A Pandemic-Induced Bankruptcy Killed the HAL-9000 Smart Speaker

Illustration for article titled A Pandemic-Induced Bankruptcy Killed the HAL-9000 Smart Speaker
Image: Indiegogo

If you need another reminder that it’s an especially risky time to back crowdfunded products on sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, Master Replicas Group, who introduced a smart speaker version of the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, is shutting down, and unless a minor miracle occurs (space babies?) backers probably won’t be getting their smart speakers.

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Revealed way back in the late Summer of 2018, MRG’s HAL-9000 replica smart speaker was officially licensed from Warner Brothers and as a result featured an impressive level of accuracy, including an actual wide angle camera lens (that served as HAL’s all-seeing, lip-reading eye) attached to an official Nikon F-mount.

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The speaker by itself was a hefty $600, while an optional Command Console, which introduced buttons and a screen featuring animations inspired by the classic sci-fi film, was twice that at $1,200. But that didn’t stop the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that MRG was using to help fund and put the replica into production from eventually raising almost $650,000, well past its modest $80,000 funding goal.

The earliest backers of the replica were supposed to receive their HAL-9000 smart speakers in January of 2019, while those opting for the Command Console accessory would have to wait a bit longer until March, 2019. Unfortunately, based on updates from the company on its Indiegogo page dating back to January of last year, production delays meant the HAL-9000 replica didn’t get out the door as early as MRG had anticipated, and that was followed up with more bad news in March of this year as the company admitted the covid-19 pandemic had further complicated its ability to deliver the smart speaker to backers.

A few months later, on July 29, 2020, Master Replicas Group shared its last update on Indiegogo, revealing that the company had “filed a Voluntary Petition for Bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on July 23, 2020. It was necessary to take this step to restore the company’s financial position, reduce costs, and address outstanding orders for some of the company’s products.”

The update seemed cautiously optimistic about Master Replicas Group being eventually able to deliver its HAL-9000 replica as the company worked to reorganize itself, but a backer of the smart speaker shared with Engadget a notice they received from the company indicating that it had “converted its Chapter 11 bankruptcy (filed in July) to Chapter 7 on October 16th” and would be shutting down and liquidating its assets.

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At this point, unless another company steps in to save MRG and is willing to fulfill all of these orders, there is little chance that backers of the company’s HAL-9000 Indiegogo campaign will ever see their products. It’s another unfortunate reminder that while crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo can be an invaluable tool for amateur inventors looking to bring their creations to the masses, it also places nearly all of the risk on those ponying up the money to help a product potentially see the light of day, and more often than not, when it doesn’t, there’s little they can do in terms of getting their money back. If there was ever a time to be overly-cautious about backing crowdfunded products, particularly electronics where so much can go wrong as it moves through production, 2020 is it.

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DISCUSSION

This has all the hallmarks of someone (or group) who had a great idea but didn’t have the business expertise to pull it off. Bringing a product like this to market is complicated, and the market for it is inevitably niche.  A lot of crowd-funded widgets like this have similar problems, and this one was more complicated than most.