The Sunday Times, March 29 2015pdf_icon

The suitcase gets smart

And you thought the little wheels were clever. Get ready for the bag that weighs itself, charges your iPad and tells you where it is. DUNCAN CRAIG unpacks the latest models

There was a time when suitcases were expected to just, well, hold stuff.

No longer. A luggage arms race has broken out, and this year both the established manufacturers and a gaggle of crowdfunded start-ups will be launching models that could transform our idea of what a suitcase is and what it can do. Baggage that’s smarter than we are? It’s looking like a distinct possibility.

First up, with forehead-slapping simplicity, comes self-weighing technology. It’s a feature of four of the most advanced products soon to be turning heads on the baggage carousel — the Bluesmart, the Trunkster, the Space Case 1 and Pluggage. Some have the scales in the handle, a high-tech version of that bagweighing device you can never find just before you go away. Others, such as the Space Case 1, have a weight sensor built into the wheels.

But it wasn’t the prospect of being able to slip neatly and smugly under the weight cutoff that saw the £200 Bluesmart suck in £1.35m through the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. It was its tracking capability. Synched via an app to your smartphone, the Bluesmart will use GPS to locate the case if it is rerouted. “As the network grows, we will cover the whole planet,” its website says, a touch worryingly. (What’s the betting yours is the case that finds its way to the blackspot?)

That said, given the universality of bag separation anxiety, you can’t argue with the appeal. It also has proximity sensors that send an alert to your phone when it goes walkabout, and a “proximity heat map” to help you relocate it. These so-called connected or smart cases are the future, says Harry Sheikh, chief executive of the top-end luggage manufacturer Hontus. “Soon, they will be a way of life. Every luggage company will be forced into this or have to close. Not in a year, maybe, but certainly in 10.”

The polycarbonate Space Case 1, from Hontus, is marketed not as a case, but as a “travel companion”. It will have a built-in battery to charge your devices, play music through a Bluetooth speaker and use GPS and GSM tracking to keep you informed of its location — again via a phone app. It also has fingerprint-activated locking, developed in conjunction with US Homeland Security to ensure the contents can be readily checked — without the need for a crowbar. It’s available this autumn and is likely to cost about £400.

Which isn’t cheap. Freestanding or “loose” devices offer connectivity at a fraction of the cost, and have the advantage of being transferable between cases. The Eviate eTrack, developed by the Dutch-British firm FastTrack Company, allows you to track your bag onto your flight, at which point it goes into sleep mode until the aircraft lands, in compliance with airline regulations.

The eTrack lets you know when the case is on the baggage carousel, freeing you from that unedifying scramble, and connects to existing baggage-handling systems — effectively improving their accuracy and reliability. The device can be ordered now for £73, with delivery in August.

“The primary concern for 80% of travellers is their baggage,” says the firm’s co-founder, David van Hoytema. “They watch it disappear into a black hole, then crowd around the carousel, hoping it re-emerges. They’re not in control. These types of devices put them back in control.”

Pluggage, being developed by Delsey, is as innovative as its name is clunky. The French baggage giant has gone all democratic, soliciting feedback on what gizmos might be included, but contained within the case’s attractive grey and tan design will likely be a phone charger, an on-board sensor (letting you know the case has made it onto your aircraft) and fingerprint locking. There’s also a “check lock”, so you can establish that no one has tampered with the case. It’s due next year and will cost about £400.

The iQ, from the American luggage brand Andiamo, is released in the autumn. It can be locked from your phone, sends anti-theft warning texts when it moves beyond a certain radius and, uniquely, serves as a wi-fi hotspot.

But it’s a long way from drawing board to carousel. The “self-driving” Hop suitcase — which worked by connecting to a Bluetooth signal from a smartphone and followed its owner like a moody teenager — caused a stir in 2012, but is yet to be developed. So, too, the City Cab, a motorised suitcase developed by a Chinese farmer that was claimed to carry two passengers at speeds of up to 12mph, like some kind of adult Trunki.

The Trunkster, another crowdfunding high-achiever with more than 3,500 investors, has the charger, the GPS tracking and the built-in scale — but all somewhat grudgingly, according to Jesse Potash, one of the co-founders. What the designers are most pleased about, and something they consider to be as game-changing as the addition of wheels to cases, is its zipperless rolltop access.

Operating like a blind on a plane window, it allows for easy access to your belongings without the need to lie the case down, wrestle with zips and expose your pants to half the terminal.

“People are really trying to push the boundaries with luggage,” says Potash, whose product starts at £220 and can be ordered now for autumn delivery. “But, for us, there’s a fine line when introducing so many gimmicks into something that’s just meant, at the end of the day, to carry your things.”