Hey there! Danny here.
The Evolve skeletal frame is the latest advancement for Smart Doll that improves the body's durability, aesthetic appearance, and posing abilities through a series of gears that create an auditory and haptic sensory experience.
This improvement not only enhances the overall experience of Smart Dolls but also benefits creators such as photographers, artists, apparel and accessory designers, videographers, stop-motion animators, and individuals who enjoy traveling with their Smart Dolls, like myself ;-)
Besides improving the Smart Doll experience, Evolve was equally important in enhancing the production process for our team. We have gained a significant improvement in quality and injection molding consistency, assembly efficiency, as well as inventory and logistics efficiency with the introduction of Evolve.
This has led to a complete transformation in our production process, and we are all excited about the changes the new frame has brought. It feels like Day One all over again in Smart Doll Land.
However, Smart Doll was not designed for everybody in mind. Spending time to read this post will help avoid the regret of not buying the new PSVR2 instead ;-)
Before we continue, I want to introduce some terms we use in this article.
Previous Frame - refers to the 2nd generation frame that has been in circulation up until the launch of Evolve.
Springboard - a mechanism that applies force on a gear.
Rib - a raised ridge that lives on a springboard. The rib rests in the teeth of an interlocking gear enabling components to lock into position.
Haptic Shaft - these can be found on the end of the elbow, shoulder, and shins. The shaft acts like a gear enabling haptic feedback for interlocking components on the X (horizontal) and Y (vertical) axis.
We migrated all Smart Dolls to Evolve on Mirai's birthday (March 3rd) 2023. You can keep up with the evolving changes in the changelog.
Injection molded in Kumamoto, Japan, the new Smart Doll frame brings the following advancements.
The most significant improvement is the design surrounding the joints, which not only improves the posing experience but also provides a satisfying sense of assurance through an auditory and haptic sensation making a Smart Doll feel even more alive. Up until now, you moved the Smart Doll, but now they move you ;-)
Our previous frames had a conventional "clamping force" design, which could sometimes cause creaking or squeaking due to the release of elastic potential energy from friction and warping.
In contrast, the haptic feedback gears use a springboard to apply force on a gear allowing limbs to lock and keep their position. As the springboard settles into its new position, it releases kinetic mechanical energy in the form of sound waves.
Now you can identify and connect with closeby Smart Doll owners due to the distinctive clicks - just as you would identify a Clicker in The Last of Us ;-)
Compared to the previous frame, Evolve is more effective at holding the vinyl body parts together, improving the overall aesthetics. The above photo shows the Evolve-enabled body as Cocoa and the previous frame in Tea.
The large gaps below the bustline and behind the knees have been reduced, and the new elbow shape is sculpted to provide a more continuous flow from the upper to lower arm.
The back of the knees on Evolve has been designed to reduce visual elements creating a more refined aesthetic.
The Support Socket located at the back of the torso is now tear-shaped and recessed to better fit the form of the body. The previous version was glued in but is now secured with a screw.
The previous frame tended to wobble as you posed or carried Smart Doll - this wobble has been reduced due to the sturdy design of the Evolve frame.
The Haptic Shafts on the shins secure the feet sockets, reducing gaps while preventing rattling and reducing the chance of them falling off.
Improved posing experience
The main issue with vinyl-based doll products is the joint design where clamping force is used to apply pressure against flat planes to create torque resistance for the various axes needed for articulation. If the clamping force is too high/low, the joint becomes too tight/loose.
However, due to the conventional joint design, creating a consistent experience relies on the craftswo/man's sense of what's "too tight" and "too loose." This is why the stiffness of the previous Smart Doll frame varied so much.
The haptic feedback joints provide a posing experience that is not too loose nor too tight.
Increased range of motion for thighs
With a wider range of motion for the thighs, Smart Dolls can now sit upright more easily and lock into position thanks to the haptic feedback gears. Thick jeans may require pushing the thighs slightly harder to lock them in place.
Evolve allows for a Hero Landing Pose and kneeling (without motion-restricting apparel), but note that the vinyl around the botty may start to warp as the angle of the pose increases. Vinyl warping can usually be remedied with a hairdryer.
More robust design
The development of Evolve marked the introduction of various instruments to quantify force, sound, and temperature values. Digital force gauges enabled us to understand the newton requirements to turn a joint or snap a component, while thermal cameras helped us observe how heat affected expansion. Sound level meters allowed us to focus on areas where sound waves required dampening.
Evolve's design features triangular and filleted structures that provide geometric robustness and absorb stress from axial, torsional, bending, and shear forces - all of which are tested using force gauges.
One of these photos shows the Evolve frame shin withstanding over 400 Newtons (40Kgs) of force.
The instrumental data was then used to design and finalize the frame design that provides a consistent experience across all Smart Dolls.
Evolve is made from POM (Polyoxymethylene) - a thermoplastic used in industrial applications due to its high stiffness and dimensional stability. Typical applications are casing for ball bearings and gears used in automotive and consumer electronics - meaning that the durability of components is essential for consumer safety.
While Evolve is not designed to be indestructible like a Terminator (oh wait), we expect components to withstand a certain amount of force - especially because children comprise a large portion of our customer base.
We aimed to make most option parts compatible with the new Evolve frame. Heads, hands, busts, and gloves are all compatible, and while high-heel feet are also compatible, there are some caveats.
To use previous high-heel feet with Evolve, both the high-heel feet and default feet on Evolve must be heated with a hairdryer and then swapped out.
For those who do not have previous high-heel feet, we plan to release Evolve-compatible feet in the future. No ETA right now.
Evolve's hand pegs now have springboards and raised ridges to reduce the risk of hands falling off and ending up like Thing from Wednesday.
Removing the previous frame required destroying it because it was glued to the body. However, the new Evolve frame can be removed by simply unscrewing the screw in the support socket.
Now that the support socket is easily removable, we created augmentations that can be secured to the torso - announcements about this in the future ;-)
More secure wrist, feet and shins
We made the wrist, feet, and shin frame sockets more difficult to remove, minimizing their risk of falling off.
Improved spine design
The history of the Smart Doll frame is illustrated in the photo above, which shows the first generation created in 2013 on the far left, featuring the Jeton spine, and the new 5th generation Evolve frame on the far right.
While the third-party Jeton joint was sufficient for previous frame generations, it came with inherent physical restrictions as a third-party component.
In contrast, the new spine design in Evolve greatly improves the core structure, providing a sturdy and robust framework that reduces both wobbling and the large gap beneath the bustline.
While the previous jeton spine had more joints, the Evolve neck peg has a slightly wider range of motion, allowing for better confused-dog head tilt poses - otherwise known as "Confused Smart Doll."
Improved Support Stand
Smart Dolls that ship with the Evolve frame will also ship with what we used to call the "clickety click stand." The support stand can pivot around an axis providing stability in various environments. The stand color will be a random orange or black.
The needs of our team were just as crucial when designing the Evolve skeletal frame - improvements such as...
The components for Evolve are now separated into 3 molds - Arm, Leg, and Body. This change allows us to tweak the molds more often to ensure the design continues to evolve.
While the previous frame required 56 (!) unique injection-molded components, Evolve has only 25 unique components. This is due to the reversible design of the arm and leg, which reduces assembly time (double-checking what's left/right) and saves resources during design and mold upgrades. However, designing reversible components involved longer research and development times.
Reduction in third-party components
In addition to the 56 unique injection-molded components, the previous frame also required many third-party components, including silicone tubing (neck peg), silicone blocks (inner hips), sponge washers (to prevent shins rattling like a snake), 4 different types of screws, nuts and washers (for shoulder), jeton spine, super glue (for tuning shafts) and matte varnish (for tuning the spine).
Because the previous injection molds were not designed to be easily modified, we had to add extra components to patch and improve the frame over the years, resulting in increased material and labor costs.
The only third-party components Evolve needs are one type of screw and a washer ;-)
The previous frame was a logistical and environmental nightmare, requiring significant resources for transportation, inventory management, and waste disposal.
The previous frame components were injection-molded and delivered on two large runners, with a thousand frames requiring 2,000 sets of runners that filled up an entire 12-ton truck (above photo, top left corner).
After delivery, we had to remove all the components from the runners and bag them to save on storage space (above photo, top right corner) - it took the entire team a whole day to do this. However, this process generated a significant amount of waste in the form of cardboard boxes, cushioning, and plastic runners (above photo, bottom left corner). While we had always disposed of waste as recyclable, I wanted to find ways to prevent waste from being generated in the first place.
To address this, we developed a way to eject each frame component away from the mold during the injection molding process allowing components to be bagged and transported without needing runners altogether. This absence of runners means less space is needed for shipping and storage and a significant reduction in transportation energy and waste. The above photo (bottom right corner) shows 500 sets of frames that arrive already bagged and fit into 8 IKEA boxes ;-)
Although we have successfully reduced some of the abovementioned costs, our injection molding cost has increased by 400%! This is because the Evolve frame requires three separate molds and a new ejection and bagging process for each set of parts. We also continue to manufacture the frames in Japan which is said to cost 3 times more than producing overseas.
The development of Evolve has required three generations of molds and incurred significant research and development costs. Although these investments were necessary to bring innovation to the product, it will take eons to recoup the costs. Despite increased expenses, I want to keep the price of human skin-tone Smart Dolls the same as it has been since 2017 - but not sure for how long though...
We have always applied mechanical grease to the joints, but Evolve now has grease chambers in the structure to minimize the chances of leakage - microscopes have been helpful (and fascinating) in observing grease flow within the frame.
We also changed the grease type to a silicone base which better suits plastics and reduces grease seeping out the joints.
Evolve uses washers for the main limb joints that help distribute load and minimize looseness. The screws are tightened using torque screwdrivers set to 60 and 100 centinewtons (depending on the limb) to create a unified and consistent experience.
The previous frame needed extensive tuning that involved chiseling components with a craft knife and increasing the density of shafts with super glue - this is why the shafts had a non-uniform or sanded-down appearance. Additionally, cutting blocks of silicone or sponge was necessary for the hips, neck, and shins.
While Evolve still requires tuning, assembly focuses on tuning oversized ribs on the springboards. The ribs were designed to be large, allowing them to be tuned down to fit each gear with the aid of the sound level meters and torque screwdrivers. If you take apart the gears (not recommended) or pull out the arm socket, the ribs may appear worn-in or melted, but they are actually tuned down to fit their interlocking counterparts.
My vision is to make Evolve easier to assemble without tuning - it still takes roughly the same amount of time to build as the previous frame. I've made some sketches of a self-tuning frame which we may see sometime in the future as the frame continues to evolve in design.
Even though most of the frame is hidden under the vinyl shell and unseen by the end user, we see it all the time, so it needed to look aesthetically pleasing - sandblasting the molds to give the frame a premium matte finish was part of this process.
The reason why many manufacturers don't sandblast their molds is because of the costs involved. A sandblasted mold will wear down over time, so plastics will start to look shiny and...cheap. The manufacturer has to then re-sandblast the mold incurring costs. Also, any modifications to the mold will need re-sandblasting in the same area to ensure a seamless finish.
In my eyes, the Evolve frame is mecha eye candy, so I wanted to invest in ensuring it had a matching finish - even though most folks won't see it.
Having experienced the disappointment of regrettable purchases as a consumer, I understand the importance of transparency in our products and business ethics. I believe in being honest and upfront about our products - I am not interested in sugarcoating product descriptions just to make a quick buck.
It's important to recognize that all consumers have different needs, and Smart Doll may not be the right fit for everyone. The following are some reasons why folks should avoid buying a Smart Doll.
Evolve is a work in progress.
My vision was to create a frame where I could implement technological advancements and learnings from previous versions within shorter lead times. As such, Evolve will always be a work in progress - always in beta.
The downside is that if you get the first release, your subsequent Smart Doll may already have evolved in design. Many folks often feel cheated that they bought a product only to discover that a new version was released the next day without warning.
We do not offer any replacement of upgraded parts, nor do we offer trade-in programs like Apple does when upgrading an iPhone to the next generation.
Nor will we release 3D data for folks to print their own - which won't work anyway because of the material properties.
Therefore, I advise customers who may feel cheated to avoid purchasing a Smart Doll altogether, as Smart Doll will continue to evolve.
To help folks stay informed about the latest changes and updates to Evolve, I have published a changelog that tracks what's new in each version.
Limited degrees of motion
Smart Dolls are incapable of precise poses, so they wouldn't be suitable for performing brain surgery on a zombie. With the gears on Evolve, each axis has a fixed degree of motion. Hip gears on the X and Y axis are every 10 degrees, elbows on the Y axis are 12 degrees but only 22.5 degrees on the X axis. Smart Doll is not your best choice if you require posing between these settings.
The ball joints on the spine only have haptics on the X-axis.
Difference in torque, haptics, and auditory experience
As the frame is assembled and tuned by a human, torque may vary across frames slightly - the left/right arms/legs may feel and sound slightly different.
We initially encountered issues with the noise level of the gears on our early prototypes, prompting us to shift our focus to dampening the sound waves. However, this adjustment had the unintended consequence of reducing the auditory feedback of some gears.
While the haptic feedback and locking mechanisms work well for all joints, some limbs will not provide the double sensory experience of both haptic and audio feedback.
The reversible design of the frame hips impacts the direction of sound waves, which are influenced by the large cavity in the thighs. As a result, the left and right thighs will sound different.
The hand pegs and feet only have partial haptics on the rotational axis.
Auditory feedback will be affected by vinyl type, apparel, and whether you are standing in the middle of St Pauls's Cathedral.
More secure hand, feet and shin sockets - but more difficult to remove
Evolve features a new socket design for the hands, feet and shins which replaces the previous shaft design. The old designs relied on shaft thickness to prevent the hands and feet from falling off. With the new socket design, the hands and feet are physically secured and are difficult to fall off - but they are more difficult to remove.
If you need to pull off the wrist or feet frame sockets, hold the forearm/shin firmly while pulling and twisting the sockets back and forth. Holding the feet facing backward in your palm will make pushing the feet back on easier. Be careful not to get your hands pinched between the vinyl parts while doing this.
The same goes for the shins - if you need to pull them off, bend and hold the shin firmly in one hand while holding the thigh in the other, then pull while twisting the shin back and forth.
Still not indestructible
Evolve is still not indestructible. If you try to break the frame with intent, your Smart Doll will haunt you until we send replacements.
I believe in the quality of our product, which is why we continue to provide a years warranty for limb breakages. Even if you manage to break something unintentionally, simply let us know that your Smart Doll is haunting you, and we will send spare parts out - warranty terms still apply.
Not a huge improvement in articulation
Folks who have been anticipating greater articulation in Smart Doll will be disappointed as the product prioritizes a balance between articulation, durability, ease of posing, and aesthetics. Other brands that specifically emphasize articulation will provide a wider range of motion.
Evolve was not created to revolutionize articulation capabilities but rather to address areas for improvement in the previous design. It's important to note that Smart Dolls are still unable to cross their arms or legs. While they are capable of doing the splits, this was not an intentional feature, and attempting to do so could potentially permanently damage the frame by causing it to flip backward and lock up the thighs.
Over-engineered for shelf display
With the aid of various instruments, the Evolve frame was engineered to be durable and robust, making Smart Doll more suited for regular outdoor trips. However, other brands may be a better fit for folks mainly looking for a doll to display indoors.
From creaking to clicking
Previously, Smart Doll would creak (especially the feet) or occasionally squeak. The creaks were not an intended part of the design and is due to friction and warping of the frame. Smart Doll now comes with auditory feedback that synchronizes with haptic feedback - an intended and inherent part of the haptics mechanism.
However, the auditory clicks may be too loud for some folks who prefer more of a stealth experience. You will certainly wake folks up if they are sleeping - if they are snoring, you can time the posing in rhythm with the snores or grunts.
Shorter and heavier
Due to the sturdy build of Evolve, Smart Doll is now 40 grams heavier and 2 millimeters shorter than before. This has not affected the apparel's aesthetic look and feel, nor does the height difference warrant changing apparel patterns. The free apparel patterns that we provide are all compatible with an Evolve-enabled Smart Doll.
Knees at 90
Knees will only bend 90 degrees because of the gap reduction behind the knees. Depending on whether your Smart Doll is wearing thick jeans, you may need to lock the thigh backward so that your Smart Doll doesn't fall flat on their face when kneeling - although more often than not - the bust usually acts like an air-bag to absorb the shock and protect the face.
The head requires slightly more effort to attach to (and remove from) the neck peg - hold the neck while twisting the head down on the neck peg until there is no gap between the neck and head. An auditory click signifies that the head is secure. The Confused Smart Doll Head Tilt will also help you identify if the head is on properly - don't leave a gap.
Does not run Crysis
Even with the upgraded specs, Evolve does not run Crysis.
Note regarding standalone frame photos.
Standalone photos of the Evolve frame feature mechanical hands and a head for showcasing purposes only - these parts are not included with the frame.
However, I plan to upload the 3D data for the mechanical hands and head for those who want to display them attached to the also-to-be-sold-standalone frame.
Smart Doll has always been a platform for the team and I to experiment with new design ideas and technological advances. In 2019, we launched a product called "Cortex" which was an injection-molded version of the outer shell - the first of its kind for a fashion doll. At the time, I thought that it was going to change everything - but it didn't. I retired the product because of its poor user experience and after realizing it required more resources to make than a vinyl Smart Doll.
While the previous frame is still a solid product today, its design based on ancient technology had a debilitating effect on our business and our ability to move forward. The additional third-party components and labor costs made it increasingly difficult to sustain.
Just like Cortex, Evolve is the first of its kind for a fashion doll in this size. These prototypes for Evolve, shown in the above photo, are just a few of the different versions we developed. The spine presented the most significant challenge as we attempted to create multi-directional haptics.
So that we don't repeat the same mistakes for Cortex, Evolve has been thoroughly tested during development with instruments in the studio and on-the-field trips around Japan.
While I think that the release candidate is a solid product and superior to the previous frame, Evolve is still far from perfect - and never will be. Perfection would mean no more room for improvement - or evolution.
Migrating to Evolve is certainly a risk. Unlike Cortex where we could ditch the product and continue to sell vinyl, I have no intention of falling back on the previous frame.
The Evolve experience is so profoundly different than the current Smart Doll that many existing customers are likely to jump ship for other brands. But as with all the risky decisions I've made over the past 10 years of running Smart Doll Land - I would rather take such risks than live with the regret of not trying.
I started field testing Evolve on trips around Japan at the beginning of 2022. Since then, I've implemented improvements to the design that make traveling with Smart Doll in the great outdoors a refreshing new experience.
Personally, I think that Smart Doll is the bee's knees and the best thing since sliced Bantha Poodoo - but that's just me because Smart Doll has always been built to my requirements.
However, not everybody has my requirements meaning that Smart Doll may not be your best choice when deciding on a fashion doll.
If you do plan on getting a Smart Doll, keep your expectations super low, as you are likely to be disappointed - unless you and I have the same taste for design and quality ;-)
But do me a favor - If you do end up liking Evolve - don't tell folks how awesome it is - instead, remind them why they would want to avoid it ;-)