Little companies are showing big potential at the massive International Consumer Electronics Show. In 2014, there were dozens of young companies doing great things. Here are a few of our favorites.
Tim StevensFormer editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
The importance of CES as a showcase for major consumer product launches has undoubtedly lessened over the past few years. Big companies choose to launch their big products at smaller events; places where they can control the tone, control the tempo, and control the access. Thankfully, that opening void has been more than filled by two things: cars and startups.
It's the latter category that's been really opening our eyes of late, small, independent entrepreneurs and crowd-funded darlings who have been filling the halls of CES' Eureka Park with an unpredictable collection of frequently awesome products and services. Here are this year's standouts.
Education and health
Simple, small, discrete devices that can help us live our lives better are always a major part of the show. 2014 was no different. Modular Robotics, which has impressed us in the past with its Cubelets, was back with another simple, modularized robotics concept. Called Moss, it's a series of (again) cube-shaped components. These attach with small, spherical magnets and, to build a robot, you just need to connect a power supply to sensors and even things like a Bluetooth communications module.
You can pop together simple robots with motorized wheels that react to sound or light in seconds and, when you get bored, tear them apart and build something new. The kit is available for pre-order now for $150, though serious builders will want the $400 Advanced Builder Kit, which comes with far more bits.
Crossing the boundary between health and wellness is Teddy the Guardian, an unassuming-looking plush device from a Croatian startup. He's available in two versions, and with both the magic is on the inside. One is FDA-approved and intended for hospital use, featuring a pulse oximiter built into his paw, the idea being that unwell kids -- or anyone afraid of hospital devices -- can simply hold Teddy's hand and have their basic vitals read. Other models add in things like blood pressure. There's also a consumer model, releasing later this year, which will do much the same but offer more feedback through a smartphone app. He even has a little plastic heart that beats at the same rate as the little one holding the bear, teaching them what a pulse is.
Less adorable but perhaps just as useful for parents is the Kolibree smart toothbrush. While it didn't get quite the same buzz as last year's Hapifork, Kolibree made a solid impression. It's one of those ideas that sounds silly at first: a toothbrush that can report how good you are at brushing your teeth. But add in a layer of clever parenting, and you can start to imagine the benefits: ensuring your kids brush their teeth and do it well, even rewarding their obedience. It's $99 and launching later this year.
Watch this: Mother's home sensor system monitors your whole life
Finally, there's Mother. This basically takes the concept of all the accelerometer-based, motion-tracking fitness gadgets and makes it multipurpose. The Mother itself is a simple, white, vaguely nanny-shaped device that wirelessly connects to as many as 24 "cookies." These are the little Bluetooth accelerometers that can be mounted to just about anything -- pitchers of water, refrigerator doors, medicine bottles, and, yes, even the toothbrush.
The idea is that Mother monitors the motion of these cookies and reminds you to take your medicine, brush your teeth, nags you about drinking more water, and basically does the sort of things your real mother did for you as a kid. It's a fun concept and ships later this year for $240, including four cookies.
Media and Utility
Not all devices need a higher purpose. Sometimes just taking cool pictures is enough. In that vein, Panono got about the most buzz of any imaging device at the show this year. It is, simply, a ball covered in lenses that you throw in the air, and it captures a 72-megapixel, 360-degree image. The execution here is good, the resulting image quality great, though the cost is a bit high. A Panono will set you back $600 when it ships later this year, but if you get in early on the Indiegogo campaign you'll save $50.
Far more affordable (but still perhaps a bit overpriced) is the iBlazr. This is another crowd-funded success story, raising over $150,000 in September on Kickstarter. The $59 device is basically an external, high-power LED flash for your smartphone that connects through the headphone jack. Dedicated camera apps (for iOS and Android) trigger the flash, though you can also turn it on manually. It has its own internal battery, so it won't drain the already overtaxed cells in your phone, and comes with a flexible USB charging cable that allows it to double as a keyboard light.
Another lighting device that caught our eye was the ZeroHour, an industrial-looking rechargeable flashlight that doubles as waterproof, impact-proof, and bomb-proof external battery for your gadgets. It features dual USB ports for connecting charging cables and is available in either a 7,800mAh model for $175 or a 10,000mAh version for $199. The bigger one will recharge an average phone three times.
There were multiple devices designed to help get media around your house, including Nuvyyos Tablo, a dual-tuner DVR that makes pushing over-the-air TV to all your mobile devices easy. That costs $220 and ships in February. We were also impressed by the AirTame, which is basically an open-source wireless adapter for Mac and Windows PCs. Run an app on your PC, connect the HDMI dongle to your display, and you'll quickly be streaming wireless video. AirTame's Indiegogo campaign is still ongoing, where $90 will get you one.
Finally, plenty of companies are focused on making your life better when you're on the go, one way or another. Every frequent traveler we spoke to was drooling over the FINSix laptop power adapter. Barely bigger than the wall warts that come with most phones, this plug provides a full 65 watts -- enough for a MacBook Pro. The cable even features an integrated USB port, enabling it to work as an accessory charger while powering your laptop. They're available in multiple colors and will be available in March for $89, each one coming with 8 to 10 plugs that will cover most laptops -- but not Macs. The company is still trying to work with Apple to see if it can come up with a solution that won't require wire cutters.
Addressing a very different problem with mobility, we were fascinated by Voice Park. The company has been around for awhile, looking at different ways to make parking in urban areas suck a little less. It's estimated that last year 800 million miles were driven in San Francisco alone by people simply looking for parking. That's fully one-third of all traffic and 40 percent of all fuel consumption. Voice Park wants to fix that.
The app basically provides voice direction to the nearest available parking spot, which is nice, but the truly interesting bit is how it knows where there's a parking spot. The company has developed wireless pucks with five-year batteries that can be quickly (under three minutes) inserted into the asphalt. These pucks detect the presence of a car and report the status to wireless hubs, which broadcast that information to the Voice Park service. There's even an RFID module, which would make paying for parking easy.
Since the company is willing to basically give these pucks away to municipalities (in exchange for a cut of the revenue generated by parking fines), we might just see them popping up city streets soon.