Sisyphus the Kinetic Table That's Always in Motion
In today's episode, we are joined by Bruce Shapiro and Micah Roth from Sisyphus Industries, the minds behind the revolutionary kinetic art tables. From a chance meeting at a Makerspace in Minneapolis, these two innovators have come together to create an intriguing blend of art, design, and technology, raising over 3 million dollars through crowdfunding campaigns.
This episode explores the genesis of their collaboration, the intricate mechanics of their kinetic tables, and the development of their latest project – the XYLA Kinetic Art Table. This podcast will take you on a journey through the world of crowd-funded creative innovation and provide fascinating insights into how Bruce and Micah have transformed their passion for art and technology into a successful business. Tune in to get a behind-the-scenes look at their artistic process and learn how they've managed to make their mark in a niche market.
Their latest project is now live on Kickstarter.
Full transcript below.
hi there.My name is George and I help creators run successful campaigns with my company's YG crowdfunding and fantastic funding.On this podcast,you'll hear from the creators themselves how they successfully launched their products,games,and businesses using crowdfunding,so you can do the same.Our guests today are Bruce Shapiro and Micah Roth.They're the creators behind Sisyphus Industries,and Sisyphus produces kinetic furniture,mainly tables.With sand inside where a robotic steel ball glides through the sand to create mesmerizing displays for the home.The first campaign started in2016and with a second campaign raised a combined3million.They have shipped around9to10,000kinetic tables all over the world,and the current campaign,the XYLA kinetic art table,is currently live and is about to hit$400,000in funding with11days to go As of this recording for those of us who are crowdfunding and design nerds,these campaigns and products are really iconic.Most people know them and I'm super excited to be talking to the founder and the artist Bruce Shapiro and the co-founder and COO and I guess resident maker based on what we see in the background there with3D printers.So I'm very excited to talk to you guys.Welcome.Before we dive into the origins of the project which,or at least the origins of Bruce's work,which I believe dates back to the nineties and involves egg robots.Let's talk about the current campaign you have running,because that's on the11days left,the XYLA Kinetic Art furniture.What can you guys tell us about that current project?
For those who haven't seen it it's a kinetic art table with a new format.It was guided by function and what people wanted.The,from the beginning of the company has been to share art with everybody and anybody.And not everybody wants a circle shape coffee table.At its root,there's not a lot more to say about it except for that.It's also in line with kinda our goal as a company to continue innovating and make new furniture designs and something that works for everybody.
For those people that are listening and haven't seen any of this Bruce,could you describe what people are looking at when they see one of your tables,whether it's the XYLA,which is square or the previous round ones,like visualize for us what people see when they see these tables.
Essentially you see a functional table,glass top.But what is striking is there is a,under the glass,there's a field of white sand and a ball.Seemingly magically rolling through the field,leaving in its wake dunes of sand that's been pushed aside.Because obviously it's not magic and even children understand there's gotta be a magnet,well indeed,there's a two axis robot under the same panel moving the magnet.Under computer control in this case of Raspberry Pi that has pre-programmed tracks designs.And since it's a robot,these can be exceedingly precise and long and intricate.So it it can produce really phenomenally complex and amazing patterns.There's also LED lighting around the circumference of the circle or the edge mound for XYLA and that highlights the contrast because of the shadowing.So again,it's a completely functional table.You put things on at easy to clean the glass,but there's always an evolving changing room pattern
Yeah.What's so striking about it as well is that,because it's always in motion,you can be looking at the table one day and it's,got one pattern and then an hour later,I guess it has a different design to it.So it's it looks like magical furniture that just morphs and transforms throughout the day.And I guess the LED lights that you've added,add to that,right?Because the other thing I saw is that you have an app,a companion app.To allow folks to program patterns and even like corporate logos,which I thought was very smart.So it's a really like fully connected table,right?
Basically from the beginning it was strictly a iot device in the sense there is no on switch there's no physical controls for it.So it was made to be operated with an app However,it's also intended to just plug in and work and create a calming environment,however,it works
We have two history lessons to go through today.First of all,we have a Kickstarter history,and then we have Bruce's and Micah's history as artists and co-founders in the business.Because from a Kickstarter perspective,you launched the first campaign in2016.And I believe that's also when Mike and Bruce,when you two met and teamed up,and correct me if I'm wrong,so talk me through around2016how this came to be a Kickstarter project that raised2million.And we'll start with you Bruce.What happened leading up to launching this first campaign?
The project in2016was something that Micah and I had worked on.leading up maybe one,two years,but at least a year before.But I had met Micah in2012.At a Makerspace in Minneapolis.We were both members.And I was there because I had a commission to do an installation in Australia,it was something I had changed the design and I needed a place to do at least a couple iterations of prototyping in large space.Plus a makerspace that had uh,CNC router,laser cutter was primarily what I,what needed.I found that at this makerspace and.It became clear pretty quickly who the stars were at the Makerspace who was really good at making things.And Micah stood out.We met pretty quickly and hit it off.And,over the next few years the idea that these museum size pieces could be shrunk down to table size.And,people could live with them as opposed to,seeing them occasionally at science museum started to evolve and grow in our minds.I think we bonded,especially in2015,about a year before the Kickstarter Micah came to Germany and Wolfsburg where we had,I had another three meter installation.We.Work well together.We started really thinking about launching Kickstarter and I think we were hoping to launch in2016in the spring at the Bay area Maker Fair.And we attended that,we set up and we were collecting emails by,by handwritten tablets.But we did delayed that till the October of2016cause we were quite ready.And so we coincided that with the New York maker Faire.And we were about one or two weeks into our campaign when we were at the New York Maker Faire2016.
okay,so we have an artist,Bruce.We have Micah's working at a makerspace.You two meet each other.You,you start thinking about doing this project together,but two makers or an artist and a maker does not necessarily equal a really successful$2million Kickstarter campaign.There's a lot of things that go into that.Micah,what did you do to actually prepare for this campaign and make it so professional and so successful?
That's a funny question cause,mostly we did to prepare for was develop product.I think we it's not always fair to kinda compare us to other companies starting up.I think where I was at least extremely fortunate to have been able to start with Bruce on such an amazing product that does have such broad appeal.To a certain extent it was just a matter of making it,being able to show it to people,we didn't do any paid advertising initially.Bruce had a email list of about1500people who had followed his kinetic artwork.And really that was it.Bruce says this sometimes,and I don't like it that much,but the product can kinda sell itself.And I think this is maybe one of the only cases where sometimes That's true.
Do you feel,cuz you have that data now of you're running a campaign today in2023and you ran one2016.Has the landscape changed?Is a good product enough or is there more that you need to do nowadays to promote it?
Yes,there is a lot more we need to do to promote it.We don't have the benefit of it being brand new anymore.Cause we've been around for seven years now.That's the main change.We've also learned what running a business actually means,how to market stuff,how to have a brand awareness and some of those more traditional things.And as we've grown in the beginning just Bruce and I we can no longer do that.It's not possible.Unfortunately,I don't get to spend as much of my time just just developing the products.So yeah,our landscape has changed a lot.Yeah,
you two started this project.The product sold itself,but you did$2million.Those$2million dollars hit your bank account two weeks after the campaign closes.Were you prepared for that level of success at the time?
Yeah,Bruce cuz you've been an artist most of your life working on commission pieces and without wanting to go into the stereotype of the,the struggling artist there is definitely a big difference,right?Between just making one off art pieces and then all of a sudden having it a consumer goods company with2million dollars in the bank.How did you transition from being an artist to running a product company?
There's one other founder that we're neglecting to mention that's my wife Bev.Uh,uh,She's our CFO and also,so there's there's three owners of the company and we now have another13employees.And again,Micah said it was just Micah and myself.At the time trying to make prototypes.I get ready to put this,my wife was intimately involved about in getting the campaign together and and there we didn't expect the success we had.At the time we were working out of a small area in the makerspace.And so we had to scramble to find a space.Neither.Myself,my wife,nor Micah had any prior experience with dealing with business.So we were really flying by the seat of our pants in terms of everything to deal with the business.We had no idea what we were getting into,but fortunately I think Micah is obviously a lot younger,but we were not in our twenties or something,so we.We,although I think we didn't know how to price things,we were conservative by nature.Which I think saved our ass a little bit.Because I,there's something extremely exciting about doing a first Kickstarter and as if the,the numbers are going up,get fixated on these numbers.What we didn't realize,and I think.Perhaps many first Kickstarter campaigns.People behind them don't realize is that,it's really about fulfillment.But at the time of the campaign it's very exciting.You said that2million hit the bank.Actually it's1.7because Kickstarter takes5%.Credit card takes3%.And then,We talked,this was in October,so my wife and I had an accountant doing our personal taxes and he said he looked it up and the government treats,this was back in2016,I don't know if it's different,but treats,crowdfunding and revenue as income.So had we not quickly formed a company with.Without digging into the details doing legal things.But we would've pretty much lost half of that,those funds that we needed to get things going to taxes immediately.Fortunately we were able to not do that.But these were all things that we were completely unprepared for.
Great piece of advice for creators.Definitely.Yeah.Think of those taxes because a lot of people tend to launch in fall and Yeah.Tax seasons around the corner when you do that.So the company today,you mentioned you have13employees you're outside of these Kickstarters you're shipping product on a regular basis.So you've built out an actual company.Do you still find some of that original joy in running this that you had in the beginning?Is it less joyful because you just have more things to think about or is it more joyful because you also have less things to worry about cuz you're not doing everything yourself?What is that difference?
Yes and no.We haven't mentioned kinda how grateful we're for the staff we have.I,again,found myself in a unique space where when I go looking for people to hire the people that turn up just turned out to be really special to us.And we just have a great team.I've always got that to this day.And hope not to lose that.Yeah,day-to-day tasks little more tedious.We are running a business now.More responsibilities,our employees most importantly.But it's,yeah,we still get to enjoy what we're doing a lot.We still have an awesome product that we get to work on with an awesome group of people.
Speaking of awesome products,let's take a deep dive into the past with Bruce's original egg bot.So I'll preface this by saying this is not all about eggs.Bruce has been an artist,online he is described as a motion control artist.Maybe today we would also call it creative technologist.But basically Bruce has this amazing overview of projects and definitely I recommend everyone check out the website,www.taomc.com,the art of motion control,which I think is Bruce's sort of personal website,which has in the portfolio tab,some of the older ones that like basically a sand print or in incredible stuff.But one of the products that Bruce first did was the egg bot and the egg bot.Bruce,you tell us what the egg bot is.
So going way back I loved science as a kid and ended up going to medical school.Met my wife in first year of medical school.We were both from Minneapolis.We trained together in Los Angeles,came back to Minneapolis,but when we came back to Minneapolis.I was working as an internist and I liked it.They had lunch called Brown Bag Luncheons or presentations where you go and doctors would give presentations on a subject and either their,your your cold lunch.And I vividly remember that what led to egg robot was a urologist,a researcher The title of the talk was Chaos Theory in Male Smooth Muscle of the Narrow Urethra.And during this,what was so mind blowing to me is he showed pictures of fractals,which to me at the time was fairly new to me.It was completely new and the thing that stuck with me is these amazing,infinitely complex landscapes,pictures were the product of a simple algorithm,a very simple math where the output is spread back into the input,and that governs how each pixel was painted.I ran into something called a stepper motor and I realized I didn't know how to hook it up.I had too many wires,but I realized it was a digital motor.So it basically took rotation and it was skimming motor and broke it up into pixels of motion.Which I had been consumed with these fractals and computing pixel by pixel,and the light bulb went off in my head.Maybe could use this kind of motion pixel to do Art Kinetica,to use this,purpose,this toward making art and realized that nobody was excited by watching little tape flags on a motor.And my kids were young at the time.They were bugging me that Easter was coming up,and I promise we would do some Easter egg coloring,and that's how Egg Bot came about,which is basically an X Y roter only a spherical coordinate.One motor turns the egg,the other mo wheel east to west,and the other motor puts the pen north to the south.And with that you can draw to the bottom of the egg.
It's and for people who are unfamiliar with this,it's a little machine where one may insert an egg and it will start drawing these intricate patterns on the egg.It's really beautiful.I wouldn't say it's quite the eye catcher as a Sisyphus table if you have this in your house to impress guests.But it's a wonderful little machine and it's a very sort of iconic maker product.So I,for me,I was actually surprised to find out you were both the creator behind the egg bot and these beautiful tables.What is next for this company?You obviously have your campaign going on right now.We'll link it into show notes for everyone who wants one of these beautiful tables at home.Because you've made this change from,first of it was only round tables and now you have square tables.But what is the next10years,a hundred years?Look like for Sisyphus
we certainly hope to continue selling Sisyphus tables and ours to,but also my business partner here to be a kinetic sculptor as well.And it's,as it's not his only project.So yeah we're starting actively starting to venture and developing some other products based on Bruce's and other artists work as well.
Yeah,no,we're yeah.To me it's really.It's never been about eggs or balls in sand,it's about being able motion control.And the reason I chose that terribly unsexy term,it's an industrial term,it encompasses robotics,automation,animatronics.Robotics I think was spoiled for me because I think it's hard to think of a robot without it being human sort of shape machine.For me,that's not my it's to try to see something that moves beautifully.And if I can do that write programs and forth to bottle that in a way that makes it accessible to other people,that's what I'm also looking for.There's a,at the very end of a Kickstarter video,I don't know how long it lasts.I think what we tried to do in that video was tease a little bit that although XYLA is not that big of a departure from above this sand,when you look at it,it's the same thing that's happening on the Sisyphus tables,except that there's a rectangular outline under it.At the end of the video,there's a small little teaser.It's completely different.I think it's very beautiful and it's interesting and it blows me away how very simple motion systems can exhibit really complex behavior.
That's very exciting.So we have something new coming up,so everyone has to check the last part of that video on the campaign,and that's a great way to get people through the campaign page as well.As we wrap things up,Micah,what's maybe your number one tip to give other creators,makers who are in a maker space right now tinkering away at something to launch a successful product business like you guys have?What would you want to tell those folks?
Certainly don't get discouraged and don't be afraid to fail.Easier said than done.I think we were afraid to fail,but it didn't stop us from doing it.That's probably the most important.
And think about your taxes when you do have a smash hit Yeah.Because you might have,you're working on something,it's hard.But it turns out to be a hit like the Sisyphus,table before you know it,1.7million lends in your bank account and the IRS is coming for you.So I think those are two wonderful pieces of advice.Thank you both so much for taking the time.I greatly appreciate it.It's been an absolute honor.I've been such a huge fan of your work for such a long time.And your company.Everyone go check out XYLA the kinetic art table.It is.Still on Kickstarter by the time that we release this podcast.So when you're listening to this,it'll probably have around seven to five days left.So definitely go check it out.The link is in the show notes.And Bruce and Micah will appreciate your support on the campaign as they continue to bring kinetic art to the world.Thank you guys so much.
Thank you.Thank you.