One thing was clear at the Consumer Electronics Show press preview today: This year is the year of the startup.
Why 2014? Maybe it's that the timing is finally right. The big tech companies now rarely wait until January to unveil their biggest gadget surprises. In fact, complaining about how lackluster CES has become has almost reached meme status.
So perhaps that's one reason that, a couple of miles away in much smaller showrooms with far less fanfare (think 200 people or so), the relatively unknown startups at CES are the most exciting.
Of course, this isn't the first year startups have had their own section, called Eureka Park, at CES. But I will say that it is the third and strongest showing of new companies I've seen here. Not just because more companies are exhibiting in 2014 (210 compared to last year's 150) but because the ideas themselves are well-developed and legitimately exciting.
Today, 12 of these startups got a chance to pitch their ideas to an audience of mostly journalists at the Showstoppers Launch.it event at the Mandalay Bay Hotel. "We wanted to find the best companies that are the most investable," Brian Cohen, chairman of the NY Angels and one of the judges, explained. That doesn't mean the winners get any money--the prize at this competition is a free booth at a big press event Tuesday night.
Here are three companies that make me excited to see what else the entrerpeneurs at CES have cooking:
This device looks like a large egg on wheels. Stay with me. The idea is that you use your smartphone to control the robot and turn it into an all-purpose home entertainment device. It has a projector to turn any surface into a large screen, a 360-degree camera and audio system, and wheels so that you can send the robot wheeling all around your house. Founder and ex-Googler Pierre Lebeau describes it as an entirely new device "that will change everything."
Keecker certainly isn't the only company working on a smartphone-controlled robot. Orbotix, a company I wrote about at last year's CES, is doing something similar with its gaming device Sphero. But Keecker is arguably attempting to do something much more ambitious: completely rethinking home entertainment as not a tricked-out living room, but a robot that follows you wherever you go. Lebeau says the company plans to retail the device for somewhere around $5,000 and launch the product with a crowdfunding campaign later this year.
AIO Robotics is working on Zeus, a 3D printer, copier, and fax machine. Fax? Yes, you read that right. Currently, there is no easy way to send someone a 3D object. You could 3D scan a small figurine, say, but then you'd need to turn that information into printable data, and finally, the person on the other end would need a 3D printer to actually print it. The Zeus, a small device (about the shape of a breadbox), simplifies the process. You can scan an object, press "fax," and any other user with a Zeus can received the figurine printed in biodegradeable plastic. AIO Robotics raised just over $111,000 on Kickstarter in October and founder Jens Windau says the company plans to go into production this summer. The devices will likely retail for just under $2,000.
Touchjet makes a smartphone-sized pico projector. But what caught the eye of the judges was the fact that this projector is interactive and two-way, meaning you could use it to project your Skype chat on a wall. The Android device connects to your phone to stream wirelessly. In addition to using it to stream media, you also can use it to create a touch surface on say, a wall or a table, that interacts with a stylus pen. The Singapore company plans to launch the device, which will retail for around $500, to consumers via an Indiegogo campaign in February. Touchjet won the day--the NY Angels voting panel selected it most likely to be funded.
Stay tuned for more startup coverage from Las Vegas at the 2014 CES.