There's a new robotic exoskeleton aimed at a niche audience: skiers and snowboarders.
According to a spokesperson, the wearable robot "promises to extend your ski day, [allow you to] access longer challenging terrain, make stronger turns, or simply enjoy the sport without the pain. All the while keeping your knees safer."
The device is the flagship product of Bay Area startup Roam Robotics.
It may seem fanciful to build a company targeting a small, untested market with a relatively expensive piece of technology. Here's why it's actually a smart move.
The company began with ambitions to bring bipedal mobility to wheelchair users. But it's turned out the wheelchair does a wonderful job solving mobility problems for individuals with impairments.
It's not a perfect piece of technology by a long shot, but it tackles an essential problem at a low buy-in price at the bottom end. A robotic suit that costs tens of thousands of dollars hasn't been able to compete.
Ekso next turned to the rehabilitation market, and their suit is currently being used by rehab centers around the world to aid people recovering from spinal cord injury and stroke.
But progress has been slow. Ekso has had to wait for research to become available to demonstrate the effectiveness of their technology in rehab settings. They've also had to build a sales network that can target healthcare providers and deal with a maze of international regulatory requirements.
More recently, the company has been targeting heavy industry, such as ship building. The idea is to increase productivity and reduce injuries by outfitting workers with bionic braces.
But shifting markets is difficult, requiring a ground-up rebuild of a company's sales and marketing.
That wending history has been a lesson for robotics startups, and Roam founder Tim Swift, a former senior controls engineer and research manager at Ekso, has taken note.
About 16 million Americans participate in snow sports in the United States. That may seem like a small number, but it's a coveted market in the outdoors industry.
Skiers and snowboarders spend huge money on gear and travel. The culture is led by extreme athletes who push the boundaries of what's possible and whose mandate is to go bigger, go faster, and go where no one else has.
Framed like that, a product that helps the average skier up their game is likely to attract interest.
Roam's product is decidedly more lightweight than most exoskeleton products I've seen. It's made of two braces that are strapped to the user's thighs and connected to their ski or snowboard boots.
The skier also wears a small backpack that carries the power source and device controls. In total, it weighs only a few pounds.
Within the braces are fabric actuators that act as intelligent shock absorbers. The device only provides support when needed, and is otherwise passive and unobtrusive.
At $2500, about the price of skis and bindings, it's well within a dollar range that many skiers will shell out on gear in a given season.
Because Roam has defined its audience so specifically, it can take laser focus at marketing and publicity efforts. There's no other product like it for skiers, so for now it has the market all to itself.
I'd say that's a smart move, and one other robotics startups should be watching closely.