Nixie’s $500K Winner: Flying Camera, Safety Tool or Medieval Pigeon?

Xconomy San Francisco — 

[Updated 11/5/14, 2:07 pm. See below] Imagine you’re given a box containing some wires, some propellers, a lens, some plastic, some flexible straps, and a new Intel chip a bit bigger than a postage stamp. What would you make?

The co-founders of Los Altos, CA-based Nixie assembled these ingredients to invent a wristband camera that takes off from your arm, flies up above you, takes an aerial selfie of you, then boomerangs back to you to resume its role as an intriguing accessory. This flight of fancy won Nixie the top prize and $500,000 at Intel’s inaugural Make It Wearable Challenge finale this week.

Even before the winners were chosen, angel investors and venture firms had begun circling the novice Nixie team after Intel posted videos about Nixie and the contest’s other nine finalists earlier this fall, says Nixie chief operating officer Jelena Jovanovic. Online footage of the device, billed as “the first wearable camera that can fly,” drew millions of viewers, says Nixie CEO Christoph Kohstall.

“We got comments like, ‘I want to buy this now. I want to buy three,’” Kohstall says. “There really seems to be a demand.”

Buyers will have to wait, though. The Nixie now exists only as a prototype developed by the newborn company’s ten-person team, which had scrambled together its initial proposal in a six-day period before Intel’s deadline for contest submissions. [An earlier version of this story mentioned only the three co-founders in the ten-person team.]

The reaction to Nixie’s debut sets off musings about why certain inventions capture the public imagination and become that entering wedge for a whole new class of products, the way video games became a gateway that made consumers more open to buying the earliest personal computers for mundane tasks like keeping the household accounts or storing recipes.

Like video games, the idea of a flying camera exudes the same aura of fun, though some sober observers are already suggesting more utilitarian uses for the Nixie when it comes to market. Jovanovic says fire departments have asked about using the wearable camera-equipped drone as a firefighter’s tool to explore areas that are too dangerous for people to enter.

Nixie’s immediate plan is to develop its device for sports adventurers like the rock climbers the team had in mind when they cooked up the flying camera idea (think GoPro with wings). Such mountaineers go in for vertiginous aerial shots of their ascents, and their Nixie photos and videos could be great ads for the company, the team figures.

“From there it’s pretty straightforward that it would spread to other sports,” Kohstall says. The first Nixies would probably be a bit more expensive than a GoPro, Jovanovic says, but the ultimate aim is to build the Nixie into a mass- market product at a low price.

“Long-term, we want this to be the next generation of point-and-shoot cameras,” Jovanovic says.

The prototype Nixie looks like a strappy watch that wraps around your wrist—but the four straps happen to have little propellers at their ends. You press a button on the little box in the center of the Nixie to pick a flight mode, then you point in the direction you want Nixie to follow, and it flies away. In Boomerang mode, it soars up, takes the photo, and returns, using inertial navigators to retrace its flight path, Jovanovic says. Then it syncs with the mobile phone of the user, and the photo or video can be shared instantly.

The Nixie will have other modes so you can surveil yourself on camera: In Hover, it stays still; in Panorama, it flies around you to give a 360-degree view; in Follow it, well, follows you.

The company is also looking at ways to point the Nixie at specific people or things, rather than simply to focus its lens on its own point of departure. “We’re looking at object recognition,” says Jovanovic. What’s making these choices possible is Intel’s chip, the Edison, which Intel supplied to the contestants, along with “unprecedented access to engineers at Intel,” she says.

The Edison chip was released in September, and the 10 contest finalists were among the first developers to use it, says Intel’s Lauren Jones, the marketing manager of the Make It Wearable challenge.

Things are moving fast for the Nixie team, which has never before developed a a large-scale consumer product as independent entrepreneurs. Its biggest risk now is the competitors who might spring up to produce a rival wearable, flying camera, Jovanovic says. Nixie is now eager to hire new staffers across the board, from electrical engineers and programmers to business development experts, she says. [An earlier version of this story stated that the team had never before developed a product.]

That doesn’t leave much time to explore all the potential uses and modifications of Nixie that already come to mind. Could Nixie’s actions be controlled from a mobile phone? Could it help to save injured wilderness hikers outside the range of cell phone coverage, by simply hovering to signal rescue aircraft, or by homing to the nearest cell phone tower and delivering a mobile phone message?

“We see potential for those scenarios as well,” Jovanovic says. There will probably be applications one can’t even imagine right now, she says.

What if, say, a Nixie user wanted the drone to find and photograph a friend? Could a user send the wristband camera flying to another person to deliver a photo or message? Jovanovic says her team calls that the Medieval Pigeon idea—the Nixie as a modern-day carrier pigeon. But who knows? It could happen, she says.

“Hipsters around San Francisco will be sending people posts by quadricopter,” Jovanovic says, laughing.