I go to a lot of start-up launches. And at every launch there’s usually a good idea or two that looks like it might turn into a product that makes sense. But at Haxlr8r’s biannual launch event last Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, the hit rate seemed vastly higher than typical—with more than a handful of good ideas that seem very close to being ready to hit store shelves.
Part of the reason for these gizmos being so nearly ready for prime time is Haxlr8r’s unique approach. Twice a year, the two-year-old incubator takes a small class of start-ups to spend four months in Shenzhen, China. Just about as soon as the entrepreneurs arrive, the Haxlr8r mentors send them out to find a manufacturer; the idea is that if you are not talking to a manufacturer before you are deep into the design stage, you’ll likely have to go through a time-consuming and expensive redesign to make the product manufacturable. The Haxlr8r startup teams are expected to design for manufacturability right from the beginning.
I was also surprised by just how young these entrepreneurs tackling hardware products were. I didn’t get to check the IDs of everyone in the room, but some were clearly not even a year out of college, and most were not much older. It’s refreshing to see that not all engineering students are focused on writing apps or have their heads in the (virtual) clouds.
Enough of a preamble. These six (out of ten) gadgets launched at Haxlr8r made immediate sense to me. Many of them are available for preorder on Kickstarter now. But most won't be shipping in time for the holiday gift-giving season—bad news for the geek on your list.
• The Roadie Tuner from Band Industries. Maybe I noticed this one because I’ve got a couple of sons who play guitar (one professionally), so I know what it takes to keep the various guitars around the house and on stage in tune. But I think even if you aren’t around guitar players, you’ll find this robotic guitar tuner magical. The US $99 gizmo pairs with a smartphone app; the user plucks the string, the app does the listening, and the Roadie Tuner, placed over a guitar peg, quickly adjusts the string tension. The app can store multiple custom tunings for quick adjustments between songs. It can even and track multiple guitars to determine string wear and alert the user to replace a string before it breaks. Roadie’s developers—a robotics engineer, Bassam Jalgha, and an audio processing engineer, Hassan Slaibi, who hail from Beirut, Lebanon—say the little robot can tune a guitar in less than 30 seconds. (Video below.)
• Palette. Palette’s founders, from Toronto, Canada, think everyone—not just DIY’ers—should be able to build custom controllers for their computers. They have designed a snap together set of dials, sliders, and buttons that lets users build a custom controller, paired with a software tool for mapping the controls to any functions of any software. Their first target market is people who do photo editing, who, they say, are desperately in need of better controllers. Sets of Palette blocks sell for $99 to $399.
• The Wearpoint Tact. Wearpoint’s founders, from Brooklyn, NY, really like Google Glass, but think that the voice and touch-the-rim controls are “socially awkward.” Now we can argue about just how subtle one can really make a camera and display that sits on your face, but Wearpoint thinks that users should at least get the controls out of the way. To that end, they've designed a $60 remote controller that gives tactile feedback and can be tucked in a pocket or be worn on the wrist.
• Dustcloud. Urban gaming—getting gameplay out of virtual worlds and into real ones—is definitely on people’s minds these days. After all, what was San Francisco’s recent Batkid adventure other than a really impressive urban game that had even the police and the mayor playing? Perhaps it’s having just lived through the media frenzy surrounding Batkid that made Dustcloud’s gaming platform make so much sense to me. Dustcloud, based in Prague and Berlin, has created little electronic guns called “dusters” that shoot electronic bullets the company calls “speks.” (They do look clearly enough like toy guns to keep the users safe, at least I think so). The basic concept is nothing really new (think lazer tag, using cellular data and GPS instead of beams of light). But the clever app that lets you locate team members and competitors, keep score, and play anywhere really makes this one look like a win. The company describes the experience as Twitter meets Halo, or FourSquare for spies. The business model is interesting too: the company plans to sell the app and dusters at a low cost and make its money on the ammunition and “mods” to make the weapons more powerful. I am absolutely not the target market for this one, I’m not a gamer and I don’t like guns, but it still appealed to me. Or maybe Dustcloud just made a really good demo video of the game being played using an early prototype, called Wetworks, in Prague.
• The Vigo System. Vigo has developed a lightweight wearable gadget—it looks like an elongated
Bluetooth earpiece(photo, right)—that monitors eye blinking, head motion, and other movements to calculate just how alert the wearer is. If the alertness falls below a preset level (customized via a smartphone app), it wakes you up with a selected alert, either a vibration, sound, or flash. I’m not sure I would wear this $80 gadget in a meeting or lecture hall, as Vigo’s Philadelphia-based founders envision, but for long distance drivers and others that really do need to stay wide awake, it makes sense.
• The Babybe mattress. Babybe, with founders from Chile and Germany, are tackling a technology that hasn’t changed dramatically in a long time—the incubator for premature babies. The company has created a wearable device it calls the “turtle” to capture a mother’s heartbeat, breathing pattern, and voice vibrations. The system then transfers those sounds and movements to a haptic mattress in the incubator that beats, vibrates, and seems to breathe just like mom. Because Babybe is aiming to get its gadget into hospitals, it’s next step is not toward store shelves, but to clinical trials. But it certainly seems ready for that step.
The other Haxlr8r companies that launched this week may indeed find a market, they just didn’t push my “wow” button. (Though, truthfully, in a less stellar mix of companies I might have found them more interesting). Curio is a little robot that clips onto a mobile device and responds to patterns of light created by an app. Though the software looked easy to use and the company's plan of making the robot’s controls hackable and the body parts 3-D printable could make it appeal to DIY’ers, it doesn't do all that much. Everpurse is making fashion-statement purses that are also chargers for mobile devices; you still have to remember to charge the purse, albeit on a wireless charging pad, not with a plug. Notch has a movement tracker that tracks in 3D, costs only $49, and connects itself into a mesh network of its peers, but the company hasn’t quite figured out its killer app. Its suggestions that the gadget could help a user master a backflip or conduct a virtual boxing match didn’t quite hit the mark, though fitness tracker companies should probably take a look at the company’s technology. And there's Petcube’s combination of a video camera, a speaker and a laser pointer that you can control over the internet to play with your pet and film its antics remotely. It's just not for me, though it may lead to a few more cat videos going viral.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.