Tag Archives: showstoppers

Santa Cruz techies get to CES the hard, fun way

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Four thousand companies brought their products to CES last month, but only one was brought by its product. A five person team from Santa Cruz – Jane Campbell, Elai Dankner, Nicola Hopwood, Cade Vlacos and Christian Shaw – rode 300 miles from Palm Springs to Las Vegas on a Onewheel+ XR, the new, extended range version of Future Motion’s single wheel, electric powered board.

“It was the most epic journey I’ve ever done”, said Campbell. “You feel so free. The first thing you want to do is call your mom”. And she and her teammates did, calling friends and family from the road as they glided through the Mojave desert.

It took them four days to make the trek, arriving in Las Vegas yesterday in a rain storm. Campbell kept on rolling, right into Future Motion’s booth at the Showstoppers media showcase last night, where she went to work demonstrating the XR with energy and enthusiasm to spare.

The team did the trip as a relay, swapping off riders and boards every 10 to 15 miles. They rode during the day, and pitched tents in the desert at night. It was a remarkably smooth run with no physical or mechanical problems, except for the diesel support van, which temporarily broke down after gasoline was mistakenly pumped into it.

There was a point – besides the sheer joy of it – to what Mudd calls “the longest recorded Onewheel ride”. It was a proof of performance for the XR, which has a range of 12 to 18 miles, more than double the range of the original Onewheel+. That makes it a plausible alternative to a car, said company spokesman Jack Mudd, who also took a turn riding with the team.

Future Motion is headquartered on the west side of Santa Cruz. It was founded in 2013 and initially funded via $630,000 Kickstarter campaign.

You can see the video of the trip here:

Old tech gets a hot new makeover at CES

by Steve Blum • , , ,

It seemed you couldn’t walk down an aisle at CES without seeing an electric bicycle, or an electronic accessory for the human powered kind. Like the Wink Bar, which took top honors at the Showstoppers LaunchIt pitchfest, held the day before the show formally opened.


Wink Bar.

The Wink Bar, developed and sold by Velco, a Paris-based start up, was declared the best of the twelve new products pitched in rapid fire succession to a panel of four judges with deep experience in venture capital and entrepreneurial enterprises. It’s a high tech handlebar that links to your smartphone and guides you through unfamiliar cities with simple flashing lights that cue you to start and stop, and go right and left. It’s sold through bike shops for $279.

It’s more than simple route planning, though. It’s also a platform for tourism and bike sharing services – Velco’s partners use it to create tour routes through cities. Customers can ride safely and quickly with their eyes on the road, and not on a map or smartphone screen. The company sold 70,000 Wink Bars last year and is targeting 14 million units in annual sales by 2021.

The rest of the field was…

  • Athom – hub that controls home automation and entertainment technology.
  • Big Boy Systems – headset that records 3D video and audio, just as a human would.
  • Cardiomo Care – wearable analytical device for heart disease prevention.
  • Cinema Snowglobes – another old-into-new transformation, with the venerable snow globe reimagined as a video snack (pictured above).
  • Cubomania – interactive, educational cubes for kids.
  • Pebby Corp. – a networked, robotic ball that lets you play with your dog while he’s at home and you’re at work.
  • Picoo – wands that kids use to play elaborate games of tag.
  • Robomart – self driving store for grocery retailers.
  • SolarGaps – solar cells.
  • Stream – internationally roaming WiFi hotspots.
  • Zhor-Tech – smart shoes that analyse your gait and tell you, among other things, if you’re drunk.

Big brother, small ball and connected cars at CES

by Steve Blum • , ,

CES 2018 marked a turning point in the consumer electronics business. For the first time, the big companies talked more about services than products. This shift has been long in the making – it’s why the organisers no longer refer to it as the Consumer Electronics Show – and 2018 was the tipping point. It was all about connected home products, with long neglected categories like kitchen appliances and washers and dryers suddenly taking center stage. The products themselves are increasingly generic, with differentiation coming from the voice recognition and artificial intelligence services that manufacturers bundle in.

The thought of my refrigerator or garage door opener constantly analysing my actions and predicting what I’ll want next seems spooky, even unsettling, to me, but conventional wisdom is that what older consumers perceive as surveillance state products, younger ones embrace as high level service. Plenty of innovation was on display, but it came from cloud-delivered services, and not from a box.

Small and medium sized companies were not the place to look for breakout products this year. I checked out the evening showcases, which cater mostly to smaller and newer exhibitors. The first, CES Unveiled, didn’t have much under the veil. Most of the exhibitors were small companies with, at best, incrementally innovative products. The lineups at Showstoppers and Pepcom’s Digital Experience were better, but aside from a 300-mile marathon trek on a Onewheel electric board, there weren’t many wow moments. Same for Eureka Park, the now huge section of the CES show floor dedicated to start up companies. There were plenty of toys, and lots of me-too products and barely discernible upgrades to existing products.

Looking ahead, one path for startup success will be through the big AI platform operators, either the generic ones like Amazon or Google, or the in house systems developed by the big boys.

This year will also be remembered as the year when cars became a consumer electronics product. The north hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center looked like a car show. Automakers have exhibited in past years, but there were more of them, and more with marketing messages crafted around connected services. Even ones that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the automotive market, such as health monitoring.

Carmakers also have extensive AI projects underway, as the rush towards self driving cars picks up speed. If cars are just another consumer electronics platform, then the big auto companies will also be players in the consumer AI game.

Far from collapsing, the consumer electronics industry on display at CES was expanding into new services and new sectors, all of them linked by live data streams.

Apple will take augmented reality to the next level today

by Steve Blum • , , , ,


Reality augmented by instant info.

Augmented reality – AR – will take a big step forward later today when Apple launches iOS version 11. It includes ARkit, which is Apple’s new platform for running augmented reality apps, instantly putting the technology onto more than 300 million devices, as soon as the iOS update is downloaded.

At least, that was the hot gossip yesterday at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco. It’s always risky to take Apple rumors at face value, but AR companies at the show are taking this one seriously.

Up until now, AR hasn’t gained much traction in the consumer market, Pokemon Go notwithstanding. But it has a growing foothold in industrial and business-to-business markets.

With augmented reality, a smart phone screen or totally geeked up glasses can overlay digital information on the real world. The photo above shows AR glasses displaying port labels for a circuit board as soon as the wearer looks at it. That kind of automatic information speeds up work and reduces errors.

I wrote about Vuzix, a company that makes AR glasses, nearly five years ago. They had great expectations – as did Google with its Glass product – for consumer applications, which were not fulfilled. Since then, they’ve focused on industrial applications and found happiness in vertical markets. One customer they talk about it is Airbus, the European airliner manufacturer. When workers are assembling complex wiring harnesses, the digital overlay on the Vuzix M300 glasses sorts out wires by color and tells them which hole each one needs to go into.

The immediate effect of Apple’s presumed announcement will be to boost the commercial side of the AR business. The cost of adopting the technology will drop to near zero for anyone who already has an iPhone, and the bar won’t be that much higher for someone who just buys one off the shelf. Pure consumer applications will be slower out of the gate, but with an instant market of hundreds of millions of users, it won’t take long to catch up.

FINsix Dart universal power adaptor works great, when it works

by Steve Blum • , ,

From pitch to product, with some bumps in the road.

It’s not often I have the pleasure of actually using a product that’s made it from the fundraising stage all the way to the open market. One of the top finishers at the 2014 Showstoppers LaunchIt beauty pageant, held during the Consumer Electronics Show, was FINsix, which was pitching a small, universal power supply for laptops and phones. It took second place, largely, it seemed, on its personal appeal to the judges who, as I noted at the time, had a “gleam in their eyes as they thought about trading two power bricks for one that’s barely bigger than a plug alone”.

It attracted me too, but remained off limits because my main laptop is a Mac and FINsix doesn’t offer the necessary MagSafe 2 adaptor tip. The key word is offer – as I later discovered, it’s available. Sorta.

While getting ready for a bicycle tour, I slimmed down my electronics load and opted to bring a Lenovo N22 Chromebook instead of the Mac. It’s a light and very rugged device that’s designed to be tossed around by elementary school kids. It comes with a power supply that was bigger than I wanted to carry, so I bought a Dart, which is the FINsix product’s trade name now.

The first one that arrived didn’t have an adaptor tip that fit the N22. I emailed customer service, and they quickly sent me one – it’s not included in the standard kit. That’s when I discovered that my Dart didn’t work at all. It wouldn’t charge anything, and the indicator light on the cord didn’t come on. It was dead and then customer service slowed down. It took a couple of days to get a response, and then a couple of weeks to get a replacement unit – I left on my month long bike tour before it arrived.

When I returned, the unit was waiting for me. It seemed to work – the light came on and it charged my phone. But not the N22.

At that point, customer service sped up again, and a couple of rounds of troubleshooting resulted in the discovery that the tip actually doesn’t work on an N22. At that point, they sent me a MagSafe 2 tip. It’s not a regular product, but it can be kluged together with a “snip tip”, which is a adaptor that can be soldered onto unsupported plugs. That worked perfectly, and now my briefcase is lighter and less cluttered – exactly what was promised three years ago.

My conclusion is that the Dart is a great product concept, but FINsix is having some trouble implementing it. That’s based on a very small sample, though. I might just have been that one unlucky guy. And FINsix did give me a solution that’s better than my original plan, so kudos to them.

Simpler hubs evolve as smart home ecosystem gets more complex

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Doesn’t look complicated.

Smart home hubs made a bit of a comeback at CES this year, with several companies showing second generation products. One company, Wink, leaned in to the self install market with a relatively inexpensive new device that’s intended to be simple and seamless to set up, and incorporates lesson learned from its first generation. Another company, Carrier, rebranded an existing hub as “Cor” and leveraged its existing distribution channel to go after the big system sale end of the market.

The Wink Hub 2 was showcased at the Pepcom press event at CES. It has a $99 price tag and is intended to just work, with automatic device pairing and a smart phone app as the sole controller – no buttons on the device, no web interface. To the extent possible, it’s intended to be network and protocol-agnostic. It’ll connect to Wink’s servers, which is where the smart phone app gets a lot of its smarts, via ethernet or WiFi, and talk to devices via Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and a couple of proprietary protocols. Security was also upgraded.

Carrier had the Cor on display at the Showstoppers CES media showcase. It’s intended to be the center of a professionally integrated network of devices. It’s compatible with standard Z-Wave products, which is the only wireless protocol it supports. The Cor is also controlled via a smart app with a cloud-based back end. It’s sold and installed by Carrier’s network of dealers. An installed starter kit – with the hub, security and water sensors and light controls – costs in the $700 range. About 1,000 units have been installed since the Cor was launched last summer.

CES was crammed with home automation devices this year. Many are one-trick ponies with separate smart phone apps and/or web interfaces, which will be increasingly cumbersome and confusing as consumers increasingly install the technology in their homes. Third party hubs might have found a winning selling proposition: unified set up and control on a simple app backed up by smart and secure servers.

Cleverpet wins CES Launchit competition with electronic game hub for dogs

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

An electronic game for dogs won top honors yesterday at the Showstoppers Launchit competition for startups at CES. Cleverpet is basically a canine version of the old Simon game combined with an automated feeding station that dispenses a little bit of food when the dog hits the correct lighted pad. It gives dogs something to do when they’re locked up in an apartment all day while the rest of the family is at work.

“A dog with a job is a happy dog”, said Leo Trottier, Cleverpet’s CEO during his lightning pitch to the judges. “Our user base literally has nothing better to do with their time”.

The plan is to turn the feeding station into a hub, with monitoring capabilities for anxious pet owners and different activities scattered throughout the house, so the dog gets some exercise out of it.

Second place went to Sevenhugs, a French company that produces a universal, location aware remote control. You point it at what you want to operate – a television set or Nest thermostat, say – and it automagically knows what to do. You could even set it up so that if you point it at a window, it’ll give you a weather update.

Coming in third was Bartesian, a Canadian company which aims to become the “Keurig of cocktails”. It looks something like a high tech espresso machine, except there are four reservoirs for liquids. One is for water, the other three for your favorite booze. You then buy the little Keurig-like capsules, which contain all the pre-mixed non-alcoholic ingredients for a fancy cocktail, plop one in and it mixes flawless drinks for you and your guests.

There were a total of 15 companies in the scrum.

Open standards and clear consumer branding will be the cure for CES home automation confusion

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The new good housekeeping seal of approval.

There were plenty of home automation hubs at CES, as it turns out. The first home automation products out of the gate, at the pre-show press events, were primarily one-off gizmo-and-app combos, but the usual suspects eventually showed up.

Lowe’s Iris system was prominent in a demo smart home built on the show floor. Nexia had a presence too. Both have a similar business model: sell a hub and support it through a cloud server for $10 per month. Nexia’s rep wouldn’t say how many subscribers it has, but she did say it has 300,000 active devices on its network. Lowe’s rep wouldn’t give any details about number of users, but did say that their average subscriber has 8 connected devices. Put those numbers together, and you get a subscriber range somewhere in the mid-5 figure range for a typical fee-based platform. Not an exact estimate, to be sure, but that’s probably the ball park.

Other hub-centric systems – free and otherwise – were there as well: ADT, Opcom, Insteon, Vera, Wink and the list goes on. Every home automation business model was well represented. The supply side of the product category has exploded, even though the demand side lags far behind.

A mainstream breakout – low 7-figures at the very least – won’t come until there’s a sufficient degree of interoperability. If not a single standard then it’ll require identifiable families of products at the least.

“As the homes get more connected, we’ll see the homes get standardised”, said Ulf Ewaldsson, Chief Technology Officer for Ericsson. Although, he said, that could mean more than one standard.

Coming out of the show, my sense is that vertically integrated systems that rely on proprietary technology won’t make it. Mainstream acceptance for the rest will start with standard-based technology – Z-wave, AllJoyn, and the list goes on. The real winners will emerge when the market begins to focus on a small number of brands.

One hint at the show: the most prevalent home-automation brand was Nest. The Google-owned thermostat company’s logo was prominent on one smart home product booth after another. Compatibility with Nest and, to a lesser extent, Apple’s HomeKit platform, was the method of choice for reassuring consumers that a company’s products are interoperable within a heterogenous system.

Electric vehicle creativity is built around new business models at CES

by Steve Blum • , ,

You wouldn’t mistake it for a McLaren, though.

Connected cars were everywhere at CES this year. A hot looking set of wheels was the platform of choice for showing off cutting edge technology. Plenty was written about it and there’s not much I can add. But very few of those vehicles – only 2 that I saw – were innovations in and of themselves.

Gogoro is an electric scooter that’s built around a swappable battery system. The idea is to set up and run kiosks around cities that have a bank of charging batteries. You ride up to the kiosk, take a few seconds to swap your used battery for one that’s fully charged, and keep on riding. The scooter is intended for densely populated places – San Francisco, for example – or huge mega-cities of 10 million people or more. Range is limited – about 100 km – but that’s plenty for urban transportation, particularly with quick access to topped up batteries. No price was announced, all the company reps would say is that it’ll be targeted to 20-somethings and cost in the same ballpark as a small gas powered scooter. Then you pay a monthly fee for unlimited access to topped batteries.

The Elio is a stranger beast. It’s an orange 3-wheeler – technically a motorcycle – and it runs on a 3-cylinder gasoline engine. At least for now. The business plan calls for first making a cheap gas powered ride – $6,800 is the target – and then waiting for the cost of electric propulsion systems to drop to where it’s possible to maintain that price point. In the meantime, the company has, presumably, built its brand reputation and worked out any mechanical kinks. It’s a way of positioning the company for the electric vehicle space of the future.

Neither vehicle is being sold yet, but reps for both companies said that production would begin later this year.

Enplug wins the Eureka Park pitchfest at CES

by Steve Blum • , , ,

A company with an interactively focused digital signage platform was the best of the bunch at this afternoon’s Showstoppers Launch.it competition at CES. Enplug CEO Nanxi Liu was the first of 11 entrepreneurs who gave a 5 minute presentation telling why they should be funded, and then took 3 minutes of questions from a panel of angel investors. At the end, the panel voted LA-based Enplug the winner.

Second and third place went to Israeli companies – VocalZoom and SwitchBee respectively. VocalZoom demoed core noise cancelling technology that’s built around a laser sensor that reads speech off of facial skin vibrations. SwitchBee is a home automation platform built around a proprietary hub and easily-installed light switches.

Enplug offers a platform that allows anyone with a Mac or Windows machine to turn any digital display into interactive digital signage. It was a surprising pick, in a sense: with $3.7 million in angel financing already in the bank and a major display maker – ViewSonic – bundling it with their products, it’s really a bit beyond the angel stage that the competition was targeting. But it also has customers and revenue, which makes it an attractive play.

Other contenders included a noise cancelling earplug from Hush, base IoT technology developed by Carbon Origins, a wrist band from Sunfriend that tracks sun exposure, the Lert.ly personal safety monitor designed for the elderly, a baseball bat swing analyser by Diamond Kinetics, a wristband that holds your password information from Everykey, whole-house mood lighting from LumFi and Smart Wheels, a tiny cross between a skateboard and a Segway.

All are exhibiting at Eureka Park, a growing pavilion of early stage companies and entrepreneurs at CES.