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State of the Arts: Akron Tech Startup Makes Little Products With Big Possibilities

Retro-style video games are making a comeback. Nintendo and Sega are reissuing classic game systems and even long-dormant Atari is coming back to market with a brand new console. On this week’s State of the Arts, we visit a tech company in Akron that makes its very own nostalgic game console, so small it takes a light touch and real concentration to master.

Tiny Circuits founder Ken Burns is an '80s kid. He grew up in a time when arcade games like Street Fighter and Pac Man reigned. So when he founded his tech company that specializes in small, modular circuit boards, it’s only natural that something like the Tiny Arcade was born.

"Basically the idea is it’s a little arcade cabinet that you build yourself," Burns said at this downtown Akron production facility and offices. 

And Burns does mean little. The Tiny Arcade is about 3.5 inches tall and weighs less than two ounces.

The teeny-tiny game console started out as a showcase of what Tiny Circuits' processing chips could do, but Burns says it's turned into a real money maker.

The Portable Arcade
"In the box you get all the components that you need to actually put together the arcade. There’s an instruction manual in there. And so the case is a laser cut acrylic case and it fits together like a little jigsaw puzzle."

Burns said the kit can be assembled for the first time in around 15 minutes.

Credit Mark Arehart
Mark Arehart
The Tiny Arcades kit snaps together in about 15-20 minutes.

"The idea is it’s a fun little project you can put together. You don’t have to solder anything. And you can download games free off our website. It comes pre-loaded with some games. Or if you’re really adventurous, you can create some games for it." 

The Tiny Arcade is based on a hardware and software platform called Arduino. It’s completely open source, so anyone is free to tinker with it. Or hack it.

"People can take it, tweak on it, and completely redesign it. We’re not telling our users this is what you have to do with it. Here’s all these things you can do. Go at it."

People can use an array of Tiny Circuits’ boards, screens and accessories like electronic LEGOs to make a tiny television, a miniature remote controlled airplane, or a wheeled robot that moves along walls on its own. 

Burns points to little sensors on wires, he affectionately called "whiskers" that can be swapped in and out to add functions like gyroscopes, altimeters, air quality sensors, remote control and even Bluetooth. 

"It’s really nice to be able to just plug something in and you’re going. And if you have to change something, just plug a new thing in. And that’s really our big selling point."

What's in the Box
At the core of all this tech, is the circuit board. Each one is the size of a postage stamp and Tiny Circuits makes them at its production facility. It's housed in one corner of the old Goodrich plant in downtown Akron.

He walks around a loud, buzzing machine busy at work.

"You’re looking at what’s known as a pick-and-place machine." It's a behemoth, the size of a small car, working away, building the tiny circuit boards. 

"So it’s basically a big, robotic machine that will pick up the raw components, those are transistors, resistors, capacitors, things like that, and then place them on the circuit board that has wet solder paste." 

Credit Mark Arehart
Mark Arehart
Many of the components are smaller than a postage stamp.

The components themselves are so tiny you can barely feel them in your hand. 

“(They) are 1mm by 1/2mm in size."

The boards are assembled, tested, packed and shipped from this facility all over the world through partners like eBay and Amazon.

Staying in The Rubber City
Tiny Circuits has been featured in Mashableand had several successful Kickstarter campaigns. So why not move the company to Silicon Valley to become the next “it” tech startup?

"Really with what we do, selling online, there’s no advantage to being somewhere else," Burns said. 

Staying in Akron really helps the company's bottom line.

He can rent his entire office and production space for just a fraction of what he would pay in the Bay Area.

"(In Silicon Valley) people aren’t really familiar with production stuff, whereas out here in Ohio it’s kind of our base. It’s manufacturing."

Add that to the talented engineering pool from local universities and the low cost of doing business, and he couldn’t see the company anywhere else.

Note:  This article has been updated to correct a spelling error.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.