Startups Battle to Make Star Trek’s Comms Badge a Reality!!!

Jesse Robbins won’t show us the wearable device his new startup is building, but he says it was inspired, at least in part, by the Star Trek “communicator badge.” In other words, you wear it on your chest, and when you need instant communication with someone in another location, you press a button and talk into it.

The idea is to create a new and more convenient form of communication for event planners, kitchen workers, and others who need instant access to colleagues while on the job. It may even make sense for everyday consumers, such as parents organizing parties for their kids and friends driving from winery to winery in the Napa Valley.

“It’s for any mobile team that needs to be connected in real-time,” says Robbins, who previously played notable roles in the rise of two hugely important technologies for the modern business, helping to build the infrastructure that underpinned Amazon Web Services and later founding the data-center-automation outfit Chef.

Jesse Robbins.  OnBeep
Known as OnBeep, Robbins’ new wearable startup emerged from stealth mode this morning. Backed by $6.25 million in funding, it joins at least two other companies in the quest to deliver wearable voice communication—yet another example of science fiction driving reality. A company called Theatro offers a wearable communicator that’s now used by employees inside retail stores, and a second outfit—known, appropriately enough, as CommsBadge—is exploring similar territory.
“All of these things are inspired by Star Trek,” says J.P. Gownder, an analyst with tech research outfit Forrester who tracks the burgeoning wearables market. “The idea of creating wearables that aid in communication—though it may not make sense from a consumer angle—can be very useful, particularly in the enterprise.”

Robbins—who has relied on older real-time communication devices while moonlighting as a firefighter and emergency medical technician—believes this new breed of communicator can fill the large gap left by the demise of the Nextel network, which once provided a kind of wide-area walkie-talkie for businesses. As Robbins points out, the rise of the iPhone killed off the Nextel network, but he argues that there’s still an enormous market for a simpler way of instantly communicating with coworkers. “Nextel has left this giant hole,” he says. “We estimate that there are 40 million Americans, in many jobs, that require them to be connected to each other throughout the day.”

Gownder also sees a potential market for these devices, but he rightly points out that they must provide tools that go above and beyond what you can do with the average phone. The Theatro wearable, for instance, lets you very quickly toggle your communications between different types of listeners or track listener location. “They need to offer added intelligence,” he says. “They have to allow people to do things they haven’t done before—and solve real business problems.”


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