Internet & Tech

All eyes on the cup

Is creativity on the rise for Chinese gadgets?

Mobile phone w

Fancy tracking your liquids?

You might call it the Condom Challenge. To fund the development of more effective contraceptives, the Gates Foundation has been offering grants of $100,000 apiece as seed money, and the promise of up to $1 million more in investment.

But one Chinese condom maker won’t have any chance of winning Bill Gates’ cash, after it began marketing “the world’s first condom that could lead to pregnancy”.

The prophylactic, which is sold online, looks like a typical birth control device but there are a series of unnoticeably tiny holes in the latex. The manufacturer, which borrows the wrapper of popular labels like Okamoto and Durex to disguise the flaws in its offering, says that the product is “as revolutionary as the time when Steve Jobs invented the iPad”, according to adult healthcare website Ageshop.

But why would anyone want to purchase an otherwise useless contraceptive?

Ageshop explains the different scenarios that one might want a punctured product. For instance: “My other half doesn’t want kids. I have no choice. How can a marriage be complete without children?”

Hiding holes in condoms is contentious, and arguably creative (albeit in the child-rearing sense). Then again, few would deem it a standout example of Chinese innovation. But recent media reports have tried to suggest that China’s tech industry is becoming more creative in the commercial sense too.

Last week the China Daily reported that another company has unveiled a device that promises to “revolutionise” the lives of millions of Chinese. Shenzhen-based Rrioo Technology has designed a “smartcup” called Ocup, which retails for Rmb669 ($109). It uses sensors and a Bluetooth device inside its polymer-coated glass to track the volume of liquid that its user drinks throughout the day. The data is recorded and can be checked via an app (which is similar to the popular Jawbone device).

“People spend more than one third of their day in offices,” says Yin Jisheng, Rrioo’s chief executive. “Fast-paced office life usually comes with big pressure, which squeezes the time for people to pay attention to their health.”

What if you misplace the Ocup? No problem, another Chinese tech firm has got you covered.

In November, Zeaplus, formerly a smartphone maker, released a gadget that it calls a “smart tracker” which helps users keep track of belongings like smartphones, wallets and even children, says The Founder, a magazine.

The device – called Zeaplus Nut – tracks the connected objects using Bluetooth, allowing users to set reminders so that they never forget their devices. It will also sound an alarm if the person moves beyond a certain distance from the object (the range is about 50 metres).

The Nut is small enough for its owners to slip into wallets and purses. The first generation of the product is already available for sale online for Rmb79 but the company says it is hoping to make the new model more cheaply.

In a country in which counterfeiting is an ongoing challenge, Tian Lin, Zeaplus’ founder, says he is not afraid of unscrupulous competition. “As long as you are always walking at the forefront, always doing better than other people, you don’t have to be afraid of people knocking you off,” he told The Founder.

Still, not everyone is convinced that new gadgets of this type will find a large enough audience. For instance, Wu Hao, an analyst at Analysys International, reckons that Ocup could be another useless innovation. “Just ask yourself: do you actually need a cup to remind you to drink water and document your water intake?” he told China Daily. Similarly, tech bloggers have complained that Zeaplus Nut isn’t waterproof.

But smaller ideas sometimes evolve into much more influential innovations. A recent study by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) has also concluded that a small but growing proportion of Chinese companies are innovating to world standards.

The report also revealed that the number of Chinese patents filed abroad has risen sharply in the past decade.

In fact WIPO’s Carsten Fink concludes that Chinese companies “are pushing the world’s technology frontier. That is a good sign for China’s innovation system”.

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