How You Can Build Your Own Phone

Three years ago, I envisioned building a non-rectangular smartphone for women. Not a typical dream for a stay-at-home-mom, but I was not your typical SAHM. I had taken electronics and programming courses in college as a part of my physics degree. Although it had been a while since those glory days, building a phone was not an idea that seemed completely unattainable to me (albeit a wacked-out, impossible notion to most of my friends). Fast forward to today and I am the CEO and Founder of dTOOR, a company inspiring others to make non-rectangular phones for non-rectangular people, starting with The Cyrcle Phone.

In addition to conceiving The Cyrcle Phone, I am a huge advocate of humans taking technology into their own hands and crafting it to their own needs. Fortunately, the tools have gotten easier and more accessible just in the last 6 years, thanks to many determined and hardworking people, making it possible for virtually everyone to build their own kit phone. I am here to highlight their efforts and help you start your own journey of building your own phone.

First: You’ll Need a SIM Card

Example: a GSM SIM card from Ting (make sure it says “GSM” not “CDMA”)

Before we begin, it is important to point out that you will need a “GSM” (not CDMA) SIM card for any of these kit phones. In the United States I currently use Ting cards because you only pay for the minutes you use, and in my experience (and from what I have heard elsewhere) they have excellent customer service. However, any GSM SIM card will work.

Seeed Studio’s RePhone Kit Create

Seeed Studio’s RePhone Kit Create: The cutest phone you’ve ever seen

It is possible to put together Seeed Studio’s RePhone Kit Create in less than 10 minutes. Yes, 10 minutes. Admittedly, most of that time is spent simply delighting in taking the components out of the box, and reviewing the straightforward, Ikea-style instructional pamphlet. You may want to add a few more minutes for to personalize the blank paper cover of the phone with some pen art, or you can download the cover off of Thingiverse for even more design options. The only potentially tricky part is telling the difference between the two smaller-sized grommets that attach the circuit boards to the paper cover. However, even if you mix up the grommets, the phone still works.

This seven year old girl was in dTOOR’s initial parent-kid phone classes in May 2016. Although our recommended age was 9 years and older, her father asked for permission for her to attend as she was a maker to the core and loved building stuff using littleBits. She rocked! (The only thing she let her dad do was use the Exacto knife to trim the corners of the case  — and we really had to insist.)

The best part of all is that the RePhone Kit is not as expensive as other phone kits. Currently it is offered for $59 on the Seeed Studio website, and most other kits start at $150.

The brilliant simplicity of Seeed Studio’s RePhone Kit is that there are only three boards, connected by two cables. The second brilliant part is that this phone has a touchscreen, but does NOT have internet access on the base model — perfect for people who are trying to let go of technology or parents who are not quite ready to give their child pocket-access to the internet 24×7.

The entertaining promotional videos for Seeed Studio’s RePhone Kit are here and here.

If you love the phone and want to do more than just call and text, you can check out Seeed Studio’s RePhone Geo Kit, RePhone Lumi Kit, or additional modules which are brand-named “Xadow extensions” that offer additional LED options, GPS, sensors and so on.

Eric Pan, CEO of Seed Studio

Seeed Studio has been a solid player in the maker world of electronics since 2008, leading the way in producing maker boards for tiny spaces. Eric Pan and his team at Seeed Studio have been passionate nurturers of makers by developing open hardware and hosting forums, and even hosting the Shenzhen Maker Faire.

Nosk Wu, RePhone Kit Create’s Project Manager

In Autumn 2015, Seeed’s very own Product Manager, Nosk Wu (who has changed departments since), and his team ran a Kickstarter campaign to release the RePhone Kit Create, which thankfully connected the dots in an affordable way for many of us struggling to develop phones for non-rectangular spaces.

The Cyrcle Phone

Christina Cyr & Linda Inagawa, Kickstarter Campaign September 2016: Make Your Own Cyrcle Phone

If you are ready to get into 3D printing, here I used to not-so-humbly mention my own company’s phone, which was available on Kickstarter until September 30, 2016. dTOOR‘s prototype of The Cyrcle Phone featured the 2G RePhone Kit Create inside a non-conventional, circular case with a SIM card and a 2.5 hour class at makerspaces across the country. All rewards were delivered to backers within 60 days, and we provided the 3D print files for the phone case to our backers so that they could modify the phone into any shape they wanted (a triangular phone, a Pokemon ball phone, a Star Wars Death Star globe phone, and so on). If backers did not have access to a 3D printer themselves, we recommended using 3DHubs to find a 3D print hub in their neighborhood. Since that successful campaign our team has been developing a 4G LTE Android version of The Cyrcle Phone, to be released soon.

Occasionally, our dTOOR team members volunteer to give workshops to teach people how to build their own phones. It is exhausting and a money-losing activity for the company, but it is a worthwhile cause so we do it when we can. Look for us at regional makerspaces, Seattle Mini Maker Faire, the World Maker Faire in New York, and GeekGirlCon in Seattle.

Ladyada’s Arduin-o-Phone

The aptly named “Arduin-o-Phone”

If you are ready to do a bit of soldering and want to gain more experience with the open-source Arduino Software (IDE), I recommend Ladyada’s Arduin-o-Phone, released in May 2015.

It is a sandwich consisting of an Adafruit Metro board (an Arduino-based board), an Adafruit FONA 800 shield (the phone part), and a touchscreen. You will need to solder the headers, microphone, buzzer, and speaker. The price for the parts is approximately $120 or more, depending on which parts you select. It does not come with a case, but can be used without one due to the functional design.

Limor Fried, AKA “Ladyada”, Founder of Adafruit

It is satisfying to the nth degree to put together a phone kit created by an inspirational woman like Limor Fried, AKA “Ladyada”, who founded Adafruit in 2005. Her goal was to create the best place online for learning electronics and making the best designed products for makers of all ages and skill levels. Fried was the first female engineer on the cover of WIRED magazine and was awarded Entrepreneur magazine’s Entrepreneur of the year. Adafruit is a 100% woman owned company and as of last year, Adafruit started producing all the USA-made boards for Arduino. If you have bought an Arduino in America since May 25, 2015, it has been made at Adafruit, with pride.

Perhaps the most incredible part is that Fried created the Arduin-o-Phone on her day off.

My current favorite Fried video is on the Made with Code | Mentors website, which you can find here.

For Raspberry Pi Fans – David Hunt’s Phone

For Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, there is also a Raspberry Pi edition of this phone, created by prolific maker David Hunt in Ireland, and the tutorial is on Adafruit’s website. I have not assembled it myself, but I want to let you know it exists and I am grateful for Hunt’s work.

David Mellis’ 2012 DIY Cellphone

David Mellis’ DIY Cellphone, in the retro “Candybar-phone” style

If you are ready for a bigger soldering challenge and some experience sourcing parts, I recommend David Mellis’ DIY Cellphone from 2012. It’s a “candy bar” style phone with an LCD instead of a touchscreen, but it is still extremely gratifying to assemble as it teaches you to pay attention to schematics and introduces you to several electronic part suppliers from which you will need to order the parts, which will total around $200. This is the phone I cut my teeth on, and one of the only pieces of open-source phone guidance around when I started back in 2014. Some the of parts from Mellis’ Bill of Materials (BOM) list have been discontinued but if you look up the old part and examine the specifications, you can usually figure out which part you can substitute. If you have any questions, Mellis’ still monitors his webpage and fields the occasional post.

David Mellis, with his DIY Cellphone

Mellis is one of the original creators of Arduino boards, and my hero for having his helpful “DIY Cellphone” website around when I needed it most. He has a history I envy, having completed his graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab, getting his PhD in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group and his master’s in Leah Buechley’s High-Low Tech group. Prior to the Media Lab, he taught at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (Denmark). Last I heard he was a post-doc at UC Berkeley with Björn Hartmann. Marcin Jakubowski filmed a casual video of Mellis in 2013 talking about the phone and his project which can be found here. In the video Mellis also mentions a product called, “MaKey MaKey” which is a simple invention kit for beginners and experts doing art, engineering, and everything in between.

In Summary

All of the phones above are provided with basic software to make calls and texts. However, in each case you can modify the software as you grow accustomed to designing technology around your needs. If you post your explorations to the internet, please consider pinging one of dTOOR’s social media sites so we can see the results of your efforts. Perhaps one day you will make a phone for us all and I, for one, would like to say, “I knew you when….”

Until then, these are great phone kits to explore. Happy Building, Creating, and Exploring!

Christina Cyr is the CEO and Founder of dTOOR, a mobile phone company which makes “Non-Rectangular Phones for Non-Rectangular People” starting with a phone in the shape of a circle, called The Cyrcle Phone.

1 Comment

  1. Valuable information. Lucky me I found your website by accident, and I am shocked why this accident did not happened earlier! I bookmarked it.

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