Home Automation On The Cheap Wins Demo

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Does the world need yet another video-chat service, yet another app to share footage from your phone, and yet another site to find out where to go tonight? Most likely not, but that didn't stop many of the 78 startups making six-minute presentations at the DEMO Fall conference in Santa Clara, Calif., this week.

Fortunately, DEMO — the fall's other big launchpad for startups after TechCrunch Disrupt SF – offered more substantive fare. These four in particular caught my eye.

Ube: This Austin firm won the conference's prize of a million dollars in free advertising on tech publisher IDG's sites for its smartphone-controlled home-automation system. Instead of you running wires through the house and attaching controller modules to existing appliances, Ube will sell $55 replacement power outlets, plugs and $60 light switches and plans a Kickstarter campaign to raise more funds.

Each includes a small Android computer and all can talk to each other and an elegant-looking mobile app via WiFi for easy remote control and monitoring. They say their system will also talk to Internet-linked appliances like "connected" TVs and Blu-ray players, which sets this apart from Belkin's less-ambitious, but already available WeMo.

bandu: Boston-based Neumitra introduced this stress-monitoring system, which links a chunky-looking watch that measure's your galvanic skin response for anxiety with an iPhone app that tracks these measurements and indexes them on the map (presumably, TSA security checkpoints rank high). When you start to freak out, the app tries to put you at ease by sending reminders to the watch's screen to do things like practice breathing exercises, call your mom or look at photos or listen to songs that make you happy.

The company's taking pre-orders on the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo at $189 a pop, but its target market is health care for veterans and other high-stress populations.

MoveEye: Twin Cities-based Tarsier had the conference's strangest eyewear: a set of glasses that use two off-the-shelf Logitech webcams to track the movements of your hands and fingers (and make the wearer look like a complete dork). Tarsier's software allows those gestures to control the action on a computer or TV screen.

I gave it a test drive by playing a racing game with my hands held out as if they were gripping a steering wheel. It worked, although the system got confused when I tilted my head as the car went around a turn. Tarsier says this is two years from shipping (when the glasses will be lighter and smaller than the prototype I donned). By then, though, connected TVs with webcams for living-room video chats may get smart enough to use them for the kind of no-remote control I saw Oblong Industries show off last month.

Passboard: Passwords can look awfully frail as a way to secure our important accounts, but what can we use instead of them? The San Francisco startup Passban takes an all-of-the-above approach, allowing you to choose and combine different forms of authentication on an Android or iOS device: recognizing your voice, recognizing your face, checking to see if you're in a designated location, or entering an old-fashioned password, among others. This flexible setup also gets around the problem of you being in a place that's too noisy or too dark for voice or facial recognition.

Or people may be content to continue wrestling with passwords, with only a minority opting to augment them with measures like Google's two-step verification.