April 12, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Green is gold at Cool Product Expo

PALO ALTO, Calif.--If you thought the virtual world Second Life was just for wandering or flying around a digital landscape and talking to other people and that there wasn't anything to actually do, Robert Curet begs to differ.

An established product designer who runs Little Wonder Studio in Burbank, Calif., Curet recently discovered that Second Life is the ideal environment for sketching prototypes of wind-up toys--and then using the complex digital creations as the base for making real products to sell in the real world.

And he has. Curet, who was one of dozens of exhibitors at the seventh annual Cool Product Expo at Stanford University School of Business here, had brought along examples of what he had built using interactive sketches he did in Second Life, and said the virtual environment had helped him sell tens of thousands of the little plastic toys.

Green rules gadget expo

"It saves me months of time," Curet said, explaining that his distributor clients can come into Second Life to see which models they'd like to buy, as can the engineers in China who actually build the toys.

Like Curet, many of the other exhibitors at the expo were on hand to showcase products that are turning traditional business models upside down. And more than anything else, environmental sustainability was the overriding concept among the roomful of budding entrepreneurs, some who are just getting their inventions off the ground, and others who are established in their chosen businesses.

In one corner of the room, Eric Cummings, president of Cool Earth Solar, was showing off his company's technology, which, he says, is designed to foster global carbon neutrality by 2050 through pure market forces.

The technology is based on the idea of using reflective plastic film to focus light at 220 times its normal strength onto photovoltaic cells.

Cool Earth Solar said its inflatable mirrors are 400 times cheaper than traditional polished aluminum mirrors. Cummings said the technology will make solar power the energy future of small farms, and rural-industrialized areas.

Nearby, Josie Norris was showing off clothing from Nau, a company dedicated to producing garments made in an entirely sustainable cycle. That is, she explained, that the clothing is made from fully recyclable fabrics, including a corn-based fabric that is "a breathable and insulating base layer." The clothes, which come in muted colors, cost between $30 and $250, Norris said.

"You won't have to buy the hottest colors every year," Norris said, "because these colors will last" forever.

For photographers, meanwhile, Joby was on hand, showcasing its GorillaPad flexible tripods. These are plastic devices that are fully bendable and can be wrapped around just about anything.

"It's so you don't need a flat surface" to take pictures, said Joby business development representative Whitney Sales.

Sales said the tripods, which come in three sizes that can handle everything from point-and-shoot cameras to full SLRs with attached flashes, range in price from $22 to $50. And while the tripods themselves aren't recyclable, the packaging is. And buyers who order through the company's Web site can get the products without the packaging at all.

CONTINUED: Sustainability is the future…
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