessories, content and the like, along with ongoing subscription revenue, to counterbalance initial unprofitability. Still, that strategy only works if you’ve got enough investment funding in the bank to get you through the initial “desert” until the follow-on income starts rolling in.
One common way to reduce the device BOM is to offload as much of the total required processing, memory and other required resources to other connected devices. A “cloud” server is one common approach, but it has notable downsides that also beg for consideration from the device supplier and purchaser alike, such as:
- Sending raw data up to the “cloud” for processing, with the server subsequently sending results back to the device, can involve substantial roundtrip latency. There’s a reason why self-driving vehicles do all their processing locally, for example!
- Taking latency to the extreme, if the “cloud” connection goes down, the device can turn into a paperweight, and
- You’re trading a one-time fixed BOM cost for ongoing variable “cloud” costs, encompassing both server usage fees (think AWS, for example) and connectivity bandwidth expenses. Both of those costs also scale with both the number of customers and the per-customer amount of use (both of each device and cumulatively for all devices owned by each customer).
Another popular BOM-slimming approach involves leveraging a wired or (more commonly) wireless tethered local device with abundant processing, storage, imaging, and other resources, such as a smartphone or tablet. This technique has the convenient advantage of employing a device already in the consumer’s possession, which he or she has already paid for, and for which any remaining “cloud” processing bandwidth involved in implementing the complete solution he or she will also bankroll. The latency is also notably less than with the pure “cloud” approach, and although the smartphone’s connection to the “cloud” may periodically go down, the connection between it and the device generally remains intact.
The notable requirement for the manufacturer here is that whatever device-offloading application running on the tethered mobile device must comprehend all common mobile operating systems (predominantly Android and iOS, along with the related iPadOS for tablets, nowadays) and the various devices that run on them, and it must also evolve as both operating systems and hardware evolve. Otherwise, the application will sooner-or-later stop meaningfully working, as will the device it’s tethered to.
iJoy’s Chase is a case study example of the latter approach:
I bought mine late last December as part of a $50.94 two-product bundle from Meh that also included a 4K action camera from the same manufacturer:
The action camera went to my nephew as one of his Christmas-and-birthday gifts (the poor guy is cursed with a less-than-two-week time gap between the two). The Chase conversely was always intended as a teardown victim. While I’ve covered gimbals for smartphones (and other image capture devices) before, they require not only someone/thing being video’d or still photographed but also someone else controlling the smartphone and gimbal. iJoy’s Chase purports to handle this all by itself, using computer vision in combination with 360° rotation capabilities to track the subject as he/she/it moves in front of the camera. See for yourself:
Niftily, by the way, Chase also supports both portrait and landscape smartphone orientations:
Meh and Walmart both refer to Chase as a “robot”, while Target calls it a “tripod”: neither term seems right to me (although Target’s a bit closer to reality because you can attach a tripod to it, as you’ll soon see). Amazon’s conversely spot on with its “phone stand” terminology, IMHO. All these case studies have at least one thing in common, however…Chase is cheap. At the time I bought the two-device bundle, Chase (per the Meh listing) was selling standalone at Target for $9.99. And where it’s still available for sale (hold that thought), it’s only a few bucks more than that. How did iJoy’s parent company, Quest USA, accomplish this fiscal feat? Chase Bluetooth-connects to whatever smartphone is doing the “filming” and piggybacks on its camera to also do the object tracking and other computer vision processing; pretty much all that’s left for the device itself to do is to receive and execute the motor control commands.
Speaking of motors, enough of the theory, let’s see what’s inside. But first the box shots. Retailer confusion about what to call Chase is understandable when you see that iJoy refers to it as both a “robot” and a “tripod” within the same outer packaging panel:
The back panel is admittedly nifty, at least to me, with a viewing angle-dependent multi-image sequential presentation courtesy of a glued-on plastic lenticular panel:
More info on the sides and bottom:
And now let’s dive in:
Aside from a bunch of atmospheric molecules, the only things inside are the Chase itself and a sliver of multilingual (English, Spanish and French) literature:
Here are the relevant English-version user manual panels (the block diagram is English-only):
And now some views of our dissection victim, as usual accompanied by a 0.75″ (19.1 mm) diameter U.S. penny for size comparison purposes:
Flip Chase upside-down and the aforementioned tripod mount comes into view, along with additional info markings:
That last one suggests what’s next; let’s crack open the three-AAA battery compartment in search of a path further inside the device:
See those three screws’ heads? They’re outta here:
And voila: easy peasy:
The teardown simplicity thankfully doesn’t end at this point. The PCB slips right out of the mounting slot; no glue, tape, etc. removal required:
Test points on the back:
And only a few simple ICs and passives on the front, befitting the BOM target:
That chip in the center labeled U1 is perhaps obviously the system “brains”, handling Bluetooth connectivity, motor control, and two-LED illumination management. Here are its markings:
I found pictures of it online, but no supplier reference or product page…until I came across this Twitter thread, whose author had similar initial-Google-search frustrations but eventually figured out that the supplier was a Chinese company called Bluetrum. From there, you’re on your own, because I couldn’t find this IC in the multi-page product section of the supplier’s website, I don’t read Chinese, and there doesn’t seem to be an English version of the site. Above the mysterious chip is the PCB-embedded Bluetooth antenna, to the right of it is the power switch (labeled K1), and to the right of that are the two LEDs (labeled D1 and D2).
All that’s left is to remove the motor, which drives the 360° rotating phone mount above it:
And I even got it back together again fully intact. But in good faith I’m not sure if I should as-usual donate this to charity next. Let’s return to my earlier “still available for sale (hold that thought)” comment. That https://thechaserobot.com/ URL shown in the video embedded at the beginning of this piece? It times out. The http://www.questusa.com domain formerly assigned to the manufacturer? It’s for sale.
I’m guessing Quest USA, therefore iJoy, has gone bottoms up. The most recent version of the app, which dates from mid-2021, is still available for download from both the Apple App Store and Google Play App Store but, although from posted user comments it seems to still function passably if you’re snapping shots and video clips from within it, functionality is hit and miss if the iJoy app is trying to tap into an image data stream that’s initially been captured elsewhere. And since no further updates are presumably coming, and I also assume that it hasn’t been turned into open-source code, it’s only a matter of time until the device hits full demise status.
Thoughts, readers? Let me know in the comments!
—Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.