Interview w/ Biofire's Lead Designer: Features and Reliability
[ Developing the Biofire Smart Gun ] Hi guys, thanks for tuning in to another video on ForgottenWeapons.com. I'm Ian McCollum, and I'm joined today by Bryan from Biofire. Bryan, you were the second employee here. - I was. - And you're the lead designer for Biofire, right? - Yes, sir. - So what I thought we could talk about today is some of the several years of design iteration that you guys went through. Because to my mind that's one of the big things that separates Biofire from the other so-called "smart gun" development that's been out there.
You guys actually spent a lot of time trying to figure out ... what does this technology need to be to properly work for a customer. And so I guess that starts with figuring out who the customer is. So did you start with the same notion of an ideal customer that you've ended up with today? - I would say it's similar, we definitely we started with assumptions. As designers we really do try to approach things from a scientific perspective, like OK, let's form a hypothesis, let's make experiments, let's go test it. ... When I just came into the company I did start with the framing of the Armatix and understanding how bad that failed.
And I think we spent a lot of time at the beginning talking about what went wrong there. Both Kai and myself we are gun owners, so we could kind of take a look at that and say, "Well, this is not a gun we would ever want to, own." Based off a lot of things, the calibre, the way the unlocking worked. And so we did form a hypothesis, we kind of started with ourselves. I'm a gun owner, I've been shooting most of my life. And so I thought about if I had a gun that only unlocked for me, how would it work? How would it unlock? How would I live with it? How would I store it? And then we looked at sort of the landscape of gun owners and formed some hypotheses of who might be interested.
We homed in pretty quickly on home defence. There's always that dichotomy of like how do you be able to quickly access your firearm in an emergency, but also ... store it safely. - Right. And from what we had seen, there's really no good solution that didn't create extra time.
You know like the issues with safes, you have to be able to get to them quickly. It's distance and time that you may or may not have. Any trigger locks that you can do, it's still an extra step. ... We saw on some of our early testing that when things go bad people move quickly, they fumble, they forget things. And so like we really kind of thought, "Alright, if this thing's going to work the way that we want it to, it's got to be a seamless experience."
And so we kind of formed this as a framing of this hypothetical blue sky product that worked and then talked to people about it. And so a lot of that for us started with surveys we put out. And what we were really looking for was a great starting place for us is who was concerned enough about their personal safety that they believed they wanted to own a firearm to protect them, but they hadn't bought it yet. - OK, that makes sense. - And so that was kind of a starting point for us to talk to them a little bit more and be like, "Alright, talk to us about your concerns. You've indicated that you want to take your personal protection into your own hands, but you haven't done it yet.
- That's a group that you've already, just by that sequence, identified as they have some issue that's prevented them from buying a gun already. - Absolutely. - Perhaps it's one that you can solve. - Yeah. And so like that was kind of the framing, we didn't tell them who we were, what we were doing, we just wanted to have an open dialogue. ... This activity that we have behind us is something that we did as a part of that. And so we would talk to them and say, "Alright, let's say hypothetically the perfect firearm exists for you, what features would it be?" And like we did this activity where we gave them all kinds of different things they could pick from. And some of them were things that are available now, let's say let's pick your size of gun, pick your capacity.
Ian, you say you want a handgun, double-stack magazine, 9mm, full size. What else do you want in it? We kind of give them the options of like performance triggers, night sights, things like that. And then we also mix in this other category that were future technologies. And we say hypothetically these are things that happen down the road, but if they were available to you, would you be interested? And like one of those we said integrated biometric Glock. And some people would say, "So wait a minute, well so like only I can unlock this? Like my kids can't get a hold of it? My roommate, who I don't know super well, can't get a hold of it?" And we go, "Yeah." And so that kind of helped us form a persona around who has this concern.
And then once we talked to enough of those people, we started to get less and less surprised about the things they were saying, they were repeating them over and over again. So at that point you can kind of form a pretty firm persona about them, and then we can build requirements around that. So that was sort of the first step of identifying who it was, and then we kind of knew enough about that that we could specifically target that group. - OK. And at this point in your development you were working with essentially a SIG 320-based firearm. Like we're going to take an existing working platform and add biometrics to it.
And it sounds like that worked really well for you as a platform to be able to rapidly iterate and test new designs and ideas, yeah? - It did. So yeah, so ... when I came into the company Kai had already developed the proof of concept on a Glock 22 just to be able to show people like, "Hey, you can stop a gun from firing." It was like a trigger blocking mechanism, didn't work super well, but it was kind of enough to be a proof of concept. For us to actually move this forward into product development, we wanted something that we could rapidly iterate on, as you said, just to see how this might work.
And so P320 was a great platform for us because it was modular. We didn't have to build the firearm from the ground up at that point, it was just tried, proven, worked really well. And we came up with a mechanism that I would say is definitely not a production product. It was way too slow, battery life wasn't near where we needed to be. But it did effectively work with fingerprint sensors so we could iterate on things like ergonomics, we could iterate on things like user interface. How it communicates information, where it does that, how it does that.
We tried very a bunch of different methods I was showing you yesterday. - Yeah. - Maybe we'll go over that today, and we could do that very, very fast. Because at this point we're basically doing grip modules for P320s. - Right. So we could turn concepts around sometimes in 24 hours. We could learn something with a group of people and go - tweak it.
- ... Yesterday you told me you ... actually in Solidworks built a negative model of all of like the mechanical elements of a 320. So you could design a grip frame and just with like one click delete everything that would turn it into a 320 grip frame and send that to a 3D printer. - Yeah, we can actually show you one of those here, we have a couple of them.
So there's actually four different versions of that iteration of the gun here. And so you can see on the underside, if you look at the inside of a production P320 grip module it's going to look very similar to this. - Yeah. - We started from that as a scan and then built the model from this. And then we also did the same thing for our prototype electronics.
We did tool bodies for those, all the ... passes for the flex PCBs. All of our connection points for any covers we wanted to do. And so that work we did once, and then I could just iterate on it and just literally hit subtract and take it out of a solid body. And that allowed me to customise things like the position of the fingerprint sensor angles. If I wanted to look at different grip styles, different grip angles, things like that we could iterate on that pretty fast.
- So you started with just a fingerprint sensor, right? And what's the problem with just a fingerprint sensor? Why not just stick with that? - Sure. Well I mean every lock has its limitations, right, or every reader has its limitations. And so like let's say it's cold outside and you're wearing gloves. A fingerprint sensor is not going to work for you.
If you've damaged your fingerprint in any way, maybe you register with something and you get a cut on it and it takes a little while for that cut to heal. For that temporary amount of time it's not going to read for you. Or maybe you just slip, you're talking about something where it's an emergency, you're grabbing it, maybe your finger is off it just a little bit. An adult human can cover 10 feet per second, that's maybe time you don't have. And so we knew right from the very beginning this thing's got to work, it's got to work all the time.
So we wanted to give as many different options for people as we could. And so looking at facial recognition and fingerprint sensor, those two in combination together where it's a redundant system, whichever one it gets first, that really reduced the amount of chances that this gun is not going to unlock for you. - So ... the dual authentication system, was that something you were basically doing from the beginning, or was there some event or experience that that led you to go, "You know what, we have to abandon the single source and go to two redundant systems."
- It's a great question, yeah. So one of the activities I did with users, and this was after we were through that first ... phase of identifying the persona, I'm talking to more and more people from that group. I would do these activities where I would have it was like a product A, product B, product C. And so with those it would be just a very generic gun form, like we didn't want anybody focusing on the design at that point.
It was like product A has a fingerprint sensor, product B has facial recognition, product C has both. Then we would kind of talk with them about the pros and cons of both, and then ask them which one they would want. And we'd assign like some kind of a monetary value. And what we were looking for there is quantifiable value proposition, like is somebody willing to pay a little bit more to have those features? And there was a very strong correlation of people that were like, "I want both. I want both because this works great in this scenario, that works great in that scenario. But I don't know which one I'm going to be in in every situation, so give me both.
And I'll pay for it basically." - OK. So a couple of the other things that are interesting to me about the Biofire pistol that we don't really see developed as ... well in other technology like this, ... one is the presence system which we'll get to in just a minute. And then the other is communicating with the user.
So there's lots of different theoretical ways that you could communicate the pistol status to its user. And you I believe did a lot of iteration on those and testing of those, can you tell me more about that? - For sure, yeah. So we looked at a few different general ways to communicate information. One of them was putting a screen on the gun. We're used to seeing screens on things and we were able to come up with a mechanical version of that that was pretty reliable under live fire. Showed system status, communicate state, battery level, things like that.
We also looked at LEDs, and combinations of those two. Haptic as well. And we did the same types of things. So we would talk to people and say, "Hey, alright: product A, product B, product C, what are you most confident in?" And then we also did some situational testing where we actually simulated some home invasions with people like crash, somebody's coming at you.
And just kind of like perceive how they interpret information. And it was very interesting, we kind of compared it to almost like a dive computer. Like when you've got something that's life critical, what is the most direct way to communicate to you the information that you need in a way that you can perceive it when you are task saturated basically? And so as a designer I also looked at very pretty moving lights and things like that, but like really at the end of the day people just wanted to know the status as quickly as possible. And so where we kind of landed with that, with the combination of facial recognition we moved away from having a screen on the gun and basically looked at very discreet indicators that communicate ... only a couple of things in very, very deliberate ways. And so from there it was where do we put them? And so we looked at the beavertail area as just an area that we have the camera system anyway. We figured pretty quickly there's room to do it, let's go ahead and put a status indicator right there.
We also would talk to new shooters, shooting instructors, to kind of talk about like how are you teaching novice shooters how to defend themselves? And these are the customers that ... are not going to do three gun, they're not doing competition shooting. They're going to learn how to use their gun, they might only take one lesson on how to do this. ... How are you teaching those people how to shoot and what to look at? And so we saw a lot of people talk about you get your front sight on target. Like if somebody's coming at you, you might not have time to lollipop the target on top of the front sight, equal spacing between front and rear. Get your front side on target.
... A lot of studies show that people point and back down basically when somebody's coming at them. And so that led us to think, "What if we put an indicator in the front sight?" Like this is right where you're going to be looking, you're going to be looking at your target. How do we get that information about the status of the gun to you as quickly as possible? And so that did lead us to make a front sight indicator, and the whole concept of the flyover cover kind of came from that. - OK. You had an interesting story that sometimes what people think is going to be the best way for them to communicate with the gun isn't necessarily [so] under stress. ... What did you find about people actually recognising what they were being told by a front sight indicator? - Yeah, so this is in term of colours? - Yeah. - Yes, that was interesting.
We had a lot of conversations about what colour indicates this versus that, status of the gun locked versus unlocked. And we would ask people after going through that exercise what colour they saw. And a lot of times they would say different things than what they actually witnessed. And so that really kind of told ... us that the discrete colour was what was most important. And they were able to say that the indication did change and the status did change, but in that task saturation they were not perceiving things like colours and stuff like that, which is interesting.
- Change it to purple and they're like, "Oh, that was green I think." - But having said that, colours do matter and colours are important to people. And so like we did have a big internal debate about what colour the gun needed to show when it was unlocked. And so like with a lot of new people green means go, to a lot of experienced gun owners red means dead. And so there's this big internal debate about what colour do we make it by default? And so that was ... one of the advantages of going to the smart dock system
is it allows the user to pick. - That's really cool. - We'll give you a default colour, ... our research has shown a lot of people say, "OK, green means go." But if that doesn't mean that to you, change it. - ... It was really interesting to me that you have ... an option for a visible laser on the gun.
Which is really easy to set up because the gun's already got a battery built into it, and all the control systems. And one of your default settings is to turn the laser on by default when the gun authenticates. And I think you said that was among ... experienced shooters, everyone goes, "What's this stupid laser? Turn this thing off." But amongst novice shooters that was an ideal indicator that the gun is live and usable. - Yeah, for sure. So yeah, it was interesting talking to different groups of people
how they value things like flashlights, lasers. The laser is one in particular that more experienced users are like, "It gets in the way more than it helps me. If that thing gets out of alignment ... why should I trust it? I trust my iron sights more than anything else." And that's totally understandable. Part of the reason we did that, ... when we built the electronics for the gun
we took up all of the area that normally would be a Picatinny rail. So we've sort of taken that option. - Right, all of this stuff. You don't have a space there for rail. - It's all filled in ... electronics and battery, and again you could put a rail on it, you could stack things on it, it gets kind of ridiculous at a certain point. So there's one of the things, we were laying out the components, ... this really would not be much more expensive to add this component, just give it to people.
And if they want to use it they can, and we'll go ahead and ... factory set it a certain distance. And we can, as you mentioned, use it as an indicator. So let's say you are in a situation trying to defend yourself, maybe you don't even have time to bring your gun all the way up on target, you can see that dot, you know that it's unlocked and ready to go. So that's a thing that people were pretty interested in so we went ahead and did that. And then yeah for more experienced users, I think the first Tier 1 operator we had try the gun out immediately it was like, "How do I turn this thing off?" He did not want it at all.
And so it was kind of cool to get that perspective, and like, OK, we got to give people the option. Let's go ahead and give it to them, it's easy enough. - And again having the smart dock for it, you can turn it off. Or if you want ... the button to be press and it stays on
versus it's ... a momentary switch, it's only on while you hold it. All those things, ... just set the thing up the way you want it. Yeah. - For sure. Yeah, and we did some research on making sure we put the button in a place where ... you don't have to really think about it.
In design we call it semantic research, like what does the product language tell you? Basically if the product is sitting on its own, there's no instruction manual, how do you interpret how it works? And so we did a lot of research for ... where to place the laser, where to put the button? And we put that in the place where we had some strong signals from. - Alright, so then the other thing, ... I don't know of any other technology like this that has integrated a system to basically identify if you're still holding the gun, a presence system.
That was really interesting to me, the idea that I think a lot of people figure, "Well OK, it's identified me, but then what if I move the gun ... away from my face and my finger comes off the fingerprint sensor? Well now it goes dead." But it doesn't, because you've built in a pretty sophisticated system to identify have you put the gun down or ... has someone grabbed the gun from you. And as long as it thinks you're still holding it, it remains active. How did that come about?
- Yeah, so it started right from the very beginning when we were going to talk to people about what are you concerned about owning a firearm for home defence? Most people, I would say like 99% of people have never fired a gun in defence of their life. A lot of them don't know if they can actually do it. So there's a little bit of a hesitation, and what if I hesitate and that's the split second decision that means that gun gets turned against me. And like it's common knowledge that if you aren't willing to fire that gun, that gun becomes a liability against you. And so a lot of people were concerned about, "What happens if I can't, and that gun does get turned on me?" We can make it so that person can't shoot the gun.
So that was a big attractive point to a lot of people. ... It's almost like Thor's hammer. It works for me, I put it down, you can't pick it up. And at the same time for safe storage, one of the big values we want to sell with Biofire is it just works. Like you pick it up and it works, you put it down it doesn't work. You don't have to remember to put a lock on it, store it in a certain way.
- Hold on, let me authenticate the gun with my watch here. - Yeah, and we've heard stories of people that put their guns down, even very experienced gun owners, law enforcement, who put their gun down and the doorbell rings or something and then they see their kid go reach for their gun. So we wanted to make it so there was no extra steps for you to have to perform, you put the gun down, it's locked. - OK. To me honestly the more interesting element of the system is that I can fiddle around with my grip and lose immediate access to all of the authentication systems, but as long as I'm still holding it, it remains active. - Right. So you don't have to put pressure on a switch, you don't have to maintain any certain biometric in view.
So like let's say you unlock ... the gun from face or fingerprint, but maybe you want to check your house and have it low ready or by your side. The gun will stay unlocked as long as you still have control over it, so you can adjust your grip a little bit. We did a lot of research on different ways to do this, so we looked at mechanical switches for the presence detection.
We looked at time-of-flight lasers, we looked at pressure switches, things like that. And the system that we came up with ... there are several sensors, and several different things that have to be true, we found that to be the most reliable. Like when we originally designed the system, ... there's a few iterations here that actually might have it. - Yeah, that's what I was looking for, ... it's a grip safety pressure switch. - So on this one ... it's a little pressure switch on the back, and this works pretty well
as long as you choke up really strongly on the beavertail like you're taught. And ... we tried it with novice shooters, they weren't activating it, they were holding it a little looser. And so like going with the system that we did works with the widest range of people. And it's also important for us to lock when you want it to lock. So if you're putting it in a bag, or you're putting it in a closet or something like that, the system had to be smart enough to know, alright, there's something in range of one of the sensors, but it's not a human hand. - I love how much actual R&D, development, thought process has gone into this.
And I think that's something that really separates it from the other stuff that's been out there. - Yeah, we've approached it as what we want as gun owners. We understand that the bar is very high. - Yeah.
- ... We say all the time our users number one requirement is reliability. This thing's got to work when you need it to work. And so that's why ... it's I think in some ways kind of a spaceship that you hold in your hands.
Like as far as like what else is out there. But it's the full measure, OK, it had to be this. - Yeah, well I'm very excited to get my hands on one. I know it'll be a couple of months before these are available retail. Like you guys are getting pretty close to that at this point, but this ... has been pretty much a sneak peek, an early tour of the system.
So once they are available, I'm going to get my hands on one and play around with it in all sorts of environments, and ... I think that'll be a really great test for it. But until then, it's been fascinating and I really appreciate your time, thank you. - Thanks for taking the time, man, appreciate it. Hopefully you guys enjoyed the video. Thanks for watching.