Attention, lovers of digital clocks that are too pretty to be mistaken for bombs: the makers of the start-up Akafugu in Tokyo offer open source kits to build your own design objects using old Nixie and VFD tubes.
Tokyo, from our correspondent
“Flashy things are what sells,” confides Per Johan Groland, cofounder of Akafugu, a tiny Tokyo-based company specialized in electronic kits. “Clocks are the most popular and the easiest to sell.”
“We came to Nixie clocks accidentally. I thought they looked cool, and started investigating how they worked and how we could design circuits that could power them. But first we experimented with VFD tubes, which are less dangerous. If you touch a Nixie the wrong way, you get a high-voltage shock, it’s quite painful.”
Indeed, Nixie tubes are filled with gas composed primarily of neon, which lights up the cathodes in the shape of numerical digits in order to produce a bright orange glow. VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) tubes, on the other hand, contain a hot cathode of tungsten wires around a predefned matrix of phosphore-coated plates, which emit a fluorescent light to display numbers or letters (flat-screen VFD can still be seen today in DVD players, for example).
These antique tube technologies, developed in the 1950s, have since become completely obsolete, replaced by OLEDs and other Retina displays… Today, no active artisans or factory workers remain who know how to make them. But the tubes are still sitting in the warehouses, specifically in Russia, which continued to manufacture Nixie and VFD tubes up until the 1990s. It was only some 20 years later that the tubes were revived into novelty clocks and rediscovered as retro designer objects from the Cold War era.
Kits from 15 to 210 dollars
Akafugu offers several kits to build your own clock. The five models using VFD tubes range in price from $75 to $170 (for the VFD Modular Clock IV-18 SMT with GPS and no soldering required). Three models use Nixie tubes ($125 to $210). Then there’s the clock that ticks randomly but still keeps accurate time, inspired by Lord Vetinari ($15.50), for fans of Discworld. According to Per, the prices reflect more or less the cost of the materials. In addition to the tubes, circuit board and other components included in the kits, all the firmware and program codes are open source, so that you can customize your clock to your heart’s content.
For the past four years, Akafugu has been run by two people, Per Johan Groland and Karl Backström, a Norwegian and a Swede, who settled in Japan almost a decade ago. Both professional software engineers working full time for big companies, they were also interested in tinkering with hardware, so they started up Akafugu on the side.
“The cost of making your own PCPs and having them manufactured in China was coming down a lot, so it seemed like a good opportunity to try it out and learn how to use the software,” says Per. “The initial purpose of the company was to learn the whole process of hardware, firmware design, to learn how to manufacture stuff ourselves and then sell it. We did that by making kits to sell to other people who are interested in the same stuff as we are.”
So far, so good. The sale of clock kits (on their own website, Amazon.jp and Tindie) accounts for most of the company’s income (almost 70% from Japan). Their catalogue of products also includes other kits for both beginner and more advanced makers, as well as custom circuit boards, components and enclosures. They give soldering workshops at Tokyo Hackerspace and elsewhere, do consulting, and are always present at Maker Faire Tokyo.
The two partners don’t take any salary from Akafugu, as they choose to reinvest all incoming revenue into running costs, research and preproduction of new products, and of course, stock. Currently, their most popular kits are almost always sold out. Per estimates that even so, they’re not exactly ready to quit their day jobs.
“We are working to pivot the business to be primarily based around IoT (Internet of Things) devices and consulting, with the kit business being secondary,” he says. The door is open to more ambitious projects and joint ventures, from sensor networks to data visualization…
Meanwhile, what could be more retrogeek than a DIY designer clock made from obsolete tubes running on Cold War era technology?
VFD clock built by a maker in Czech Republic:
Coming soon on Makery: Do it Yourself retro-geek clock