Behind The Design: SunLight

February 19, 2018

7 Secrets That Make That Little Bundle Of Sunshine Even More Awesome

As obvious as it sounds, we’re big fans of SunLight over here at the BioLite office. We’ve taken it hiking, skiing, climbing, and even just reading in bed in a guest room that had no bedside lamp (why does that always happen?).

If you’ve watched SunLight’s 60 second intro video, you know the basics. This post goes a little deeper and gets a little nerdier; we sat down with SunLight’s lead designer Mike Knuepfel and discussed some of the quieter design details that went into SunLight’s product development to bring you your newest solar sidekick.

1) SunLight's origins start in Kenya.

“While doing user research for SolarHome 620, we found that solar lanterns are super popular in emerging markets,” says Mike. “They’re low cost and provide a ton of value to customers who would normally be buying kerosene for lighting (which is relatively expensive and gives off poor lighting quality). We saw how useful this product was to our customers in emerging markets and thought a portable solar lantern could be the basis of a great product for both of our communities. That was the moment that led us to start developing SunLight.”

(A version of SunLight will start distribution in Kenya and Uganda in Spring 2019).

2) It’s hip to be square.

Early on, we knew we wanted to build around a rectilinear design to maximize the amount of solar power, while minimizing the overall size of the product. (Side note: a solar cells are typically cut into shapes with right angles). We turned to 3D printing to quickly explore a variety of 4-sided forms and surprised ourselves when we found everyone on the team gravitating towards a square over a rectangle.

“There was something fun and playful about the square models,” says Mike, “it felt friendly but also useful – it’s really satisfying that it fits perfectly in the palm of your hand.”

From there we made the form as small as possible while still fitting the battery, enough solar power, and enough diffusion space for the LEDs so that there wouldn't be any shadows or dark spots on the lens of the SunLight.

The resulting flatpack form factor makes SunLight easy to use, and even easier to pack: Tanner Bowden of Gear Patrol says, “Show me a fully-packed bag, and I’ll find a way to sneak a SunLight in there.”

3) Robots lent a helping hand.

This is Mike’s favorite little-known-fact: “the adhesive holding the solar panel in place is applied by a robot. This helps keep the seal on the solar panel water tight.” With SunLight handling adventures outside rain or shine, this seal was critical to our IPX4 rating.

4) Our kickstand got put through the ringer.

Simply put, the kickstand on SunLight rules: it helps you align your solar panel perfectly for fast charging and allows you to angle your lantern at night so you have light right where you want it (not to mention it makes it super easy to clip SunLight onto a backpack for easy charging while hiking). But that means the pressure is ON for the kickstand to perform: it has to move smoothly and stay rigid at the same time – a pretty tall order.

The design team worked constantly on the friction of the handle components until it was just right – and to make sure it stood up to long-term use, we built a custom testing rig to simulate thousands of rotations. For our super-users out there, this rig was re-purposed from our SolarPanel 5+ testing station (nice spot, Eagle Eyes).

5) We put an optical illusion to work.

There’s a hole in the upper corner of your SunLight - no, it’s not to thread a lanyard (but, hey, it’s your light, we’re not going to stop you), it’s actually a sundial to help you know just where to put your panel.

In order to make the sundial appear as a classic dot, we actually punch the physical sundial hole as an ellipse. When that ray of light hits the back of the sundial, it appears circular in shape.

6) One button to rule them all.

SunLight is simple. And that’s the whole point; we wanted this to be unbelievably easy to use with no learning curve (meaning your kid, grandparent, or non-outdoorsy friend could all use it without guidance). But simplicity can create a complex challenge: we packed in a bunch of lighting functionality but we didn’t want SunLight dripping in buttons. So we programmed a single button to achieve multiple modes and asked a whole lot of folks to give it a try.

“We did a lot of user testing,” says Mike, “and just when we thought we had everything figured out, an edge case would appear and we’d find a way to solve for it. The result is a great entry lantern for kids to use in the backyard or for campers staying off-grid for days at a time. It’s small enough to keep in a drawer in case of emergency and versatile enough to carry around in your everyday pack.”

Mike’s favorite piece of feedback? “Go for maximum chill! Party Mode needed to slow wayyyy down in cycling through colors – I love the end result.”

7) Sunlight has a secret superpower: low power reserves.

It may not be the most glamorous feature, but damn if it isn’t the most helpful: while the system runs for up to 3 hours on HI and 50 on LO, it’s got a secret stash of power that will run for an additional 4 hours so you’re never left in the dark. You’ll know you’re in Low Power Mode when the lantern only functions on a dim white setting – that’s a signal you’ve got four hours to get thee to some sunshine or a power source.

Have a question about SunLight’s design or the choices the product development team made? Join Mike and Erica for our SunLight FACEBOOK LIVE this Thursday, February 22nd at 1pm EST.

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