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In touch with the future at Demo 2006

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I recently attended Demo 2006 in Phoenix where 68 companies showcased their new products to an audience of 500. This year's products ranged from an ice cream vending machine to photo software for your phone to security software for servers.

Based on past Demo events, perhaps 20 percent of these companies will be alive and prospering in a year or two. But don't tell that to any of the companies there. Most believed they were on the verge of becoming a huge success, replicating previous Demo stars like Palm, TiVo and Salesforce.com. That enthusiasm and excitement is what makes the event so much fun and provides one of the best showcases for high-tech innovation.

What was hot this year? Products that make use of the Internet to collaborate, connect people and transmit mobile phone images to websites and friends.

Many of these companies are just turning on their Web sites and completing their last bit of product testing, so this is a really early preview. Some products are ready to try out now and some in a few weeks. Here's a sample of some of those I liked ... and understood.

Personal publishing

Blurb (www.blurb.com) can make you an author. It's software for anyone wanting to produce their own illustrated book. You add your photos and text using templates to produce your pages. Blurb then delivers it to you fully bound with hardcover and jacket for $30. It's ideal for creating a book of your recent vacation, a cookbook, a profile of your company, a story about your pet, or family reunion.

Riya (www.riya.com) showed software that can search through your photos and organize them based on who's in the images and the text it finds. For example, it can find all the images of your mother with a simple search, or your pictures taken at Legoland, based on their sign being detected. It uses spatial and text recognition technologies to analyze each image and identify faces and words on signs and even T-shirts. Whether it'll recognize someone in your photo collection that ages throughout the years is unclear, but its performance was impressive, even recognizing an individual whose photo was hanging on the wall. While it's a stand-alone product now, I'd expect to see software like this as part of more extensive photo organizing software such as Google's Picasa.

Sharpcast (www.sharpcast.com) introduced Sharpcast Photos, software designed to connect your photo collection between your desktop computer, cellphone and Web, so you can view all the photos from anywhere anytime. All three are continuously synchronized, so when you take a picture on your phone it's instantaneously available on your desktop and Web, and, conversely, pictures added to your desktop are available for viewing on your phone and Web. With Sharpcast you never need to worry about syncing, and your pictures are always backed up on the Web and on your desktop.

Smilebox (www.smilebox.com) is a delightful software product that lets you choose from hundreds of multimedia designs, add photos, comments and even music and share them using email. You use it like greeting cards to send to friends and family. Some of the designs include slide shows, photo albums, photobooks, and, an animated 3D carousel of images. Those on the receiving end don't need the application to view what you send.

Organize your life

My People (www.mypeople.com) is an Internet phone company that provides VOIP (voice over the Internet) phone service for $25 a month and 4 cents/minute for international calls. What sets them apart is a rich new assortment of features. In addition to the usual caller id, call waiting, and voicemail, they've added "one call tell all" which lets you deliver a call to as many as 25 people with a single call. It also has wake-up calling and appointment reminder calls (even to your cell phone), and dial by voice.

Accomplice Software (www.accomplice.com) demoed a product that's intended to help us become more organized, falling somewhere between a to-do list and project management software. It's designed to be your one-stop place for listing all your activities and assignments; it then lets you delegate and share items on the list with others. It uses an outline structure that lets you view it in many ways. It can be used as a stand-alone product or integrated with Outlook.

Sproutit (www.sproutit.com) showed its Mailroom software designed to save hours each day by reading and responding to repetitive email, the kind businesses receive, such as product inquiries, payment inquiries, and so forth. Its response is crafted based on what it learns from your earlier replies to similar emails. Three students from San Diego's Point Loma Nazarene University founded the company, which they then relocated to Prague.

And for everyone's inner child

Ugobe (www.ugobe.com) debuted a product that took most of the audience back to their childhood. It's a lifelike robotic chipmunk-sized dinosaur named Pleo that can stand up, walk, sigh when being petted and perform all sorts of lifelike actions. The toy has 40 sensors buried under its soft rubber skin.

It's created by the inventor of a past hit, Furby, and has the potential to become a big success based on the audience's reaction. Due out later this year for $200.

MooBella, from the land of Steve's Ice Cream, the inventor of mix-ins, MooBella (www.moobella.com) of Massachusetts demoed the first vending machine (about the size of a large Coke machine) that dispenses ice cream with mix-ins to order. It's designed to sit in a convenience store, office or school; locations that don't have the room for a full ice cream counter. You select your flavor and choice of add-in, choose between rich or light ice cream, deposit $2.50 and wait. In 40 seconds a cup plopped down with my selection, delicious light coffee ice cream with chocolate chips. It's now undergoing tests at a few locations in Boston.

While these companies are now trying to commercialize their products, another crop of entrepreneurs are developing products that will be presented at the next Demo here in San Diego in late September. I for one can't wait!


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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