Demo in the Desert

At this two-day annual event, a small group of invited companies demonstrated the latest technology breakthroughs to a select audience of executive...
John EdwardsMarch 9, 2005

If you really want to learn about the newest and most promising technologies, forget about the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), that techno-glamourama held each January in Las Vegas. Instead, pay attention to a smaller, less flamboyant event called Demo.

Both technology events meet each winter in the desert; Demo’s 15th anniversary show was held last month at a Scottsdale, Arizona, resort. But that’s where the similarities end. While CES plays host to hundreds of companies flogging a grab-bag of new and old products ranging from cell phones to HDTVs to radio-controlled toys, the two-day Demo event focuses on a small group of invited companies that are working on next-wave consumer and business technologies. Past Demos have hosted the first public demonstrations of such breakthrough products as TiVo, PalmPilot, and Java.

Demo selects technologies based solely on their innovation and commercial potential; existing products, product upgrades, and products that have already received extensive media coverage aren’t eligible. This year some 75 businesses, mostly startups and midlevel companies, were invited to present their technologies. Only one global giant, Motorola — showcasing its iRadio music delivery service — was present at this year’s event.

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Demo also draws a different and more select audience than CES. The Vegas event attracts over 100,000 people, primarily retail and corporate buyers, but also a fair share of gawkers. Demo, on the other hand is a magnet for CTOs and other high-level executives, as well as venture capitalists, financial analysts, and deep-pocketed private investors who want to see — and possibility buy into — new ideas.

Demo’s limited size and select audience (attendees pay up to $3,000, plus accommodations) mean that presenters don’t have to waste a lot of time fielding questions from people who don’t matter. The people who do matter, on the other hand, are spared the chore of elbowing their way through miles of exhibits touting gewgaws like iPod accessories and glow-in-the-dark PC keyboards.

Also helping to make Demo less frenetic than CES is its minimalist exhibition environment. A single large room, featuring scaled-down trade-show booths, is open to conference attendees for little more than two hours each day. That’s OK, because people don’t come to Demo to walk the aisles and glad-hand sales reps. The show’s focus is on presentations — the 10 minutes each company is allocated on the main stage to showcase its technology to potential buyers and investors. So crucial is this very short time in the spotlight that many businesses hire professional coaches to help them prepare and stage their demonstrations. The polished presentation of a novel technology can lead to fervent applause and even cheers; a demonstration that’s been undermined by an uncooperative operating system or a balky wireless connection is apt to be showered with silence, punctuated by the occasional stifled cough.

Despite its modest size, Demos hosts a surprisingly wide array of technologies. This year’s event included products in such diverse areas as enterprise computing, wired and wireless telecom, consumer electronics, homeland security, and a few fields that have yet to be defined. Perhaps the star of the show was the Intellifit System, a kiosk that looks something like a cross between a high-tech telephone booth and a Star Trek transporter.

When a customer steps inside, a giant rotating wand and low-power radio waves collect more than 200,000 data points to calculate the precise measurements of his or her body — while the customer remains fully clothed. He or she can then use a confidential computer printout to order custom-fitted clothing or simply to identify good-fitting ready-to-wear garments. Although the Philadelphia-based company says it’s working with Lane Bryant, Levi Strauss, Macy’s, and David’s Bridal to place Intellifit inside stores, scores of Demo attendees lined up for their 10 seconds in the booth.

Another type of scanner, designed for airports and other public places, was the plastic-explosives detector demonstrated by Perth, Australia’s QRSciences. Approximately the size of a conventional airport x-ray machine, the scanner is designed to replace cumbersome and time-wasting luggage hand searches. MDA of Brampton, Ontario, also offered an aviation-themed product: its Ice Camera takes 3-D pictures of aircraft wings to help determine when de-icing is necessary.

More than two dozen companies presented some form of digital communications technology. Boxborough, Massachusetts-based Audiotrieve, for example, demonstrated software that aims to help companies avoid the embarrassment and penalties that can result when employees send racist, sexist, or otherwise inappropriate e-mail. The company’s OutBoxer technology monitors outgoing messages; when it discovers questionable content, it launches a pop-up window to warn the author before the e-mail is sent on its way.

Several companies, including San Francisco-based Teleo and Fremont, California-based Traverse Networks, showcased tools that automatically deliver phone calls to a variety of wireline and wireless devices, wherever the recipient might be. Lexington, Massachusetts-based Convoq, on the other hand, attracted attention with its free ASAP Express web-conferencing system. ASAP Express allows users to conduct one-on-one online meetings featuring audio, video, text chat, screen sharing, PowerPoint, and file transfers, simply by clicking on a link in a blog, e-mail, resume, or online.

Other new ideas: video blogging software; a $150 device that lets car and truck drivers uncover the trouble behind an illuminated “check engine” light; a gizmo that lets users feel the heft in a simulated golf club or baseball bat; and a gadget for mobile-device users that projects a full-size, fully-operational keyboard on any convenient flat surface.