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Game Changers

All work and no play? Not for these Silicon Valley startups. Make your acquaintance with some of tech’s most exciting toys for adults and kids alike.

SLIDESHOW

Shaping Up
Dhananja Jayalath, CEO of Athos, whose products track your muscle exertion.

(1 of 5)

Work & Play
For Roominate, Bettina Chen and Alice Brooks tapped into their own childhoods.

(2 of 5)

A Swell Time
Lauren Lae with her Boosted Board, checking out the surf at Ocean Beach.

(3 of 5)

Grab & Go
As its name implies, Speck's Pocket VR folds up to fit neatly in your pocket (or purse).

(4 of 5)

Airborne
Nixie, a watch-like flying camera, is the brainchild of Jelena Jovanovic and Christoph Kohstall.

(5 of 5)

 

PERSONAL TRAINER
For Athos, the future of fitness is focused on data, with smarter exercise apparel.

Gym rats, rejoice! Your workout is about to benefit from some serious data courtesy of Athos, the Redwood City maker of smart training apparel that measures muscle performance using EMG (electromyography—a diagnostic medicine that looks at which muscles are being activated and how hard) as well as heart rate and acceleration. But instead of strapping on dozens of electrodes tethered to a $20,000 machine, Athos packages the technology directly into your gymwear—specifically body-hugging black shirts, shorts and capris with bio-sensors—like a Fitbit-equipped pair of lululemons.

The idea was born from two college students who were fed up with wasted hours at the gym but too poor for a personal trainer. “We didn’t know how to get the most out of our time,” says CEO Dhananja Jayalath of he and fellow founder Chris Wiebe, who presented the concept as a thesis at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Upon launching the product last year, they sold out immediately and have been working through a backlog ever since. “We know how hard each muscle is working, if you’re using the right ones, if you’re balanced,” says Jayalath. The data is communicated via the Athos app, which gives instant and actionable feedback with each squat or sun salutation.

“One of the goals for us is that every time you work out with us, you have a better workout, and you reach your fitness goals faster,” says Jayalath.

Gotta-Have Gear: The Athos Core ($199) is a palm-size device that works with the company's sensor-laden apparel. The collection ranges in price from $149 for women's capris or men's shorts to $547 for a men's full-body bundle.

 

GIRL POWER
Roominate’s toys promote creative making and building at a young age.

Statistics related to the number of women in tech—or lack thereof—are notably dismal, and many studies suggest that the problem can be traced all the way back to the toys of our youth—a sentiment with which Alice Brooks and Bettina Chen concur. The founders of Silicon Valley’s Roominate met in the master’s engineering program at Stanford and discovered that they both credit their pursuit of the field to childhood tinkering. So they decided to tackle the problem head-on by filling the void of girls’ toys that develop hands-on problem solving, spatial and fine motor skills, and confidence with technology.

The result is a collection of customizable, STEM-inspired building kits using modular pieces and basic circuitry for endless combinations. “It has always been our goal to inspire the next generation of female innovators,” says Brooks. Since their 2012 launch, they successfully wooed Mark Cuban into investing on Shark Tank; launched rPower, an expansion into digital-physical play that allows kids to control their Roominate creations from a smartphone or tablet; and this past January, penned an acquirement deal for an undisclosed sum with Wisconsin-based manufacturer Patch Products. “Patch’s entrepreneurial spirit and innovative culture is exactly what we were looking for to help grow Roominate,” says Brooks. And grow they will—this year, they’re launching new circuits and sets for eager fans.

Out of the Box: Designed for open-ended, hands-on play, Roominate's kits involve structures and vehicles such as an amusement park, townhouse, RV and school bus ($15-$50).

 

GET ON BOARD
Boosted Boards seeks to bring the thrill of riding to a wider audience.

It’s already been a good year for Boosted Boards. The Mountain View maker of high-end electric skateboards got a boon Jan. 1, when a new California law reversed an archaic ban on motor-powered modes of transportation. While founder and CEO Sanjay Dastoor will admit that customers were actively riding despite the ambiguous law, its passing clarified Boosted’s legitimacy as a vehicle. The risk was apparently worth it: “People are really embracing this as a mode of transportation, mostly because it works so well. It works better than anything else,” he says.

With an easy wireless remote that controls both throttle and brakes, its longboard design and a highly flexible bamboo deck that makes for a ride similar to a snowboard or skis, it’s no surprise that Boosted is appealing more to your everyday commuter than hardcore skaters. Three models (from $999) offer varying levels of oomph, so beginners and pros alike can find something to suit their needs. (For $100, you can even get yours custom-engraved.) And the newly launched Boosted Spots, available through Boosted’s iOS app, allows riders to share their favorite routes.

“What draws people to it—people that have never stepped foot on a skateboard—is that it really changes the way they interact with their city,” says Dastoor. “Palo Alto feels like it’s five minutes by five minutes instead of 20 by 20.”

Roll with It: The Boosted Boards fleet includes a trio of drive options: The Lightweight Single (for those prioritizing portability); The Dual (includes a twin motor design for 1,500 watts of power); and The Dual+ (2,000 watts). All come with bluetooth remote controls and 60-minute chargers.

 

REALITY SPECS
Speck is delivering virtual reality in a handy format: a collapsible headset.

Traditionally known for sleek smartphone cases, Mountain View’s Speck surprised at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January when it announced that it’s taking on tech’s buzziest frontier: virtual reality. Pocket VR, a portable virtual reality viewer coming out this spring for iPhone 6 and the latest Samsung Galaxy, seems like a departure for the company, but VP of Design Bryan Hynecek insists otherwise: “We are mobile-device nerds. …We [create] products that not only protect your device, but add to or extend the functionality. As virtual reality moved into the mobile space, we...started to imagine the possibilities of a viewer that was a seamless extension of [that],” he says.

Pocket VR promises a compact solution for VR junkies on the go with precision-crafted lenses that clip directly into Speck’s CandyShell Grip, then collapse  at behind two panels to protect from scratches, dust and drops. (The case and headset are sold as a package for $70.) The viewer is Google Cardboard-certified, which means it’s compatible with all of Google Cardboard’s apps and games. Plus, Speck has partnered with VR content producer Jaunt, which is transporting audiences everywhere, from a behind-the-scenes photo shoot with Drew Barrymore to treks through Nepal.

Compact Design: With the Pocket VR by Speck, buyers get both a smartphone case and a viewer 3-D content, virtual reality and augmented reality.

 

NEXT-LEVEL SELFIES
Nixie’s wristlet camera drone will let you capture activities on the fly.

Outdoor enthusiasts, prepare to go where no GoPro has gone before with Nixie—the world’s first wearable, flying camera. With a flick of the wrist, the contraption transforms James Bond-like into a tiny drone, starts flying, turns to face you, and takes high-quality photos and videos comparable to leading smartphones. 

The idea came to co-founder and CEO Christoph Kohstall when he missed capturing the moment his 9-month-old daughter took her first steps. Naturally, the postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, who holds a Ph.D. in experimental physics, responded by making the ultimate camera—one that was easy to bring anywhere, thus wearable; would give awesome perspective, hence flyable; and would leave hands and attention free, therefore autonomous. “We want our users to capture and share their greatest moments without stopping to pose,” says Jelena Jovanovic, Palo Alto-based Nixie’s COO, former tech lead at Google and Kohstall’s wife. They submitted the idea to an Intel competition, won a $500,000 prize and followed up with a breakout live demo at CES 2015’s keynote. The response proved promising: #flynixie was the third-most trending topic globally on Twitter.

While the release date and price has yet to be confirmed, the Nixie team is refining their prototype and gearing up for manufacturing at scale. Selfie domination is in sight.

Take Flight: On your wrist, the Nixie looks like a whimsical watch. In the air, it turns into a small quadcopter drone. The big idea is that it will not only snap aerial photos, but also return to you, like a futuristic boomerang. 

 

Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley

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