BIGGER, better, faster, thinner. These are just some of the adjectives that fuel the drive for ever more cutting edge gadgets.
Most often, they are associated with major brands that dominate the worlds of TV, smartphones and computers.
But the big names and hordes of next big things leave numerous gaps and crevices into which the small guy and the bright idea can insert a stake.
At the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, 20 000 new products were launched by 3 500 exhibitors. At least 90% of these were probably brands you’ve never encountered.
And it was these little guys who truly shone.
The following are three of the smallest gadgets launched in Las Vegas, but also among the most beautiful, either in design or conception. They also highlight the diverse range of inspiration behind innovation.
Good old USB flash drives, but with a difference. Mimobot was founded as “an art toy company with a digital soul”, says marketing head Jessica Smiley.
The drives, with capacity ranging from 4GB to 16GB, are made in the shape of highly stylised versions of popular characters, such as those from Star Trek and My Little Pony.
“Our customers were mainly design museums and super-nerds until a breakthrough licensing deal with Lucasfims for Star Wars in 2007,” says Smiley.
“That was our introduction to the entire world and a built-in fan base. Each drive comes with preloaded content relevant to the character, including sound bites and interactive content, and it changes for each character.
"So Yoda will have poor grammar, C3PO sounds British and nervous.”
The drives are sold in South Africa through Musica, which will soon receive the latest range, “Legends”: real-life characters who mean something to the public, like Elvis Presley and Albert Einstein.
The content will include archival material that brings the characters to digital life even while the drives perform their usual practical roles.
CardNinja, started by brothers Sunder and Kumar Jambunathan who had studied, respectively, engineering and business finance, was an answer to a universal entrepreneurial question: how can we make people’s lives easier?
Says Sunder: “We saw there are 100 million smartphone users in the USA alone, and the phone does 80% of what you need; the last 20% is the wallet.
"Companies like Google and Apple are trying to add that functionality. We couldn’t compete with mobile apps, so how else can we solve the problem?”
The answer was a physical wallet with a difference. It is an adhesive backpatch that sticks to the back of any smartphone, in a choice of three unusual colours: eggplant, steel, and Ninja black. Thanks to Kumar’s engineering skills, they produced a holder that allows cards to slide in easily, but not to slip out.
“But can it open my beer?” I ask. Not missing a beat, Sunder whips out a credit-card shaped bottle opener – designed to fit into the wallet.
“Women say it means they don't have to carry a purse any more,” says Kumar. “My wife says she can just grab her phone and go.”
The wallets can be bought at cardninja.com, and the company will ship to South Africa.
Back in 2009, Bluetree Electronics, a custom electronics manufacturer in Singapore, missed a production deadline by a few days, and the client decided not to take the device.
To offload the stock, Bluetree persuaded 11 local stores to sell the device: an MP3 music player in the shape of a cube and about the size of four dice packed together, called, err, Kube.
They sold more than 20 000 in six months. Orders flooded in from other countries, and the missed deadline turned out to be Bluetree’s dream breakthrough. They launched Kube2 in 2011 and, at the end of 2012, newKube (see newkube.com).
Claimed to be the smallest MP3 player in the world, it was very possibly the single smallest product displayed at the pick-of-the-show Showstoppers event that runs alongside CES.
It was also possibly the bravest, given its history, and the threat posed by smartphones that are all, by default, MP3 players. Despite this, more than 250 000 have been sold.
“It bucks the theory that the MP3 market is dead,” says the designer of the newKube, Chong Yeu Sem.
“As long as people love music, there will be a market if you have the right format. And we are one of the right formats.”
*Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx
and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter or Pinterest on
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