SnowShoe Makes Impression with High-Tech Software, Low-Tech Stamp
So how does SnowShoe, a four-person tech startup originally from Madison, WI, and now split between that city and San Francisco, plan to make it big?
With a little plastic widget that’s about 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, less than an inch thick, and can be made by a 3-D printer for less than a buck.
The SnowShoe Stamp might be small and cheap, but the SnowShoe team—which graduated from Techstars Boulder in 2013—believes it could be the solution to some big and expensive problems, including providing cheap and reliable two-factor identification and user authentication across multiple technology platforms.
If SnowShoe gets it right, its stamp could be popping up next to cash registers and on store shelves near you, and its accompanying software could be powering apps on phones around the world.
Not just a stamp
There aren’t many technologies humbler than the stamp, and there aren’t many gadgets more cutting-edge than the latest smartphone. SnowShoe’s goal is to bridge the two. It spent the summer in Boulder, CO, at the Techstars accelerator building the prototype stamp and developing the software that smartphones need to read it.
The first thing to know about the stamp is it isn’t a stamp at all in the traditional sense. It doesn’t need to be inked, and it doesn’t leave an imprint.
The stamp actually is a little plastic widget that conducts electricity, sending current from the user’s body to a smartphone or tablet touchscreen, or laptop trackpad. The capacitive sensors on those devices can read the stamp’s special five-point pattern just like they can read where fingers are, and the SnowShoe software algorithmically matches the stamp’s signature against a database of valid patterns.
For a smartphone accessory, the stamp is surprisingly low-tech—the version handed out at Techstars demo day is just a solid piece of plastic, shaped like a rectangle with one of the corners lopped off. Little cylindrical feet, or touchpoints, are at each of the five corners, extending about a quarter-inch past the widget’s body. It’s those feet that make contact with the screen.
Beyond the plastic
The stamp itself is a neat little device and is usually the first thing people talk about when talking about SnowShoe. But it’s not SnowShoe’s most important technology, according to CEO Claus Moberg.
“The plastic is just that, it’s a piece of plastic. It has no battery, no power, no circuitry, it doesn’t do anything for you without all the software we built,” he said.
To show the software in action at demo day, SnowShoe built a webpage that demonstrates what happens when its software meets the stamp. After entering the address, the site popped up and asked a user to place the stamp against the screen. The device read the pattern and brought up another page explaining how the SnowShoe stamp works.
It didn’t look like much, but there was a lot that went on after the contact was made, according to SnowShoe’s presentation. First, the sensor scanned the stamp and recognized a geometric pattern between the points. It sent that pattern to SnowShoe’s servers, where the startup’s software matched it against its database of more than 2 million patterns. The authentication software recognized it as the pattern that meant “go to the explanation page,” and sent the browser in that direction.
SnowShoe developed that software during Techstars, but its goal isn’t to develop apps or websites. Instead, it is creating tools developers making an app would use. Their clients could include grocery stores, restaurants, or anyone needing two-factor authentication built into their apps.
“The plastic is obviously important because it proves that a transaction has occurred, but really the value we provide are the API [application programming interface] and the SDK [software development kit] developers would integrate into their apps to allow the transaction to happen,” Moberg said.
In the wild
Moberg said there are a few use cases the company is exploring. The stamp could activate software to give people access to secure networks, such as helping coffee shops and cafes keep their wi-fi networks secure by limiting them to patrons only, and not people in the apartments next door.
That’s because the stamp-app combination can tell a SnowShoe user where someone is at a specific time, Moberg said. In this case, a barista could have the stamp at the register and could lightly stamp a customer’s phone to give him or her a few hours of wi-fi time.
Moberg said businesses also could use the stamp to run loyalty programs, which apps running SnowShoe software would manage. That could have a few advantages for both the business and consumer. For consumers, it means they could say goodbye to the loyalty cards that clog up their wallet—or that they always leave at home—because all the data could be stored on apps linked to their phones. For businesses, it would be much harder for unscrupulous customers to cheat, and Moberg contends the stamp would be easier to use and cheaper to install than the small terminals that are popping up next to registers.
“We can tie transactions very specifically to your phone, but do it in a way where the only hardware expense to the retailer is a less than $1 piece of plastic that sits at the point of sale and is used to prove that a customer is actually at the cash register paying for a service,” Moberg said.
But there’s another use case that Moberg is interested in, and that’s connecting real world items to their digital avatars.
Think of fantasy computer games, for example, where players love equipping their characters with the latest and greatest weapons, armor, and tools.
Moberg thinks there’s a way game developers could take advantage of that desire in real life, and SnowShoe could capitalize. Game companies could sell memorabilia like a toy sword along with a SnowShoe stamp. A player could buy the sword, load up the game, and then use the stamp to equip his fictional alter ego with it.
Simplicity is a virtue
Knowing what the stamp could do, it’s a little odd to see how low-tech it is. But that could be one of its greatest virtues, Moberg believes.
Some of the biggest names in tech are working on problems very close to the ones SnowShoe is trying to solve.
An example is Near-Field Communication, which could allow mobile phones to communicate with cash registers. Like the SnowShoe stamp, that could be used to run loyalty programs, verify transactions, or grant access to a network.
NFC is more advanced than SnowShoe, but that might be its Achilles’ heel, Moberg said. He believes NFC does not have well-developed standards, and device makers seem intent on developing their own proprietary technology.
That could lead to a scenario where retailers and restaurants have to choose between expensive platforms that lock some customers out, Moberg said. Or they could pick SnowShoe, which works across platforms.
While SnowShoe thinks its idea has a lot of potential, Moberg said it all still needs to be tested by real consumers and businesses. That’s why one of the next big steps is getting it into the hands of as many potential customers as possible, allowing the company to refine the product and its approach, he said.
Of course, money helps too. That’s one of the reasons Moberg relocated to California, where he’s meeting with potential investors while half the company remains in Wisconsin. The startup has had some promising contacts, and the announcement of a seed round might be forthcoming soon, he said.