Hardware technology products have undergone a renaissance, with scores of new companies developing products ranging from drones to connected devices to gadgets of all kinds. It’s a big turnaround from the past 20 years or so, where investors took pains to avoid hardware investments, preferring to focus on software.

Hardware’s resurgence has been driven by access to new development and manufacturing resources in the U.S. and China, 3-D printing and electronic chipsets that simplify and speed design, and new sources of funding.

But it’s also driven by the innovative spirit of young entrepreneurs who prefer to create something themselves rather than take a less risky job with a large corporation.

While development is still complex, and hardware consumes a huge amount of cash, the opportunity to innovate is driving entrepreneurs like never before. They’re motivated by the success of other hardware companies such as GoPro, Pebble and Apple, and the lower barriers of entry.

So suppose you have an idea. Where do you start? In the old days, you would try to find investment from venture capitalists. But few VCs have been willing to fund innovative hardware development from start-up companies, and they still remain reluctant. Many consider development too costly and are simply not willing to take the risk.

Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo have funded thousands of hardware products. The sites are simple to use and let you create a funding campaign in which you ask for donations from the online community.

You pitch your product, introduce your team and perhaps create a video, all in an effort to get the community to donate money, in return for getting your product at a discount.

The pitfalls are that if you do not reach your projected funding goal, you get none of the money that’s been pledged. Or if you do reach your goal, the product development could cost a lot more and you run out of money, or the product might never be made to work at an affordable price. In fact, a majority of hardware projects on Kickstarter have never shipped.

Since contributors are pledging support rather than buying a product that doesn’t exist, your obligation is to do your best, but you’re not obligated to refund the money or even ship a product.

But there is another way to get started. Hardware incubators are a recent phenomenon that provides an opportunity to develop your idea further, test out its feasibility and help you come up with a business plan in order to raise more funding.

Examples of hardware incubators include Highway 1 and Lemnos Labs in San Francisco, and Hard Tech Labs, EvoNexus and Qualcomm’s Robotics Accelerator in San Diego. There are hundreds of others in cities across America.

In spite of a successful incubation process, one of the major hurdles that hardware companies face is raising enough capital to be able to complete the development, tooling and manufacturing. This can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

Much of that money goes toward finishing the design, staffing, building the tooling to manufacture the product in volume, and paying for the product’s components well in advance of production.

Here are a few examples of products that came from these incubators. Many are truly innovative and resulted from an entrepreneur willing to take the risk. Disclosure: I provide occasional support to some of these incubators, although I have not been involved with any of the products mentioned.

• Navdy is a head-Up display that projects information from your smartphone as if it’s floating six feet in front of you in your car. No service plans required. (navdy.com)

• The Cinder Sensing Cooker makes it easy to achieve exceptional results every time, so you can focus on the creative parts of cooking. Using precise temperature, Cinder makes it virtually impossible to overcook or undercook meat, vegetables and other foods. (cindercooks.com)

• Mashgin is building a scanner for cafeterias that identifies multiple items within seconds. The scanner is up to 10 times faster than an average cashier, thanks to computer vision and machine learning. (mashgin.com)

• ecoATM’s eCycling Stations automate the trade-in and buy-back process for mobile phones and other used consumer electronics, electronically and visually inspecting devices, and recycling these products to others. (ecoATM.com).

• Lagoon makes it easy to track home water usage. Using an innovative sensor that easily wraps around a home’s main water line, paired with Lagoon’s free companion app, Lagoon detects and measures water consumption from major point-of-source appliances. Lagoon provides near real-time views on water use, identifying behaviors and appliances that may be wasting water. (golagoon.com)

• Thimble Bioelectronic’s C?r is the world’s first smart pain-relief wearable. It senses pain to deliver TENS therapy for optimized and sustained relief. It’s small and discreet enough to be used anywhere on the body. Effortless to use, all you have to do is place it and wait 5 seconds for effective relief. (thimblebioe.com)

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Living in San Diego, it’s not often I have a chance to get a close look at a the hotel scene here.  So I was excited to attend an introduction to the the 211 room Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar. I’ve stayed at hotels all over the world, particularly in Asia, and the Palomar made a really positive impression, particularly it’s 50 room Skyline Collection. These are guest rooms, studios, and a few 2 level penthouses. with sweeping views of the San Diego skyline and bay, some with balconies.

The decor is modern California with a surf theme. Rooms are bright and airy and the materials compare to the best Asian hotels.

The other feature is its spa with gorgeous rooms decorated in wood and marble.

The hotel is located at 5th and Broadway, a few steps from the Gaslamp District, and a comfortable walk to the San Diego Convention Center.

As part of its launch, the hotel is offering an adventure package, Take Flight, available for booking from May 1, 2015 through Dec. 30, 2015. The package includes deluxe accommodations, one pass for tandem skydive at Skydive San Diego, a 20 percent discount at Nature’s Spa by Jurlique, a flight of beer from San Diego’s microbreweries and a custom skate deck, featuring artwork from Grant Pecoff, an acclaimed San Diego artist. Rates start at $399 per night and can be booked online www.hotelpalomar-sandiego.com, rate code PFLY or by calling (888) 288-6601.

Hotel rates begin the mid $200 dollars. The Skyline suites cost about $1500. Think of a suite the size of an apartment – well worth it.

 

 

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The Travel Goods Show, a yearly industry trade show, was held in March. It’s a showcase for new travel products and is notable for some interesting and even wacky gadgets. Over the years I’ve seen inflatable mattresses that claim to make a coach class seat as comfortable as a business class seat, fold-up blankets with anti-germ coatings, back-of-the-seat organizers, and luggage with a built-in table and chair.

This year’s show in March in Las Vegas was notable for several examples of building technology into suitcases.

Planet Traveler has developed a hard-sided plastic suitcase that includes everything but the kitchen sink — the SpaceCase1 has a built-in biometric lock, luggage tracking, a built-in scale, a Bluetooth speaker, battery pack and charging ports. It also claims to be the first suitcase with its own app to control some of these features.

The company is beginning a Kickstarter funding campaign May 18 with promotional pricing beginning at $199. (www.planettravelerusa.com)

One area of promising technology is being able to track your luggage after you check it in. Several companies are introducing gadgets to do just that. Typically they use GPS or a cellular modem along with a phone app to let you to find the luggage using your smart phone. Most are designed to turn off when the plane takes off and turn back on when the plane lands to comply with FAA regulations.

LugLoc’s tracker uses GSM cellular and costs $70, but you need to pay extra to use it. Traces, which are like queries on the app, cost $10 for ten, meaning you need to pay $1 each time you use the app to check on your luggage’s whereabouts. And the traces you buy expire after one year. It seems likes it’s taking a cue from airlines that charge for extras. (www.lugloc.com)

Trakdot has a similar product, but gets dinged for short battery life and poor location accuracy. It costs $50 plus $20 per year for service. (trakdot.com)

I’ve contacted these and others companies, but they either have no samples available to test, did not respond or have yet to ship their product. My guess is they’re still getting the kinks out.

Bluesmart, a Silicon Valley startup, is developing a hard-sided suitcase with several built-in capabilities, including location tracking. In addition is a Bluetooth lock, USB battery charging, a scale and proximity sensor, should you become separated from your suitcase, all controlled from an app. The company raised $2 million dollars on the Indiegogo funding site. They promise to be shipping by the end of the year. Cost of the suitcase is about $450, less if you commit now.

Not only startups are eying this business. Samsonite and Samsung are working together to develop their own smart bag that will be able to send you an instant message when it is unloaded from the plane and reaches the carousel.

Not to be outdone, Andiamo unveiled its iQ technology luggage at the Travel Goods Show. It includes an app for your smartphone that includes a remote lock/unlock, a digital scale that measures and displays the weight of your case on your smartphone, a Wi-Fi hotspot with international Wi-Fi access when you buy a local SIM card at your international destination and insert it into the suitcase’s card slot.

There’s also a USB battery charger that uses a built-in removable battery pack. A distance alert sends a text message to your smartphone if the case moves 100 feet away from you or if it is coming off the ramp toward you, using its Bluetooth capability. The suitcase will be available this fall at $700.

But let’s get real. Do we really want our luggage to do all of this? Are we now going to need to charge our luggage each time we travel? When I arrive at the hotel, I put my bag on a bed or luggage rack and live out of it.

I don’t want to stand it up so I can listen to the speakers or charge my phone. And it seems strange to use my phone to prevent losing my luggage, when it’s likely the phone will be lost first.

I don’t think these companies have really thought this through or asked travelers what they want. If my bag were lost, would I go up to the baggage counter and tell them that I know my bag is in Chicago and not San Diego? Would that do any good? Would they think I’m clairvoyant? Most airlines don’t lose your bags; they send it on the wrong plane, and know exactly where it is. But others disagree.

My wife, Jane, thinks that luggage that can be tracked is a wonderful idea, recalling several times when her checked bag took a few days to reach her while on vacation. Of course, she’s rarely able to travel with only a carry-on bag. For me, the best way not to lose my luggage is to avoid checking it.

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Tired of hearing more about iPhones? Here are two excellent alternatives provided by AT&T for this review.

One is very much a niche product, and the other will likely become one of the biggest sellers in 2015. What’s appealing is that the engineers for each phone thought out-of-the-box to come up with novel designs — just when you thought all phones look much the same.

BlackBerry Passport: The Passport, BlackBerry’s newest phone, looks unlike any other phone. It’s wider than a large smartphone, yet no longer than a standard one. It’s exactly the size of a U.S. passport and, like a passport, can just manage to fit into a pants pocket.

The display is 4½ x 4½ inches square, making it about a third wider than an iPhone 6. The added width makes it capable of displaying a full 60-character line of text. Beneath the display is a three-row mechanical keyboard, wider and with fewer keys than other BlackBerries.

Cleverly, rows of additional context-sensitive soft keys pop up on the display above the top row, turning the keyboard into one with as many as six rows, half mechanical and half touch.

The result is a product with a very good display and an excellent keyboard that’s much superior to touch-screen versions. The keyboard’s surface doubles as a touch-sensitive track pad, allowing you to direct a cursor, replacing the tiny scroll balls and track sticks used on older BlackBerries.

The phone is solidly constructed and well finished with a metal frame and soft-touch matte black plastic back. Typing on the phone takes some adapting, because it requires two hands to hold, and you need two thumbs to type. Holding it up to your ear as a phone is a little awkward as well, but if you use a headset, that’s not an issue.

The display is very high resolution, more than 400 dpi, and everything looks very crisp and bright, both indoors and out. The phone accepts a removable microSD memory card, but its battery is not removable. During my testing, the battery lasted nearly two days between charges. Call quality was excellent and the speakerphone worked very well.

The phone uses the BlackBerry 10.3 operating system, which I still find somewhat unintuitive. The Hub screen, its key feature, provides a list of recent messages including email, calls and messages. And, like all BlackBerries, it has far fewer apps than Android and Apple.

Its camera is better than on previous models, but has less flexibility than the cameras on the iPhone and Samsung phones. But it’s very adequate for a business-oriented phone.

Overall, this is the best Blackberry phone I’ve used because of its ability to combine a very good keyboard with a large display. If you loved your old BlackBerry, but gave it up because of its small display, the Passport is worth a look. It’s available for $669 or $199 under contract.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge: The new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is Samsung’s newest and best phone. It’s a major change from older Galaxy phones that felt cheaply made with plastic dimpled back covers. The S6 is devoid of plastic; it is constructed of a sleekly contoured metal frame with glass on the front and rear faces. The Edge’s display curves around the vertical edges to provide a wraparound display.

Overall, the phone is one of the thinnest ever at 7 mm thick. It’s essentially the same dimensions as an iPhone 6. It’s one of the most striking and beautiful designs of any smartphone and feels great in the hand, almost like holding a polished slab of glass.

Unlike previous Galaxy phones, it’s not full of bloatware — extraneous software that just adds confusion and redundancy. And the aesthetics of the new software is much more contemporary looking compared to previous versions.

Its 5.1-inch OLED display, slightly longer than the iPhone 6, is one of the best of any phone. The curved edge of the screen can be used to display a clock, single-line messages and email titles, all readable from the edge when the phone is flat on a table. It’s cool looking, but doesn’t offer a huge amount of utility.

Its 16-megapixel camera is one of the best I’ve used on any smartphone. Double-click the home button to launch it. The camera offers a huge number of options, including focus tracking a moving object.

Samsung had the iPhone in sight during the development of this phone, and matched it or perhaps even exceeded it. The S6 incorporates an electronic payment system to compete with Apple Pay and a similar-working fingerprint reader.

Like the iPhone, the Samsung battery is no longer replaceable, in order to keep the phone thin and maintain its beautiful aesthetics. Samsung does offer an optional wireless charger device. You set the phone on top of it to charge.

The phone will charge in a little more than an hour, or 50 percent in about 15 minutes using the included fast charger. In my use, battery life was about 10 hours. Like the iPhone, there is no expansion memory slot.

The S6 phone Edge is also available in an S6 version that has a flat display — no curved edges. Its performance is identical and costs $100 less than the Edge. While it’s not possible to test without destroying it, the Edge appears to be a little more vulnerable to breakage of the display, with its curved edges exposed. But either phone is Samsung’s best ever, and comparable to the iPhone, based on its hardware design and performance. If you’re looking for an Android phone, you can’t do better. The S6 with 32GB costs $684 or $199 with a contract. The S6 Edge with 32GB is $814 and $299 on contract.

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I’m a big fan of Uber, a new alternative for taxis. I’ve used it in several cities — San Francisco, San Diego, and Seattle — over the past several years. For the past week I used it extensively in New York City while on vacation along with five other family members. During this visit, I used New York City taxis on a few occasions, which served only to remind me how good Uber is.

This column is meant to reach those who haven’t tried Uber, have doubts or just may not be aware of what they’re missing.

Every step of the way — from thinking about the need for transportation to arriving at your destination — the Uber experience is superior to using a taxi. In fact, it’s more like hiring your own car for the day and calling for your driver when you need to go to another location. The only difference is the car and driver will vary for each ride.

First, you need to set up your account on Uber, which takes just a few minutes. Download the app, enter your contact information, add your image if you’d like and enter your credit card.

When you need a ride, no need to deal with trying to hail a cab from the street corner or dialing a taxi company’s often-surly dispatcher. Instead, simply open the app, view your location on the map, refine it if needed, adding your street address, hotel, restaurant or other location.

Select the type of vehicle from the several choices ranging from a sedan to a limo, and you’ll immediately see an estimated number of minutes it will take for the Uber driver to reach you. You can see the vehicle’s progress on a map, watching a little icon moving closer to you as the time to arrive decreases. On the bottom of the display is the driver’s name, picture, vehicle type and license number.

You also can text or call to give additional information, and the driver has your phone number if he needs to reach you.

Once I made my request the time it took for the cars to arrive varied from a couple of minutes to about 15, the latter for a six-passenger UberXL during rush hour.

Once the car arrives, jump into the vehicle and you’re off to your destination. Upon arrival, you just get out. All payments are automatic, including the tip. You’ll receive a detailed electronic receipt by email a few seconds later and be asked to rate the driver between 1 and 5 stars. The drivers also are asked to rate you for Uber’s records.

The cost of the ride is similar to that of a taxi if you choose the Uber X option, typically a 4-door compact or full size sedan that holds four passengers. San Diego Uber says its costs are half that of a taxi. Costs for other vehicles are commensurately more expensive.

During my recent New York trip, I typically requested an Uber XL, a larger vehicle that holds six, and that was about 20 percent more expensive. In most cases, the XL vehicles were a Toyota Highlander, Chevy SUV or Toyota Sequoia. In every instance the vehicles were late models in pristine condition, inside and out. Traveling with six at a time would have required two taxis, so there was no alternative to the Uber SUV.

Compared to a taxi, the ride is much more enjoyable. Cabs in New York and elsewhere have a security partition about a foot in front of your face with constant commercials and promotions playing. You feel trapped or at times even claustrophobic, and can’t see out of the window in front of you.

Also, taxi drivers are notorious for going a roundabout way to increase your fare; the incentive for Uber drivers is to get you to your destination as quickly as possible; you even have a copy of the route. On one of my taxi trips, in fact, the driver took a long detour.

Most notably, Uber drivers are nearly always much more professional. They tend to be friendlier, more conversant, better dressed and happier. In interviewing several of the drivers, there’s a lot of reason for their more pleasant attitude.

Unlike cab drivers who work for a taxi company, Uber drivers need not deal with a dispatcher to give them instructions where to go. As one driver expressed it, the customer is the dispatcher.

Uber drivers work for themselves, can begin and end work whenever they choose, and use their own vehicles. For each fare, Uber takes 30 percent commission, and the driver keeps the rest. Of the 70 percent the drivers take, about 15 percent (of the 70 percent) goes to expenses and the rest is profit. The driver never handles any money; Uber provides a direct deposit to the driver’s account weekly.

I also think Uber can be safer that a taxi. It’s much safer for an individual late at night to request an Uber car rather than standing on a street corner trying to hail a cab.

Uber sometime raises the price when demand is high, as much as several times; Uber calls it surge pricing. With one ride I was told beforehand that a 30 percent premium was in effect. I had to accept that to order the car. The pricing is merely a function of supply and demand, and while some complain about it, it’s a choice you can make to get a car quickly. There was never any deception about the pricing.

While Uber is compared to a taxi alternative, it’s really much more. It’s a car service for those who can only afford the cost of a cab.

There are several classifications of cars:

UberX: the least expensive and similar to or less than the cost of a taxi. Cars include Toyota Prius and Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima.

UberXL: A vehicle that’s ideal for transporting five or six passengers. Cars include Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Santa Fe, minivans and Honda Pilot. About one-third more expensive than an UberX.

UberSUV: A full-size SUV that’s about 50 percent more expensive than an UberX. For most needs, the UberXL provides nearly the same capability at a much lower price.

Uber Black: The original Uber vehicle that is a large town car. Costs about 40 percent more than an UberX.

These are rough estimates, as the rates and car types vary by location. Rates are calculated on a base plus time and distance of the ride. For more information, go to www.uber.com.

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