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Why Intel Spent Half A Million Dollars To Support Drone Selfies

The winners of the “Make It Wearable Challenge” built a tiny wrist drone that takes aerial selfies. Here’s why Intel’s CEO thought it was worth $500,000.

Why Intel Spent Half A Million Dollars To Support Drone Selfies

Selfies are nothing new. But selfies taken by a drone that uses your wrist as a launchpad? That just might be–at least Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich thinks so.

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After a 10-month-long competition aimed at helping Intel figure out how wearable computing is going to evolve, the winner is a 40-gram wrist-worn quadcopter that unfolds, flies up, shoots a photo, and boomerangs back to your arm. It’s called Nixie, and the team behind it was awarded $500,000.

The founders describe it as “a flying wristband that can give aerial photography to you.” Think of it as the futuristic offspring of a GoPro and a drone, or Harry Potter’s golden snitch with a built-in gimbal and camera.

“It was the intellectual property about throwing it and, depending on the velocity you throw it at, having it go a certain distance, snap a picture, turn, and come back,” Krzanich tells Fast Company. “We thought that was a creative use of technology. It was addressing a market that was growing fast and hungry for it.”

Hungry is right. Selfie-sticks are a growing trend, especially outside of the U.S. There is consumer demand for ways to take wider, hands-free, and group shots. And according to 2014 stats by the Camera And Imaging Products Association, digital still camera (DSC) shipment numbers are dropping like a stone–giving way to new options. The market has shifted. According to Krzanich, that’s exactly how Nixie convinced judges they were winners.

“The videoclip that they used [in presenting to judges] was one of the YouTube videos that had taken off virally,” he explained. “It was a woman in Mexico that had thrown her GoPro 10 times, randomly. She put a delay timer on it, and she threw it up 10 times to snap this wonderful picture of her on the beach. It had a couple million views. The Nixie team said ‘Hey, this person was doing our research for us. There’s a target audience and a demand for this product.’ It was pretty convincing.”

The working prototype certainly helped the demo too, and it was built in a sprint. “There were six days between when [Nixie’s inventor and founder] Christoph found out about the submission deadline and when we had to submit something,” explains project manager Jelena Jovanovic. “I said, ‘But we need a working prototype and we need a video and we need a business plan.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

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“It was an epic six days,” Jovanovic laughs.

The first problem: how to create flexible wristband that bends into a circle but that is still stable enough to fly. Christoph Kohstall, who is not only the inventor but is also an experimental physicist, talked materials and design. “We are using standard 3-D printing (ABS) for the production of the prototype,” he said. “ABS doesn’t bend, but it’s configured kind of like a bike chain.” The camera stability, according to Krzanich, comes from a gimbal. “They have a small gimbal in the bottom of the drone that stabilizes it,” he shares. Even with all that, the mechanics of getting a steady shot are not easy. Nor are the algorithms Nixie needs to make it boomerang back to you.

“Once we made it to the semi-finals and the finals, we had to incorporate navigation and the camera,” says Jovanovic. Some of that technology is already patented. The rest is their secret sauce.

In addition to refining the design, they are sorting out which sensors to use–necessary for things like altitude change and positional movement. “This is a new kind of navigation challenge that wasn’t there before,” says Kohstall. “There are drones on the market that navigate on GPS. Our drone’s gotta be able to do more.”

“Our goal is to move really, really quickly because, of course, there are competitors in the space,” says Jovanovic adds. “We’re just going to stay ahead of the game.”

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About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies. Formerly AVP of Innovation at Idea Couture and an editor at MISC Magazine, she is an ethnographer by both training and nature

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