Innovation on display

The DEMO show is a great place to see the next big thing


October 06, 2005|By JAMES S. GRANELLI

Bothered by fees for directory-assistance calls? Worried about your address and phone number plastered across the Internet? Looking for an easy way to share photos with family or leave voice messages for large groups or track what happens to e-mailed documents? The solutions might be among the 65 products and services unveiled at the semiannual DEMO show, which took place last month in Huntington Beach, Calif.

"This is a great place to come with a new idea to engage the audience," said marketing consultant Amy D. Wohl of Narberth, Pa., who has been attending shows since they began in 1990.

Investors, too, love the short, three- to five-minute presentations and fast-paced exhibit hall. "It's a great way to see a swath of wide-ranging companies in a short amount of time and actually talk with the executives," said Alexander Lloyd, a venture partner at Rustic Canyon Partners in Santa Monica, Calif. "Very rarely do you get to so many new companies that are vetted in one location."

Some of the products unveiled at past DEMO events include the Palm hand-held device, the TiVo digital recorder, the E-Trade online stock trader and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s original Java programming language.

"We want to show great innovation first and foremost," said Chris Shipley, who oversees the selection of exhibitors and runs the show for event producer International Data Group.

But she also sees trends that show where markets are headed.

Jingle Network Inc.'s Free411, for instance, uses local advertising to provide free directory assistance to callers who now pay an average of $1.25 per call nationwide. Call 800-FREE-411 for the number to the local Domino's pizza, and you'll get a nine-second pitch for, say, 25 percent off at a nearby pizzeria.

"It's taking marketing rules once accessible only to the big companies and making them available to smaller guys," Shipley said.

In the same fashion, FilmLoop Inc. provides a scrolling filmstrip that consumers can use, for free, to drag and drop photos into the panels and invite friends and family to join in. It also provides a fee-based product to help firms promote products more easily on Web sites.

Local businesses also could get a boost from Destination Search, a program from Local Matters Inc. Working through Yellow Pages and similar companies such as Dex, Local Matters provides comprehensive local searches for stores, including nearby parking lots, other shops in the area and maps for places a consumer plans to visit.

"Local searching is a huge area for investors," Lloyd said. "All the big boys -- Google, Yahoo and others -- are getting into it."

In some cases, the new technologies have the potential for disrupting existing pricing models. Free411, for example, could cut a chunk of revenue from land-line and wireless carriers that charge for information calls.

"If I were a [telecom company], I'd buy those guys off just to put that product on the shelf," Wohl quipped.

Peerflix Inc. takes the DVD renting model of Netflix Inc. a step further by creating an online community of DVD owners who want to trade the movies they've bought and watched for other ones they haven't seen. The cost is 99 cents per DVD to make the swaps.

Lloyd usually doesn't find companies to invest in at such shows but, he said, "there's a lot of really cool technologies here."

Among them: from UniPrivacy Inc. will search the Internet to remove your address and phone number from sites and keep them off. But to gain wide acceptance, the company may need to expand the offering to Social Security and other numbers to help block identity theft, Lloyd said.

YackPack is a Web-based program for friends, family and work groups to stay in touch by audio messages, which convey the nuances of spoken language better than e-mails or instant messaging. No software to install, no typing. Just log in to the Web site, click on photos of people you want to send a message to, talk into the microphone and send the message.

SafeGuard Child Seat from IMMI doesn't come with any tech gadgets. But it was technologically designed and built with an aircraft aluminum frame inside the hard plastic frame and a series of new safety features, including one to correct improper installation in the car.

U3's USB smart drives are loaded with applications that let customers carry their own programs and preferences with them to use on other computers -- and to walk away without altering the machines or leaving any trace of themselves.

Realm Systems Inc. takes U3's idea further and squeezes a server into the size of an iPod. It can carry a company's customized programs and virtual private network information and can be plugged into any computer, replacing the need to haul laptops on business trips.

NextPage Inc.'s latest software helps e-mail users keep track of the documents they send to co-workers as attachments. The program lets the sender know who has opened the document, who is editing it, where the latest version is and what needs to be done next.

James S. Granelli writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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