We are writing on location in beautiful Vermont and yesterday we spent a whole day in the offices of Step Ahead Innovations trying to wrap our head around their exciting new MindStream Aquarium Monitoring System. It really took a whole day for us to dive deep into the MindStream monitor and to understand nearly all the working parts that make this a very exciting new aquarium testing device.
The MindStream Kickstarter officially kicked off just two days ago and they’ve already received almost a hundred backers to the tune of more than $50,000. However they are still a lot of holdouts who want and need to know more about the MindStream before they will feel comfortable being a part of the first round of early adopters. The fundraising goal of $300,000 may seem like a lot of money but if you saw what we saw, you’d understand why so much capital is required to bring this class of next-level technology to market.
The engineers working to make the MindStream Monitor are so dedicated to the creation of the MindStream, and you can’t even imagine how perfectionist they are being about bringing their creation to market. We love it when radical new technology is introduced into the aquarium hobby, sometimes these advances are delivered by aquarist who are engineers, but in the case of the MindStream the device is being created by engineers who also happen to be aquarists.
This latter point is a very important one because it means that these guys at Step Ahead Innovations are doing their due diligence to research their field in the most fastidious way. What this also means is that what they will ultimately deliver to aquarists with the MindStream will not be a simple step ahead, but a leapfrog in aquarium technology the likes of which home chemical testing has never seen before.
We could write pages and pages about the MindStream, but we’ve done our best to boil down the most important and salient points of the MindStream into the top ten questions about the device. These are the layman speak answers to almost everything you could want to know about the MindStream Monitor
#1 How does the MindStream work?
The effective part of the MindStream is the replaceable discs that contain the light-sensitive chemical pads. These pads are a type of reversible/continuous test strips that last a lot longer using larger (more expensive) molecules that are embedded in long lasting material. The color change of the material is either fluorescent or colorimetric, and then read by much more accurate imaging (color) sensors.
There are color-changing pads for calcium, magnesium, potassium, oxygen, pH, ammonia, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Salinity is measured from conductivity, and alkalinity is calculated from the measurement of carbon dioxide and pH.
# 2 How much are replacement discs and how long do they last?
There is a Kickstarter backing level that currently lists the replacement discs at about $500 for 12 discs, so early adopters will get their first year of testing for $40 per monthly disc. Replacement discs will probably not sell for more than $50 per month, but this all depends on how efficient the production becomes. Remember, Step Ahead Innovations doesn’t just have to invent their new product, they also have to invent how they will manufacture the MindStream and the replacement discs. If all goes well, it is possible that we could see discs selling for three-packs of $99 in the near future, but this is not guaranteed.
Replacement discs will last at least a month, after that time some of the parameters will start to drift from their accuracy. Again, future improvements to the discs could see them lasting longer, but in order to shorten the development time and cycle of the MindStream the team is currently focused on making discs you can count on for a solid 30 days.
#3 How accurate is the MindStream monitor?
From what we personally witnessed, the MindStream is incredibly accurate. The team at MindStream is trying to achieve oceanographic levels of precision and accuracy. They are not only aiming to develop the MindStream for aquarium uses but also for research-grade deployment in lakes, rivers and the sea.
Interestingly, hobbyists don’t pay nearly enough attention to the measurement of temperature and salinity in their aquariums. However, MindStream is really dedicated to making all the parts as accurate and precise as possible so it looks like the MindStream Monitor might include the most precise temperature and salinity measurement and reporting that aquarists have ever had.
Step Ahead Innovations’s engineers are using research grade instruments to test their methods and for things like CO2, and ammonia, they will be accurate to parts per billion. Whereas aquarists are content with hobby test kits that report calcium and magnesium in increments of 10ppm, the MindStream should accurately measure them in increments of 1ppm. Only in unusual cases of adding too much buffer at once can you throw off the CO2 readings so much that alkalinity reading will be thrown off. Once the carbonate balance of the aquarium water is reestablished you should see alkalinity readings return to normal well within one hour.
# 4 What is the response time for the MindStream to test various parameters?
Measurements of temperature and salinity will be nearly instantaneously, while some of the other chemical testing pads have a response time between one and ten minutes. The MindStream measures and reports every 15 minutes so any changes you make should be accurate for these intervals.
Having 15 minute windows into the aquarium chemistry is a real breakthrough in our understanding of marine aquarium biology, and we’ll be able to see the rise and fall of oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the day, as well as the daily demands our animals make for calcium, magnesium and carbonates (alkalinity). You can even see the minute spikes of ammonia in an aquarium right after a heavy feeding and watch the levels fall nearly in real time in a well-cycled aquarium.
#5 Do I need a wifi connection to use the MindStream?
Yes. Having a wireless connection is a prerequisite to using a MindStream monitor. The Monitor itself doesn’t measure the levels that it reports, instead it measures the color-change of its chemically sensitive pads and reports these “readings” back to the big computer in the cloud. All of the sophisticated calculations of determining the concentrations of various parameters is performed remotely from the actual MindStream Monitor, so therefore your device must be connected to the internet. The beauty of this approach is that it allows Step Ahead Innovations to deploy new formulas for their calculations on the fly, and to even implement new calculations for previous readings, even without users ever having to perform any kind of firmware update.
#6 How does the MindStream handle biofouling and things growing on it?
This was one of our most pressing questions, and were really concerned that any number of things could interfere with the function of the MindStream monitor. Thankfully, the MindStream has a number of features built in to it to prevent a great deal of biofouling, and to make sure the device keeps reading accurately.
For the bigger animals, the MindStream disc rotates back and forth almost all of the time even when it is not scanning its chemical sensors; this keeps snails and other things from climbing onto the disc, and it keeps pods and worms from getting under the disc where they are not welcome. Furthermore, there is a small brush built into each and every disc that gently wipes the photo sensors to keep it nice and clean, but it doesn’t really need it as much as you’d think because the whole unit is made out of a special “space age plastic”. Zeonex is virtually impermeable to water, and has 16 times less adhesion to protein – simply put, things can’t really grow on the MindStream monitor or disc even if they wanted to, not like other black plastics anyway.
Furthermore, the sensor pads are photoreactive, that is they degrade with exposure to certain wavelengths of light, and it is their color and fluorescence that is read by the monitor itself. Therefore the active area of the MindStream sensor discs is specially designed to reduce any stray light from reaching the working area.
#7 How do you calibrate the MindStream Monitor and discs?
You don’t! This is one of the most beautiful parts of the MindStream monitoring system – all the sensor discs are calibrated by Step Ahead Innovations. Each disc has a small programmable RFID tag which can be read by the MindStream monitor. Each disc has its parameters and calibrations coded right into this small radio receiver and together with the cloud, each monitor knows exactly how each disc should be read.
The calibration of big batches of MindStream discs is one of the biggest challenges of getting the monitor out into the world. Thankfully, this is a task that MindStream performs on their end so users of the MindStream monitor will be able to simply soak their discs for 24 hours and pop their discs on for plug and play testing performance.
#8 Why is it so expensive?
If you saw what we saw at MindStream headquarters, you’d be asking yourself not why is the MindStream so expensive, but why is it so cheap? Step Ahead Innovations and their engineers have had to invent so many different new technologies and systems in order to make the MindStream not just kind of work, but really work.
There really aren’t any precedents for what the MindStream is and to that end the innovations incorporated into the MindStream Monitor have warranted many patents with many more pending. Setting up the manufacturing of the MindStream, testing their methods with research grade equipment, even designing how they test the MindStream with special chambers that have heat exchangers made of cast silver is really freaking expensive. We are confident that when the MindStream starts reaching a wider audience that hobbyists and reefers all over the world will wonder how they ever lived without it.
Speaking of which . . .
#9 Why isn’t it being shipped internationally?
There’s a myriad of reasons why the MindStream’s initial launch is being limited to the North American market. Not the least of which is that many countries require that the MindStream be tested by regulatory agencies, and that all of its various wireless components pass strict guidelines so as to not interfere with other wireless devices.
Also, many countries simply do not allow companies to sell products within their territory without setting up a customer support and service center within their borders. Passing all of these tests and setting up all of this infrastructure is well beyond the means of a start up company but in time MindStream is aiming to establish international partnerships all over the globe so that they can sell the MindStream to aquarists everywhere.
#10 Will the MindStream work with other devices?
This is one of the top questions asked by early adopters, top level hobbyists, and professional aquarists who want to dip their toes into the world of continuous chemical monitoring using the MindStream. On a long enough time line of course everything is possible, and Step Ahead Innovations will certainly pursue opportunities to make the MindStream compatible with other devices and ecosystems.
We would all love to have actions performed by our controllers in response to the parameters reported by the MindStream aquarium Monitor. However for now the MindStream team is focused on creating their core product and scaling up manufacturing to satisfy the current orders and to keep costs down.
There is so much more that could be said about the MindStream but the one thing we took away from our long visit to MindStream is that we are on the cusp of witnessing a paradigm shift in how we test and monitor our aquarium water. There is no way to compare the elemental water testing of mail-off aquarium services and the near real-time monitoring of environmental parameters reported by the MindStream.
Having access to calcium and alkalinity levels as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide levels of our aquarium every 15 minutes is going to unlock our understanding of aquarium biology in such fundamental ways that we can hardly wait for this device to reach our own tank, as well as the collective knowledge we will all gain from using it.
However, like all great things the MindStream has to walk before it can run, and it needs your help to get this first batch off the ground. We hope we’ve answered some of your primary questions about the MindStream monitor and if you’d like to be part of the first wave of backers of this next level technology, take a look at the Mindstream Kickstarter page and see if there is a level at which you’d like to contribute.