PowerClip Charges up NY Tech Meetup with an Idea for Emergencies

Last night’s New York Tech Meetup offered a plethora of novel technology, including a demo by a group of bright 11th graders working on an electronic wrist band to help the blind with eating. The crowd got a surge, though, from PowerClip, a device used in emergencies to turn car batteries into sources of power for phones and other gadgets connected via USB.

PowerClip looks simple but speaks to problems faced when electrical utilities become unavailable, such as after a storm, and backup generators are not immediately available.

“We realized the need for a compact device that can deliver power in the wake of an emergency,” said Robin Reid, a PowerClip team member. The idea emerged, she said, in a class called Design for UNICEF in the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. The team focused on access to cheap and available power for communication and light, a project that took on new meaning when Hurricane Sandy struck New York. “We looked at the challenges that lack of power posed for first responders who have to coordinate evacuation and relief efforts,” Reid said.

The team wanted to create a way to access power in disasters where there are plenty of vehicles with batteries around—but no immediate access to generators. The PowerClip attaches on one side to the leads on top of a car battery to feed power to the USB ports on the other side. One car battery could charge about 34 smartphones. The team is considering making other versions of PowerClip that would let other types of devices plug in.

Naturally there were questions about overly depleting car batteries with such a device, and the team said they are working on controls that would let users know if they are draining too much energy. The team is considering developing PowerClip as a consumer product with ideas that include using the device to recharge car batteries, installing a rechargeable battery within the device, tapping into solar energy, and turning the unit into a rechargeable flashlight.

PowerClip was a finalist announced this month in the latest New York’s Next Top Makers competition for developing commercial products.

Also on stage was noted designer and entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg, known to many as Swiss Miss, who demoed TeuxDeux, a to-do list iPhone app she relaunched recently which is designed to function like a paper list. “The [items] that you don’t cross off automatically at midnight rollover to the next day so you don’t have to rewrite the list,” she said.

During the Hack of the Month, a part of the event that focuses on technology, Swift (aka Mike Swift), a New York-based developer evangelist for Boulder’s SendGrid, spoke about working with Arduino open source microcontrollers. “It lets us talk to different partner components like LEDs, buttons, and sensors,” said Swift, who goes only by his last name.

Swift talks up working with hardware at NYTM. (photo by Qool Foto)

He demoed how easy it can to work with such hardware by writing a bit of Javascript code on stage for a button on an Arduino controller to manipulate an LED. “This is something anybody can write, even novice developers,” he said. Prior to the demo, Swift wrote a library that reaches out to Tumblr to grab a photo, which he then incorporated into the code. This was set up to send an e-mail with the image using SendGrid by pressing a button on the Arduino device.

Swift said he has been teaching workshops for novice developers to work more with microcontrollers. “I realized that there’s no library in Python [the programming language] to do this stuff so I wrote one called BreakfastSerial,” he said, and then demoed how to essentially create an LED light switch with a few minutes of coding with an Arduino. Swift said he hopes to spur the next generation of developers to work with hardware. “It’s not just about software and the internet,” he said. “It’s about the things we touch in real life every day.”

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