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Hardware startups get their day in the sun

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It was pushing 78 degrees in San Francisco yesterday, a veritable heat wave for a foggy city where down jackets are usually required by early June. So it was also plenty warm at the Autodesk Gallery as 10 startup companies showcased their prototype products in a refreshing change from the usual software/app new technology rollout. That’s because these were hardware products you could touch, feel, and (in one special case) actually sit on.

The occasion was the HAXLR8R (“hack-celerator”) Demo Day, one of two the group has staged annually since 2012. They provide seed funding, office space, and mentoring to help budding entrepreneurs get their products off the ground. And there was no shortage of unusual, game changing, perhaps even wacky ideas on full display.

Let’s take Darma as a starting point. Their product is a smart cushion with built-in, ultrathin sensors that monitor your posture and encourage you to meditate more often to relieve the stress of well…sitting on your posterior for long periods of time. “Sitting is the smoking of our generation,” proclaimed Dr. Junhao Hu, Darma’s CEO.

Smoking itself came into focus yesterday too as a company called Quitbit unveiled the first lighter that actually tracks puffing habits. It seemed a bit conflicting to offer smokers a tool that will allow them to light up easily and often (using an electric coil) while encouraging them to quit. Yet the founders seemed enthusiastic about the potential to bridge the gap between tools such as e-cigarettes or nicotine gum and app-driven counseling support generated from a simple lighter. As a promotional video declared, “This is the last lighter you’ll ever need.”

Robots were a major part of this spring’s showcase. One company – Rational Robotics – has built robots that take 3D scans of automobile parts, creates the pieces, and then spray-paints them for auto body shops. Their founder, Ashley Reddy, made it clear that he strongly believes that his new technology can be a significant game-changer for the auto body repair industry. “We want to sell robots that basically eliminate painters in these auto body shops,” said Reddy.

Another robotic firm – Avidbots – manufactures sweeping and scrubbing autonomous machines that would replace contract industrial cleaning staffs today. Their CEO – Faizan Sheikh – claimed that the robots could sweep and clean industrial floors in venues such as warehouses and supermarkets for less than half the cost of human-led crews.

The tracking of outdoor fitness also was a focus in yesterday’s demos. Shot Stats showcased a small monitor that is mounted on the lower strings of a tennis racquet. Their product tracks data such as racquet speed and swing angle to give hardcore tennis players a distinct edge.

Another company – Syrmo – demonstrated a motion tracker attached to a skateboard that tracks and rate tricks. It can also record video in real-time through a smartphone app.

One of the more intriguing hardware technologies on display yesterday was from a company called OTTO. They displayed a hackable camera that can make animated GIFs, videos or photos that are altered to create short and often hilarious images. The making of GIFs can be a cumbersome and time consuming process for an age group that does not generally exhibit that kind of patience. As the company’s founder, Dave Rauchwerk described it, his camera is a “Polaroid for the 20 something generation.”

The group on display in San Francisco represented the fourth class that HAXLR8R has brought forth. Most of them are raising funds on Kickstarter and, as with all startups, there’s never a guarantee that they’ll be around a year from now. But one thing is certain: they aren’t just sitting around.

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