By Stephen H. Wildstrom Most high-tech conferences have a theme, such as "the digital living room" or "the future of sales-force automation." The DEMO conference focuses on novelty, and it has been the launching pad for products ranging from the Palm Pilot, which created an industry, to the Kerbango Internet radio, one of the many DEMO debutantes that never quite made it to market.
This year's 15th anniversary gathering in Scottsdale, Ariz., over Feb. 13-15, was the usual celebration of previously unannounced -- and sometimes slightly off-kilter -- products and services, introduced in on-stage demonstrations limited to six or eight minutes. Among the highlights (and lowlights) of this year's conference:
The perfect fit. Intellifit System from Intellifit Corp. in Philadelphia, uses low-frequency radio waves to take dozens of measurements of a fully clothed shopper's body, then uses the results to recommend specific sizes and brands of ready-to-wear clothing. The system requires a booth the size of a small room, which might discourage some retailers from installing one, given the cost of retail space. Many DEMO attendees found the idea slightly creepy but stood in long lines to try it anyway because the company promised everyone who did a free, perfect-fitting pair of Levi's.
This year's model. Brampton (Ont.)-based MDA demonstrated a stereoscopic video camera that can instantly create a 3D model of a crime scene or just about anything else. It definitely beats a crude chalk outline of a body. A variant of the system can be used to detect a buildup of ice on highways or airplane wings. MDA doesn't plan to make products. Instead, it will license its imaging and modeling technology to other companies.
A puzzling product. Many salespeople regard their contact list as their most valuable asset. Jigsaw Data in San Mateo, Calif., wants to give them a way to realize the value of that asset by creating a marketplace for contacts. Participants post contacts -- say widget buyers at XYZ Corp. -- for other widget sellers to purchase for about $1 apiece. Jigsaw makes money by taking a small piece of each transaction. The concept seems to have two problems, though. Will salespeople really take $1 to give a lead to a potential competitor? And lots of people, myself included, bridled at the idea of other people selling their contact information.
Block that mail. Dozens of products are designed to keep unwanted material from getting into corporate mail systems. OutBoxer from Audiotrieve in Boxborough, Mass., is one of a new breed of products designed to keep e-mail that shouldn't leave corporate systems from getting out. OutBoxer uses a set of policies to examine each message outbound from a Microsoft Exchange mail system.
For example, one problem facing many companies struggling to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is how to maintain the required archives of mail without becoming overwhelmed by a flood of personal messages. OutBoxer analyzes the language of each message and flags those that may be exempt from retention requirements. It can also block internal messages with content that could be construed as harassment or outbound messages containing confidential information.
A control room on your desk. Back in the 1980s, NewTek invented desktop video production with a hardware-software combination for the Commodore Amiga called the Video Toaster. Now, San Antonio-based NewTek is back with the TriCaster, a $5,000 portable live video switcher for production of corporate videocasts or Webcasts.
The TriCaster can switch inputs from three live cameras, prerecorded video, graphics, and still pictures. It can generate text overlays on-screen, provide a variety of transition effects, and mix audio inputs or accept audio from a standard mixer board. The system can be run either from a PC keyboard or an optional console that looks like a simplified version of a TV control-room switcher console. The TriCaster replaces several pieces of video-production gear, including a video switcher and the transcoder needed to convert standard video output for Webcasting. Total cost for such equipment used to run in the high five digits.
Visualizing customers. Customer relationship management software generates a wealth of data that can be used to improve sales, but the sheer volume of information can defeat its usefulness. MindJet in Larkspur, Calif., aims to address that problem with software that converts data into visual "mind maps" that graphically display the relationships among items in a database. MindManager Accelerator for salesforce.com sucks data out of a Web-based salesforce.com customer relations database and converts the information into a picture of, for example, how different people in your contact list relate to one another. That's just one of the many visions of tomorrow's tech tools on display at DEMO 2005. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek