Getting Relay ready for play: From the lab to the playground
We hope that you’re as excited about the Relay launch as we are. Relay has come a long way from the drawing board to where it is now. As parents and as a tech company, we’re excited by Relay’s evolution and proud to share it from our family to yours.
Talking with the innovators behind Relay. First, we talked with engineers Pete and Sam about how Relay works. Pete makes sure the features we add to Relay run smoothly and Sam works with Relay’s design. It may seem like a magical mystery box, but Pete and Sam can show us the nuts and bolts.
Relay is a screenless cell phone alternative for kids that works like a walkie-talkie. According to Pete, Relay has the same coverage as a smartphone and uses 4G LTE to get messages where they need to go. It has high-tech inner-workings and a robust, advanced custom battery. To offer parents peace of mind about their kids’ location, Relay will also have GPS tracking from the companion app.
On the outside, Relay is anything but a smartphone. Of course, the most notable deviation is the lack of a screen. But it is also sturdy and rugged. Its small enough to fit in a kid’s hand or pocket, it’s water resistant and simple to use.
“You just press the button and talk, and it works.” – Sam, Relay Product Team
As for the way it works on the outside, Sam put it pretty well. “It has three buttons: one for talking, one for volume, and one for changing the channel. You just press the button and talk, and it works.”
We borrowed the channel concept from the classic walkie-talkie. When Relay first becomes available, it will have two channels. Channel one is for talking to the other Relays in your group. It also allows the Relays to talk to smartphones via the Relay companion app, which you can download free from the Google and Apple app stores. Channel two is an echo channel—a fun voice-changer that kids will love. It repeats what they say in high-pitch, low-and-slow pitch, and more.
Small, Simple, and Screenless. Our team is now putting the finishing touches on Relay. It’s been over three years since we began prototyping it as a safe cell phone alternative. Back in 2014, we had no idea the adventure we had ahead of us.
When the team started thinking about Relay, we had three questions in mind: How small can we build it, how simple can it be, and can we do it without a screen? As it turns out, the size is a bit less than three inches tall—about the size of a fun-sized candy bar. It’s as simple as a walkie-talkie, and yes, we did it without a screen!
Making this technology intuitive and easy to use was a challenge, but as our team watched their own kids use Relay, it was clear to see which elements were fun to use—and we removed any that were confusing for the kids.
“Our goal was to create a device that empowers play and living, not one that encourages motionless staring.”
– Sam, Relay Product Team
From the beginning, our goal was to create a device that empowers play and living, not one that encourages motionless staring. And it isn’t easy to make a simple interface for a device so complicated on the inside. But the team refused to take the easy way out. They wouldn’t add a screen—even a small one. As Sam said, “It’s a slippery slope… Before you knew it, you’d find yourself with a cell phone again!” Our team took the chance to create a brand new interface, one that wouldn’t spoil the elegance and simplicity of Relay.
On top of that, Relay needed to be fun. Jim, one of our top decision makers and a father of four kids, talked about how his experience with other products shaped Relay’s design. “The problem [was] that there was nothing fun about being tracked,” he said. “It’s like here’s your prison ankle bracelet… there was nothing fun about it.” So we worked to make Relay different, creating not only channels for communication and GPS, but also a fun echo channel for play. And as we update Relay, we’ll create new channels with games that promote active, unstructured play.
Relay goes back to the basics of what cell phones should do—keep people connected. “The phone’s kind of gotten away from that,” Pete says. “The phone’s become more of a handheld computer for browsing and whatnot. This goes back to the roots of the initial cell phone, where it was a communication device.”
Go Far, Stay Close. Once we had the technology, we needed to make more than prototypes. We are a local company from Raleigh, North Carolina. Our office is here, our people are here, and we are proud of that. We also play well with others and get stuff done. That means partnering with the best people and organizations in the world to make our technology happen.
Matt, who works in person with our international partners, also plays a big role with our team. Matt says that without teamwork and strong communication, innovation wouldn’t happen. Over our years in the tech industry, we have forged relationships with the very best. Now we’re working together with these partners on mechanical and electrical engineering for Relay. For Matt, it feels rewarding to be able to make a “shared product vision” into reality. “People who speak different languages and live far away can deliver a product together that is great for consumers,” he told us. And when the result is a device that keeps families connected, we can be proud of what we’ve accomplished.
Relay is important to us. Our kids are important to us. And you are important to us. It’s because of these three things that we can be this excited about how far we’ve come. The team’s enthusiasm has been inspirational; here are some of the things they had to say:
“I had this moment where I got really excited—when we delivered the initial form of the companion app… you go through the steps, and you can see how [the user] will activate this. It was just awesome, just awesome.” –Pete
“Last November…we had a tight timeline to get working prototypes before we flew back. Literally the last hour we were in the office, we hand-assembled four working Relays and saw them power up with the LED ring for the first time. It was really awesome to be there for the first ‘it’s alive’ moment!” –Matt
“The way that our team works together is amazing…At the end of the day everyone just wants to build a great product and solve real problems…It doesn’t happen very often in your career that you get to be part of a team like that.” –Jim
“If you look at technology since the smartphone has matured, the big steps forward in technology have not necessarily been making lives that much better. You could argue that in a lot of ways it’s degraded the quality of life for a lot of people. So what’s motivating about this product to me is that it does have potential to help us get back to the basics and use technology as a tool and a means to an end, not as an end unto itself. It enables families to enjoy their lives and gives kids freedom. That’s a bigger trend that I want to see more of in the technology we work on: doing something to help improve the lives of our users, not something to take their attention away from the life outside of their phone.” –Sam
Our next step is bringing Relay to your backyard! It will be available for purchase soon. If you have any questions for us, ask us on Facebook or in our online community forum, The Neighborhood.
We can’t wait to share Relay with you!
About the Author:
Victoria works on the Member Engagement Team for Relay and Republic Wireless. Though she isn’t a parent yet, she wants to find a way to keep the children in her family safe, active, and imaginative. She wants her baby cousins and her future family to have the same free and active early childhood that she had—while staying safe and connected.
“I grew up with one foot on both sides of the millennium, so I remember playing outside with my neighbors and being home before dark, but I also remember when people stopped calling each other on the phone and when the high score in a fad app was more important than chatting around the lunch table at school. I think Relay is a game-changer for parents everywhere, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”