At any given moment, there are approximately a zillion crowdfunding campaigns on the web. Take a stroll through Kickstarter or Indiegogo and you’ll find no shortage of weird, useless, and downright stupid projects out there — alongside some real gems. In this column, we cut through all the worthless wearables and Oculus Rift ripoffs to round up the week’s most unusual, ambitious, and exciting projects. But don’t grab your wallet just yet. Keep in mind that any crowdfunded project can fail — even the most well-intentioned. Do your homework before cutting a check for the gadget of your dreams.

Bean — an affordable SLA 3D printer

Back when 3D printing was just beginning to make its way into the mainstream, the only printers available to consumers relied on more or less the same technique to create parts — a process known as filament deposition modeling, or FDM. It’s the type of 3D printing you’ve probably seen before: A printer feeds a strand of plastic filament through a hot nozzle, then carefully deposits the molten goo onto a build plate, layer by layer, to create a 3D object. This is by far the most popular kind of 3D printer — but lately, a technology known as stereolithography has moved in to steal some of the spotlight.

Stereolithography, or SLA, creates objects by flashing a laser up into a pool of photo-reactive resin, which hardens when struck by UV light. Due to the precision of this technique, SLA printers typically create much better parts than FDM printers do. The only problem, however, is that these kinds of printers have been prohibitively expensive for the past few years, so most people haven’t had access to them — but that’s beginning to change. Right now, you can get the Bean for around $300-$400 on Kickstarter — which is pretty amazing.

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Dough Universe — electronic Play-Doh

Over the past few years, Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been absolutely inundated with toys designed to teach kids STEM skills. There are tons of them, and they come in just about every shape, size, and style you can imagine. Take a minute to peruse though your favorite crowdfunding site and you’ll find everything from modular robotics kits to conductive lego bricks — but Dough Universe might just be the most creative STEM toy yet. It’s basically play-doh that you can build circuits with.

The kit consists of two main components: a few jugs of multi-colored, conductive, infinitely re-shapable putty; and a set of simple electronic components that allow kids to interact with their doughy creations. There’s a controller (which acts as both a battery pack and speaker), a little wand for interacting with stuff, and a number of optional add-ons like motors and resistors. With this simple setup, kids are free to create whatever they want, and then connect it to the positive and negative terminals of the battery to form a circuit. Then, by touching different parts of the creation with the wand (and thereby altering the path of the current), kids can make sounds, initiate motion, and more.

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Mixxtape — smart cassette tape

If vinyl has become too mainstream for your tastes and you’re looking to step up your hip-ness, then this new Kickstarter gizmo will be right up your alley. The Mixxtape, as it’s called, is basically a digital music player that looks –and works– like a cassette tape. That means you can load it with all the albums that you read about on Pitchfork (back before it was cool, of course) and then play them in the vintage Walkman that you snagged at the thrift store — presumably while you roller skate to the nearest mustache wax shop.

All joking aside, it’s actually a pretty sweet idea. Mixxtape functions like any other digital music player — and it can actually do some stuff that your ironic first-generation iPod can’t. Songs, podcasts, and audio books can be transferred onto it from a PC or Mac via USB, and it’s controlled through a small LCD touchscreen on the front. It supports formats like FLAC, MP3, WMA, OOG and WAV, and stores them all on the included 8GB MicroSD card, which can be swapped out if you need more space. The device’s creators claim that the battery will last a generous 12 hours, and recharge in less than one. Pretty sweet, right?

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Sea to Sky Pack — ultracompact waterproof backpack

Who says you have to wear a backpack on your back? Certainly not the creators of the Sea to Sky Pack, as their waterproof backpack fits just as well in your back pocket as it does, you know, on your back. It’s the first product to come from a new Portland-based startup appropriately named Pacific Northwest, and it’s meant for outdoor enthusiasts who aren’t afraid of a little weather.  Constructed with 100-percent Cordura material, the durable pack is capable of holding 24 liters of whatever you’d like, and keeping those 24 liters completely dry even if the pack itself is submerged in water.

Aside from the fact that it’s waterproof, the Seat to Sky Pack also comes with a number of other features that ought to come in handy for the serious (or not so serious) hiker. For example, there are plenty of roomy and secure side pockets, as well as padded, adjustable, and breathable mesh straps to keep your backpack dry no matter how sweaty you get. The additional sternum strap can help with comfort and balance, too.  If you get into troubled waters, there’s a 95-decibel emergency whistle, and the main zipper is also reflective, which helps you stay visible (and thereby safe) at all times.  And even with all these features, the Sea to Sky Pack weighs in at just 5.5 ounces, and can be compressed into the included stuff sack to just 4.5 by 3 inches. That’s smaller than a can of soda.

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Ahead — make any helmet smart

There’s been a huge number of smart bike helmets on Kickstarter and Indiegogo over the past couple years, and all of them are designed to make a rider’s life easier – and safer – while in the saddle.  These helmets often come equipped with lights, GPS navigation, and may even offer music playback through bone-conduction technology. But each of them have one significant problem as well: they require you to purchase a new helmet, even if the one you’re using is perfectly fine.

NYC-based startup Analogue Plus is hoping to change that, and has recently taken to Kickstarter with a gizmo that can turn your existing bike helmet into a smart helmet. The device, called Ahead, comes with a variety of mounts that allow it to securely connect to virtually any helmet. Once in place, it can be paired with your smartphone to activate a variety of different features. For instance, the Ahead’s built-in speaker and dual narrow-angle microphones allow riders to safely take phone calls while on their bikes. Those same microphones reportedly cut down on wind and background noise for clearer voice communication, with callers or personal digital assistants like Siri and Google Now. Pretty sweet, right?

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