It would not be a tech show without a peek at ideas still in the workshop.
Flexible, printed circuitry, pet activity trackers, and magnetic data connections for smartphones turned Eureka Park into a gallery of emerging technology at last week’s International CES (see slideshow).
The show space set aside for startups, and a few growth-stage companies, continued to expand in its third year. This time more than 200 exhibits, up 30 percent from CES 2013, populated Eureka Park. Just because startups turn up at this annual tradeshow in Las Vegas does not mean they will become big hits—or even go to market. But Eureka Park shows how the tech community is taking more interest in ideas that are still a bit raw.
Hailing from the Forest Hills section of Queens, NY, FitBark trotted out the latest version of its fitness tracker for pets. The device attaches to dogs’ collars to let pet owners monitor know how much exercise Fido gets.
Davide Rossi, co-founder of FitBark, made the trip with his sister and co-founder Sara to International CES for the first time. Since I last caught up with the Rossi siblings, FitBark reduced the size of its pet tracker a little bit and relaunched its Kickstarter campaign. Last August, FitBark raised about $80,800, more than double its goal of $35,000. The device has yet to hit the street, but FitBark continues to update its mobile app and other technology. “We spent most of 2013 testing the system, the Web server, and machine learning algorithms,” Davide Rossi said.
Coming to Eureka Park, he said, gave the FitBark team plenty of real-world input on the forthcoming device. “I have a feeling after Kickstarter, this is the next best place to get real feedback on the product, distribution, and visibility for opportunities,” he said.
That feedback may help, given how competitive fitness tracking for pets has become—even though some of these products have yet to get into consumers’ hands. Other startups such as Whistle are working on rival devices. Rossi said his startup’s technology has potential uses that could set it apart. FitBark’s API (application programming interface), he said, can be used by retailers to recommend food and toys based on dogs’ energy levels.
FitBark plans to ship its product at the end of March, first to its Kickstarter backers. Shortly after, companies with retail distribution agreements are expected to get the pet trackers, Rossi said. The FitBark pet tracker will sell for $99; a bundle that includes a base station to capture data from the device is priced at $149.
Startups from many cities brought their ideas to Eureka Park, including the team from MPOWERD in New York, who introduced new multicolor versions of its inflatable solar-powered lights.
And Toronto, Canada-based Nano Magnetics demoed its concept, the “Nanoport,” which uses magnetic connectors to synch data and power across multiple smartphones. Two or more smartphones equipped with Nanoports could, for example, snap together side-by-side to share their screens as one continuous unit (kind of like an improvised tablet). Other accessories such as batteries and speakers could also be attached. The Nanoport is still in development, though the company has had some talks with smartphone makers.
Nano Magnetics also makes Nanodots, a construction kit comprised of tiny magnetic spheres, and Nanodots Gyro, magnetically-responsive gyroscopes.
Technology being developed in academic circles also surfaced among the exhibits. A team from Columbia Technology Ventures, the tech transfer office at Columbia University, demoed their NimbleDroid optimization software. Junfeng Yang, an assistant professor in the department of computer science at Columbia, said NimbleDroid can make Android-based devices operate up to five times faster. “It also extends their battery life by one or two hours every day,” he said.
Yang showed how the NimbleDroid software could make the default document viewer on Android devices run more smoothly, with improved rendering of fonts. NimbleDroid is currently in private beta, he said.
Another crew of academics displayed potential uses for nanomanufacturing techniques they have been working on. The folks from the University of Texas at Austin showed flexible photovoltaic cells that could be incorporated into new types of curved or flexible consumer gadgets. They also presented flexible plastic with nanoscopic features etched into the surface through imprint lithography.
The goal, said UT Austin’s Larry Dunn, is to develop new nanomanufacturing tools for electronics. He is an industrial liaison officer with the NASCENT Center at the Cockrell School of Engineering. “The killer, future mobile device we’re looking to enable would be a flexible, clear plastic cell phone,” Dunn said.
That would require printable, flexible parts—such as batteries, displays, transceivers, and circuitry—he believes the UT organization can help develop. The center works on nanomanufacturing systems for mobile computing and mobile energy technologies. It is about one and a half years old and is backed by the National Science Foundation. Academic partners in the center, Dunn said, include the University of California, Berkley and the University of New Mexico.
NASCENT also gets help from the commercial world through a partnership program with companies such as Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron, 3M, Corning, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. “Our industrial partners, in exchange for annual membership dues, get preferential intellectual property licensing rights, can recruit from our student body, and visit us for meetings,” Dunn said.
The crew from UT Austin came to CES, he said, to see how their ideas can fit into next- generation, commercial gadgets—and to get a feel for nurturing technology on their own. “We’re also encouraging entrepreneurialism, looking to create startups, and spin them out,” Dunn said.