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Did You Pack Too Much? Your Suitcase Knows | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tim Ryan of Modobag riding one of the company’s motorized suitcases at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. The suitcase is expected to be available this year.CreditWhitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

Your suitcase has taken on a life of its own. It can now tell you if it has strayed too far, or if you’ve packed too much, and it may soon be able to call you an Uber car. There’s even a suitcase in the works that will take you on a ride through the airport.

Luggage has been a pretty sleepy product category. The industry’s last major innovation came nearly 50 years ago, when wheels and a telescoping handle were added to suitcases. Since then, improvements have been incremental, focusing on lighter-weight materials, interior layouts and maneuverability.

Now, suitcases are getting a host of technical features, introduced for the most part by start-up companies and sometimes paid for with crowdfunding.

Three types of features dominate this first wave of “smart luggage.” There are ports and chargers to repower a phone or other electronic device. There are GPS trackers that work with a cellphone to pinpoint your luggage’s location or to notify you if it has left your side. There is also a set of features focused on making traveling easier, like electronic baggage tags that allow customers to skip luggage check-in lines at the airport, and built-in scales to help travelers avoid fees for checked bags that exceed the weight limit.

Bluesmart Luggage, which started with an Indiegogo campaign in 2014, is so focused on the “smart” aspects of its offerings that it prefers to be called a technology company, not a luggage company, its chief executive, Tomi Pierucci, said.

Bluesmart bags include a digital scale and GPS tracking. The suitcase can be locked by a cellphone app, and it automatically locks if it is too far from the owner’s cellphone. The company has sold 35,000 suitcases.

But the objective of Bluesmart goes beyond its individual technical features, Mr. Pierucci said. He wants to create an ecosystem to help people “avoid the pain in travel,” he said, by using the accompanying phone app as an online travel information hub.

“We want to remind you to charge the suitcase the night before your trip,” he explained. “We want to offer you an Uber when your plane lands. We want to notify your hotel if your flight is delayed.”

Business travelers keep their suitcases an average of three years before buying a new one, Mr. Pierucci said, but Bluesmart’s software and firmware upgrades can deliver new features and new partnerships to customers as they are developed. And any luggage connected to an app can record when each feature is used, reporting that data back to the company to inform future product iterations.

Stephanie Korey, a co-founder and the chief executive of the new luggage company Away, said she liked to call her suitcases “thoughtful” rather than “smart.” The one-year-old company has already sold 75,000 pieces of luggage.

Ms. Korey said she and her partner, Jen Rubio, looked at solving customer problems, like recharging a dying phone, keeping smelly clothes away from clean ones or designing wheels that make it easy to roll over cobblestones. “We think about how people pack, what they do at the airport, what they do when they arrive at a hotel,” she said.

Ms. Korey also shies away from the “luggage company” moniker. “We’re a travel company,” she said. “Once we establish trust with a customer, and they like what we’re doing, we can start creating other travel products for them,” like travel accessories or organizers that would go inside luggage.

Other new luggage-tech ideas include the Fugu Travel suitcase, which expands from carry-on to full-size suitcase using an internal air pump. The company just began shipping its first products to those who pre-ordered the bag or donated to the effort via Kickstarter. There is also Travelmate, a self-moving suitcase that follows its owner and is expected to be available this year.

Some of the new technology is suitcase-adjacent.

DUFL, founded two years ago, offers an app-based service that lets travelers avoid the chore of packing. Customers send their clothes, shoes, toiletries or other items to the DUFL warehouse’s “remote closet.” The company photographs each item, cleans it and stores it.

When customers are ready to travel, they use the app to notify DUFL of the date and destination of their trip and then “pack” by tapping on the items they want from the photographs on the screen. DUFL then sends the bag of items to meet the traveler at the hotel or other destination. At the end of the trip, the traveler ships the luggage back to DUFL.

A number of tech travel companies have bolstered their funding by showing their ideas to the traveling public. Bluesmart raised $2.2 million on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site. The luggage company G-RO raised $1.3 million for its large-wheeled smart luggage on Indiegogo and $3.3 million on Kickstarter, another crowdfunding site. Modobag, a motorized suitcase you can ride on, has raised over half a million dollars on Indiegogo and is expected to be available this year.

Crowdfunding sites are a great source of investment dollars because the audience “instantly recognizes the value of making travel easier,” said Slava Rubin, a co-founder and the chief business officer at Indiegogo.

One uncertainty for companies adding new technology is that the rules on batteries and electronic devices on airplanes are evolving. And the larger, more established luggage brands have not rushed to add technology to their products so far. Tumi does not have plans to embed technology directly into its travel products, according to the company, although it is looking to introduce a separate global tracking device this summer.

Blake Lipham, chief executive of Travelpro, said his company was keeping an eye on the new technical features, and how durable they were.

“Luggage takes a lot of abuse,” he said. “We want to see the performance over the lifetime of the bag.” New technical features can also involve trade-offs in cost, packing space and weight, so customer research is critical, he added.

Travelpro has installed USB ports in some of its offerings so travelers can stow a portable recharger and power their devices. But beyond that, “we’re waiting to see the demand,” Mr. Lipham said. The technologies that his customers most appreciate, he said, are physical ones that keep the wheels aligned and stop telescoping handles from wobbling.

And, of course, the new features don’t appeal to all types of travelers. Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, said businesspeople generally traveled with carry-on luggage only, “so the scale and GPS tracker aren’t really applicable, and if a phone is dying in a meeting, it’s more discreet to plug it into a portable charger.”

Still, said Julio Terra, Kickstarter’s director of technology and design, “people are clearly hungry for better products in this space” and should expect “a lot of innovation in this area for years to come.”

(The New York Times)