Looking Forward to Conversations Around the Hearth

Hearth History

It’s hard to believe that after over a year of fully virtual conversations, we may soon be able to gather in person together again. The small group conversation is the center piece of the Local Voices Network. Our system walks the fine line between humanity and technology, built upon both the intimacy of shared words as well as the elevating power of scalable automation.

The Hearth is our conversation facilitation object, and sits in the center of our in-person conversations. In addition to serving as a visual guide, the Hearth enables us to both play and record high quality audio. LVN conversations are recorded to gather and share insights into what is on the mind of our participants. Through telling of personal stories, engaging across differences, and sharing of hopes for the future, these conversations are designed to lift up what people care about in their communities. All together, these complex perspectives illuminate voices and patterns that otherwise may go unheard. By giving our partners a lens into the hopes and concerns of their constituents, LVN gathers data that is fundamentally different and more human than well-known information sources (think Twitter, polls, or census data, etc.).

The Hearth also helps us tie conversations together that are otherwise separated by time, location and attendees. In our conversations we use the Hearth’s audio speaker to playback highlights from previous conversations, a process we call Cross Pollination. This gives conversation participants a chance to share thoughts on a level greater than the current intimate conversation, and ties together threads that weave through a community.

LVN participants gathered in conversation around the first iteration of the Hearth

Cortico has hosted hundreds conversations around our initial facilitation device, Hearth V1. The first iteration of the Hearth allowed us to explore and validate many ideas about function, materials, and user interaction. Again and again, we heard from participants that the presence of our Hearth elevated the meaningfulness of the conversation. First, the beautiful wood and fabric device serves as a centerpiece of the conversation, something for strangers or old friends to physically gather around. Second, this purpose built device is designed with the singular goal to listen, and thus is a visual signal to the great value and importance of each and every LVN spoken word.

While Hearth V1 was a great foray into the hardware space for us, there were a few tricky wrinkles that inspired us to create Version 2. First, when V1 worked well, the conversations and feedback were outstanding; however, reliability proved to be a big concern, especially as we began to scale. Specifically, our battery system and our method of storing our information often failed, unpredictably, in the field. Secondly, we wanted to be able to provide a hearth for any context and partner who was interested. The cost of V1 was high enough to prohibit this inclusive attitude. Thus, ease of manufacturing and cost were key design considerations for V2.

Meet Hearth V2!

After a year of development, we are about to kick off our first build of Hearth V2. In this design, we have taken all of our favorite characteristics from the first version, and combined them with a keen eye into usability, reliability and manufacturability. This has been a fun, but intensive design process, combining work across our entire team; hardware design, woodworking, firmware and software, and user interaction design. In the photos above you can see the common design features between the two versions with a handful of modern improvements.


  • Reliability: Hearth V2 includes a redesigned battery system and operating system improvements
  • Usability: Hearth V2 LED (the lighting system) state indicators — whether the Hearth is booting up, recording, or just in a resting state — now sit on the top of the unit, just under the fabric speaker grill, and are much easier for the conversation participants to interact with. We simplified the button design on Hearth. The app on tablet controller has been redesigned to improve user interaction. For portability, the control tablet magnetically secures to the Hearth, and a redesigned carrying case makes transport easy.
  • Manufacturability: All components are sourced from easy to procure manufacturers, and designed for easy of assembly and test

Over the coming months, we are delighted to start rolling out Hearth V2 internally and with our partners. So we will be ready, as soon as it makes sense, to convene in person conversations. We are excited to begin using Hearth V2 to facilitate LVN-style intimate in person conversations, and are confident that this beautiful and functional device will help accomplish our goal of elevating under heard voices.

Written by Sam Woolf, hardware R&D at Cortico. Please reach out if you want to chat about any part of the Hearth — sam@cortico.ai

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Cortico is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization led by a multidisciplinary team of experts in community engagement, technology and non-profit management. We strive to meld two elements not typically found in one space: technological innovation and community-centered advocacy. We'd love to keep you up to date on what we're doing!