TutorCam, the remote learning device created by a California dad at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to help teachers and students and has grown into a tool used for online medical, business and leisure activities, has been honored with two wins at the prestigious International Design Awards.
It has been a rapid and incredible ride for Brandon Kennington and his innovative team at Los Angeles-based BlueKube.
TutorCam was in great company at this year’s IDA ceremony. It shared the winners’ podium with transformative designs by some of the world’s leading companies, including Apple, Google, Volvo, PepsiCo, Sony, Under Armour and carmaker Lotus which took the Product Design of the Year Award for its $2 million hand-built, pure electric Evija hypercar.
TutorCam has a beautiful, sleek and functional design and its brilliance is its price (retails for $45 for the TutorCam Go and $65 for the TutorCam Pro), simplicity, functionality, and track record in helping teachers and students during the pandemic when schools suddenly shut and remote learning became the norm.
“Our entire team – product design, marketing, and operations – rallied together on this one,” Brandon said.
“We worked extra hard to get the product into the hands of teachers and students before school started in the fall of 2020.
“It was great to see students using it, and now to receive an International Design Award, means the world to everyone on the team that helped make it possible.”
TutorCams are a document camera stand designed to hold a smartphone, iPad, or tablet during a video conference. TutorCams add an extra viewing window to focus on participants’ desks to provide a live shot of the workbooks, notepads, mini-white boards, science experiments and other tasks teachers/students are focused on. A regular remote learning lesson only allows teachers and students to see faces. The extra camera created by TutorCam allows participants to also see their work live.
Brandon came up with the idea for TutorCam in the early days of the pandemic while trying to help teach a remote math class via Google Meet at his son’s elementary school and assist his daughter during a virtual piano lesson with her instructor.
How does a teacher see students working out math problems live and how does a piano instructor see a student’s fingers hitting the keys during a remote lesson when they are not in the same room?
“When my daughter started her piano lessons remotely I used one of those long flexible selfie sticks to hold a phone over her hands,” Brandon, recalling the days that led to the creation of the TutorCam, said.
“The piano teacher could then see her hands as she played. We then used the same ‘invite link’ for the video conference again on a laptop she put on the piano to view her face. It worked. The same link could be used twice by two different devices. That’s when the lightbulb went on.”
Brandon working with an early TutorCam prototype.
Brandon initially had more than 50 TutorCam design ideas.
Some of the ideas were complex and expensive and eventually ruled out.
“We knew we wanted this to be a low cost and low-tech solution, given most kids and teachers were already overwhelmed with new technology,” he said.
The key was to design a TutorCam to use both front and rear cameras on a smartphone or tablet. He initially thought mirrors could be a key part of the design, but found they reversed or inverted the image.
Glass prisms were the solution.
Early prism design. Brandon knew he wanted a low-tech solution to display a teacher’s workspace, so he enlisted the help of long time friend, Blake Noh, to help design the TutorCam’s core feature, its patented optical lens.
Another key design point was settling on the TutorCams’ size and weight.
“We spent a lot of time calculating the tipping point and whether we needed to add counterweight to ensure it didn’t tip over,” Brandon said.
“We bent some metal material to see how tall it should be and what angle it would stand up. This was all just trial and error. Getting a feel for size and shape.
“The final hinge design was another big debate. Should it be able to tighten or loosen? Or should it just be able to move with friction?”
With the design finalized it then became a race against the clock to have TutorCams available for teachers and students before August 2020 when the new school year started in the US. Brandon and his BlueKube team achieved the incredible feat and testament to the quality of their work were the two wins at the recent International Design Awards ceremony.
There have been plenty of other accolades. NBC’s iconic morning TV show, Today, featured TutorCams in a segment and described them as a “must-have”. Teachers and students have also offered rave reviews.
Monica Davis, a first grade teacher in Alabama, uses her TutorCam everyday.
Another great surprise was how customers discovered how TutorCams could be used for purposes outside remote classrooms. Speech pathologists, telemedicine professionals, online chefs, artists, nail artists, Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts, sports coaches and friends, families and work colleagues separated by quarantines and lockdowns have used the device to connect.
“The long hours of making a product from scratch and launching it can get very lonely and grueling,” Brandon said.
“Winning a design award is a wonderful reminder that ‘other’ people see the value in the product and appreciate the effort that goes into the details to make a great product.”