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Gallaga: Future of tech may include virtual reality, vaporized spirits

Local startups dominate tour’s Austin stop.

Based on Engadget Live, a technology open house event at the Austin Music Hall on Friday night, the first company to create a virtual-reality game that also serves real-life liquor is going to make an astounding amount of money.

Hosted by Engadget, a popular blog for gadget lovers, the mini expo at first glance looked like it might be a bust. In the giant floor space of the hall, only about a dozen demonstrations were set up, some on surfaces the size of small dinner tables. But once the free event opened to the public at 7 p.m., hundreds of people occupied the space. It became clear quickly, judging from where the biggest lines formed and what got people talking and shooting photos, what people were most interested in trying.

Here were the hits and misses of the night.

Direct hit: It was a good night for local tech startups and the most well-known of them at Engadget Live was Chaotic Moon Studios, which was premiering a new game called “Death From Above.” Chaotic Moon rarely sticks to the script when it comes to public demonstrations. At SXSW in March, the company debuted a stun-gun drone. And yes, someone got Tasered.

“Death From Above” was less shocking, but it drew a huge line because of the medium it’s played in. Using a virtual-reality goggle technology called Oculus Rift, the game simulates driving a jeep through a war zone. There’s a steering wheel, foot pedals and the Oculus Rift itself, which surrounds your field of view with the game in all directions and changes your view as you move your head around. But the twist Chaotic Moon put on “Death From Above” is making the game a two-player experience. A second player uses an iPad as a radar screen to drop bombs, aiming for the jeep.

Players who stood in line to play were probably just as curious about Oculus Rift itself as they were about the game; most appeared to have never tried the technology before, which is not yet for sale to the public.

Jonathan Price, a 3-D artist who worked on the game, said it only took two weeks to put together and is just one of many projects using virtual reality that the company is working on.

“We can’t wait to see what else we can do,” Price said. “As other things start to marry with the tech, it’s going to get better and better.”

High spirits: The only other line that came close to competing with Chaotic Moon’s was an Austin company that’s only been around for three months, Vapshot. Vapshot began as a weekend project for Victor Wong, the CEO and founder, who works in music hardware for artists including Prince and Maroon 5.

Vapshot is what you might call vaporware: it is literally vapor made from alcohol and dispensed in plastic bottles. Once filled, the bottles are opened with a champagne-bottle-like pop. The vapor can be sucked through a straw, giving customers the same result as doing shots at a bar, but with faster effect (about 30 seconds) and a shorter inebriation time (about 15 minutes, says Wong).

A mixer machine combines the drinks and dispenses the vapor; at a recent trade show for clubs and bars, Wong’s company sold $78,000 worth of equipment. Vapshot is due to appear on the TV show “HotMixology” after episode tapings this summer.

Engadget Live attendees lined up to give themselves the vapors and, amid all the excitement, Wong stressed safety and moderation.

“It’s not designed to get you drunk and hungover,” he said. “We’re trying to roll this out in a responsible way.”

Vaporized alcohol, for bars and clubs that will inevitably serve it, could make for bigger profits; the same liquor bottle that yields about 20 drink pours can serve 1,500 shots of vapor, Wong said.

If it rides along the same wave that has made vaporizers in the pot community and electronic cigarettes popular, Vapshot could be a big hit on Sixth Street soon.

Crowdfunding victory laps: Two other Austin companies represented well with products that drew their funding from the crowd. Atlas Wearables, which is entering the crowded fitness band market, raised $629,019 from January to March and its CEO Peter Li said the company is still expecting to deliver its first fitness tracker later this year.

What makes it different from the Fitbits and Jawbone Ups that already exist? It’ll have a high-quality touch-screen display and it will be removable from the wristband to allow for other functions than just wrist tracking.

If it works as demonstrated, it will be able to track about 50 to 100 different kinds of exercises at launch. In the demo, the Atlas tracker could tell when I was doing a bicep curl with both arms versus doing alternating curls. And that was with the device on just one wrist.

A smarter fitness tracker? Bring it on, Atlas.

It’s not vaporized alcohol, but Brewbot, from an Irish company, also looked at spirits in a new way. It’s basically a microbrewery in a box, an Internet-enabled robot that can mix beer ingredients via a smartphone as its remote control. Brewbot can download custom recipes, say the formula from a bar halfway across the world.

Jonny Campbell, whose team has relocated to Austin for the next three months as part of the Techstars program, said simply, “It takes the pain out of the tricky parts” of brewing. You could call it 3-D beer printing. But beer still takes time. It can take 3-5 hours to brew the beer and 10 days to more than a year to ferment it.

Other bright spots included an electric motorcycle called Zero, large-format 3-D printers and cute object-tracking robot critters called “Pixy” from Austin’s Charmed Labs.

Misses: With so much neat new stuff, one company that didn’t generate as much traffic was TiVo, the once-essential tool for TV addicts that is now aiming for the high end with a $500 box (plus $15-a-month subscription fee) called Roamio Pro. It offers universal search of services such as Netflix and Hulu and lots of space for storing TV shows, which is starting to feel beside-the-point in the age of instant TV streaming.

Huawei showed off its Ascend Mate 2 4G, a large smartphone that also felt like something you’d see at Best Buy rather than a tech open house.

Despite just a handful of items on display, Engadget Live succeeded in a way that most tech events do not: by showing jaded techaholics a few things they’ve never seen before.

With Austin as its first stop, the tech tour will continue monthly in other cities including Seattle (July 18), Boston (Aug. 22), Los Angeles (Oct. 3) and New York (Nov. 7-8).

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