Better Selfies Through Chemistry


The selfie is here to stay, despite reports of its demise.

Love it or loathe it, the self-portraits snapped with handheld devices that Ellen DeGeneres and President Obama made famous -- and I made temporarily uncool -- have shot well past the fad stage. The technology is seeing to that, as there are roughly 160 million smartphone users in the United States. By 2017, that number will grow to nearly 210 million.

It's even gotten to the point where there's even an ABC television show (or Pygmalion rip-off) called "Selfie" coming to set boxes and portable devices later this year.

So, if we're stuck with the selfie, then we need to find ways to improve upon it.

That's where Exofab comes in. The Greek-founded, Virginia-based, privately held concern produces a gel-based guard for select Apple and Samsung smartphones. The gel, produced by 3M, actually consists of a polyurethane resin sprayed on an adhesive sheet. Once the resin hardens, it becomes a gel that can adhere temporarily to non-porous surfaces, like windows and mirrors, allowing smartphone users to mount their devices for a brief -- and I mean very brief -- spell in order to take better photos and Vine-length videos.

Exofab's product consists of several "pieces" users place on the front, back and sides of their devices to prevent nicks and scratches (here are the instructions for installing). In addition to making the devices easier to grip or mount, the guards -- roughly three millimeters thick -- can also repair themselves from most scratches and dents.

Already established in Europe, Exofab has its Odysseus-like sights set on the US. However, Exofab's leaders didn't create their product with the selfie in mind. Sure, the stick-to-itiveness was a benefit to customers, but George Boosalis, the company's U.S. marketing chief, said the initial goal was to find a sleeker way to protect consumers' smartphone investments.

"When you put a case on your phone you are basically throwing away what the iPhone is meant to be, which is sleek," he said during my interview with Exofab founders at a 4As Forum at the groovy Midtown Manhattan headquarters of J. Walter Thompson (the very JWT from which old shoe Freddy Rumsen secured the Pond's Cold Cream account from an AA buddy in AMC's Mad Men). "That's why you buy the iPhone. If you are in the construction industry I get that you need" a bulkier case for protection, "but you can't put that in your pocket. Ours just slides right in. It doesn't add any weight or bulk. The fact that it sticks is an added bonus."

And what a bonus.

In the two years since Exofab started testing, the selfie craze started taking off. Symon Whitehorn, who designs cameras for smartphone maker HTC Corp., said in a recent interview that selfies comprise nearly 90 percent of smartphone pictures taken in some markets.

As Boosalis noted, selfies are becoming a lifestyle now.

"We are making it more like, 'This is the next generation of selfies,'" Boosalis told me, referring to the Exofab casing.

The gel casing isn't all Exofab has planned. They're also working on an app that will act as a timer for smartphone users. So they can mount the phone, get set and take a better selfie, one without their arm sticking out.

"You can set it to three seconds, five seconds, and it will take pictures accordingly," he added.

A couple things to keep in mind. First, just because the Exofab gel guard sticks to a surface multiple times that doesn't mean it will stick for a long time. Factors like a surface's smoothness and air temperature will affect how long the gel will stick. In my unscientific tests, I found that the gel sticks for a few seconds at best (I've watched in horror as my iPhone suddenly dropped to the ground in several tests at longer intervals). The gel may protect against scratches, but it won't protect against gravity. Also, Exofab makes no promises or guarantees about the gel being waterproof, so I'd refrain against selfies in the pool.

The Exofab team is fully aware of these limitations. Their ongoing scientific challenge is to make the product stickier, longer, without sacrificing it's clean, sleek veneer or making it stick to things consumers don't want it to stick to.

To help it grow, Exofab has an aggressive marketing strategy planned and hopes to use "celebrities" (that inane notion again) to develop awareness. It's a strategy that's already worked in Europe, especially in Greece thanks to the company's first "celebrity endorser" -- and Boosalis' wife -- Greek pop star Kalomira, who won Fame Story -- the country's version of American Idol -- and who represented Greece in the Eurovision finals. She's helped push the product on social media, especially on Twitter, where she has more than 145,000 followers, just a shade above my 1000 followers.

Nevertheless, while selfies may be past the fad phase, one can argue that they're creeping close to cliché status. This may not dampen their popularity, but it may deaden their novelty. At the 2014 Webby Awards, an annual awards program honoring Internet excellence held this past week, show producers included a mock "In Memoriam" tribute to the selfie.

But even if the selfie becomes passé, it probably won't hurt Exofab. That's because the market for smartphone and tablet accessories is a strong one, especially for protective cases. Just two years ago, the average smartphone buyer spent more than $56 on accessories - or more than $20 billion in total across all buyers - for their devices. When you add in other mobile devices, such as tablets, experts at ABI Research expect the smart device accessories market to grow to $62 billion by 2017. I saw this phenomenon first-hand at this year's CES, where there was a huge section devoted exclusively to smart device cases and other accessories.

And the sub-sector could grow even more than that. Market researchers The NPD Group estimates 25 percent of smartphone users still do not use a case to protect their device.

"The mobile phone protection market now includes a variety of brands, features and price points that appeal to nearly any type of smartphone owner," NPD Executive Director and Industry Analyst Ben Arnold has said. "However, there is still a good portion of the consumer market not using them and in an effort to appeal to those segments we could begin to see a focus in the market on ultra slim case form factors and materials that both protect and maintain the phone's design integrity," he added.

Good news for Exofab, even if the Selfie craze goes the way of the pet rock.