HAXLR8R hardware startups pitch connected cigarette lighters, skateboards and tennis rackets

Hardware development has always operated on the Battleship model: Engineers try something new. It’s probably a miss. And then they try again and again until they finally get that hit.

The future of hardware is the exact opposite, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass said at the HAXLR8R hardware accelerator demo day Monday. With the advance of computer modeling, there is a future where engineers can arrive at a fully functional design on the very first try. Pair that with a dramatic drop in costs for the materials needed to build a physical object, and we will find ourselves in a world where hardware is affordable for anyone to make.

In the meantime, hardware accelerators are helping to ease the process from idea to prototype to commercial product. HAXLR8R’s latest class of 10 startups presented Monday at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco. Their products ranged from an industrial cleaning robot to a 3D printer, plus a smattering of everyday objects like cushions and cameras brought into the modern world with connectivity.

HAXLR8R puts its startups through a 111-day program that carries them from Shenzhen, China, to San Francisco, teaching them how to bring a product from an idea to a prototype.

Co-founder Sean O’Sullivan noted that with the exception of two robots on display, none of the products looked like computers. Instead, they displayed how everyday objects are increasingly becoming vessels for computing.

“This is an unstoppable trend. This is a mega trend that will not stop for the next few decades,” O’Sullivan said.

Here’s a look at the startups:

Avidbots: Every night, an army of floor cleaning machines take over the offices and malls of America and spend hours being steered by a human over thousands of square feet. Faizan Sheikh said he and his cofounders at Avidbots looked at the Roombas in people’s homes and wondered why there was no similar industrial option.

Enter the Avidbot, an autonomous robot that comes in sweeping and mopping models, that looks much like the human-pushed version. Avidbots calculate the most efficient path to clean large areas and can communicate with each other to ensure no area is cleaned twice. They move faster than a human, increasing how much floor space can be cleaned overnight.

Avidbots plans to hire the cleaning bots out, first to cleaning companies and then to large stores like Walmart that tend to have an in-house cleaning staff. The Avidbots’ services would cost $4-6 an hour. Avidbots plans to begin selling them next year.

My take: Yep, robots are coming for our jobs. This is a smart application that is well within the bounds of current robot engineering. Let’s hope it’s better at sweeping and mopping than iRobot’s machines though.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Darma: We all sit a lot. As Darma cofounder Junhao Hu looked out across the room at the demo day, he asked the audience to stand up and stretch a little.

“But when you go back to your office, who will tell you to do that?” Hu asked.

If Hu gets his way, the answer is the Darma seat cushion. The startup has a patent pending on a 1-mm thin sensor that can measure heart rate, respiration and posture, all based on your butt. If you get too stressed or lean too far forward, it pings you to correct how you are sitting or take a minute to meditate and get that heart rate down.

Hu said Darma plans to venture beyond cushions in the future into goods like shoe soles, built-in sofa cushions and chairs, and mattresses. The Darma cushion will retail soon on Kickstarter for less than $100.

My take: The cushion looks a bit thick to allow people to sit on some low-backed chairs, but otherwise might be a great tool for the hordes that have taken to using standing desks and hardware like Lumo Lift. There are definitely a ton of applications for a 1-mm thick sensor, so I’m interested to see where the team takes it next.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Hoard: Airbnb hosts have several options: Install a lock or key box that guests can unlock by code or with their mobile device, or hand over a key in person. Hoard wants to make physical key exchanges a bit smarter and easier with lock boxes that can be placed within stores like 7-11 and Starbucks and unlocked with a mobile device.

Keys aren’t the only type of item that can fit in the boxes. I could imagine selling a small item on Craigslist and using the box as an exchange point instead of an in-person meet, for example.

Hoard is currently testing the service in Berlin, where it has placed six of its box sets. Users pay $3 per use of $15 a month for unlimited uses.

My take: There are already a lot of options for an impersonal key exchange. The best Airbnb experience I’ve had involved taking a key out of a padlocked box kept next to the door that opened with a key code. It was very low-tech and worked great. But Hoard might be a better solution in cities, where it is more difficult to install a lockbox. Physical key exchanges definitely ruin part of the magic of the Airbnb experience (though meeting your host can provide other benefits).

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Kast: Kast is a stereolithographic 3D printer, which means it uses light to cure liquid resin layer by layer, eventually creating a physical object.

But its creators said it isn’t quite like existing SLA printers, which use a laser or image projection similar to the ones found in ordinary projectors. They described the tech as “retina casting,” and said that it prints entire surfaces at a time. Supposedly it prints 12 times faster than existing SLA machines.

The Kast will sell for less than $3,000. A Kickstarter campaign will launch soon and make the printer available for less than $2,000 for a limited time.

My take: If the Kast can really print 12 times faster than current printers, that is a big deal. SLA printers are already faster and of higher quality than the plastic-based printers that dominate the desktop printer market. And $3,000 is a very reasonable price.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Niwa: From GrowCubes to Click & Grow, there are already quite a few current and upcoming options for connected plant growers. What Niwa nails is the size and design for a desktop plant growing system; it’s very polished and large enough to grow several types of fruits and vegetables, as long as they don’t need to grow under soil.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Niwa is hydroponic, which means there is no soil necessary. Users just pour water and nutrients in every two weeks, according to founder and CEO Javier Morillas. The machine doles out light and nutrients whenever they are needed. Morillas said it can be used to grow herbs, flowers, vegetables, fruit and, yes, even medicinal plants.

The system can be connected to a mobile device, from which a user can monitor their plants’ process and make observations that help their Niwa best promote plant growth. Advanced users can develop their own ways to grow plants and tweak how the app controls the Niwa machine.

Niwa is available on Kickstarter for a minimum of $199.

My take: This is the first growing system I could truly imagine having in my apartment. I like that you are not required to buy expensive capsules filled with seeds. Instead, you can plant what you want.

Otto: The mobile phone killed lomography cameras–plastic, toy-like cameras that add quirky effects to snapshots. Anyone can now add light leaks and popped colors to an image in seconds instead of having to wait weeks to get their 35 mm film back from the corner store.

Otto is a bit like the modern version of a Holga. It looks a lot like a toy and a lever is hand-cranked to grab images. But it is connected, and any image a user takes is instantly loaded to their mobile device. It can capture gifs and automatically add wacky effects to images. Users familiar with Raspberry Pi can also hack the camera to add their own flashes, or any other accessory they can think of. It will launch on Kickstarter later this week.

My take: The Otto looks really, really fun. But I think the mobile phone already ruined this one too. Much like a Holga, it will be more of an interesting novelty.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Quitbit: Quitbit pitches its connected lighter as “the last lighter you’ll ever need” in your quest to smoke the last cigarette you’ll ever need. It tracks how many times you light up a day and can enforce a daily limit on how many cigarettes it will light.

Photo courtesy of Quitbit.

Photo courtesy of Quitbit.

A screen on the outside of the lighter displays stats like how much time has passed since a user last lit a cigarette. A mobile app can help people dive deeper into statistics, such as how many cigarettes they smoked over the last week.

The device is meant to target people who might otherwise use a simple solution like patches or gum to quit smoking, according to co-founder Ata Ghofrani.

Quitbit is available now on Kickstarter, where early units are selling for $69.

My take: It would be very easy to cheat your Quitbit by just using another lighter, and the same types of data could be collected by logging every cigarette you smoke in a mobile app. But if someone just needs a hands-off way to mildly remind them not to smoke, this would be a polished solution.

Rational Robotics: Rational Robotics wants to make it easier to paint car parts with a robot that is half scanner and half painter. A part is set on a rotating bed, which pairs with a scanner on a robotic arm to create a 3D image of the part. Then the robotic arm switches to painting mode and autonomously coats the entire object in a customized color.

Co-founder Ashely Reddy said the machine is meant to drop the cost of painting car parts post-production dramatically. Rational Robotics’ robots will sell for $20,000-60,000, plus a monthly usage fee.

My take: Scanner tech is progressing rapidly thanks to the robot and 3D printer industries, so it is not surprising to see an application like this. The design could easily be scaled up or down, too.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Shot Stats: Most tennis rackets come with a tiny clip at the base of their strings that is meant to reduce the strain hitting a ball puts on your elbow. Shot Stats replaces that little clip with a smart module that tracks stats like how fast and how often you swing, which can then be displayed immediately on a small screen on the module.

More advanced stats like where the ball is impacting the racket and what type of ball spin is created can be viewed on a mobile app, which constantly syncs with the Shot Stats module. Users can share their data over a built-in social network. The app can also pair video with data collected from the module and create a custom video.

The Shot Stat is currently selling for $125 and up on Kickstarter.

My take: This sounds legitimately useful for tennis players, who have long relied on devices like radar guns to track ball speed. $125 was surprisingly high of a price tag, at least to me.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Syrmo: So maybe you are more of a skateboarder than a tennis player. Syrmo is a small device that sticks to the bottom of a skateboard and tracks its motion. It can generate a 3D model that reenacts the board’s motion through a trick and help skateboarders make better videos.

For example, if someone films a person skateboarding through Syrmo’s app, the device automatically uses the data collected from the module to trim the video to only the interesting part–the trick. And the video slows down at the key part of the kickflip, ollie or whatever other trick. Syrmo is going for $59 on Kickstarter right now.

“Skateboarding is all about expressing yourself, about that moment that makes you feel free on your board,” co-founder Nico Tzovanis said.

My take: Where there are skateboarders, there are three other guys with cameras. This sounds fun and simple to use.

Photo by Signe Brewster.

Photo by Signe Brewster.