Last week, I attended a smartphone launch event at a five-star hotel in New Delhi. With this write-up at the back of my mind and a room full of technology journalists and fans around, I turned to a few friends after the presentation was over, asking a simple and pointed question: “Have you ever used a smart backpack?” One person responded by pointing out a OnePlus bag in the room and saying he had used one in the past. I told him that it wasn’t really ‘smart’ even if the word was used in the product title.
That seemed to be the refrain of the day, and then the week. No one really knew what a smart backpack was. Another friend responded by saying that his backpack had a USB cable attached to it and an anti-theft lock. Some improvement, but not quite there.
I turned to WhatsApp and posed the exact same question. Here’s a sampling of the responses I received: ”Don’t even know what those are”; “Never found the idea wildly compelling”; “I don’t know. Depends how smart you mean”; “Nah. Most of them only come with a power back up at best, no? Found them a little frivolous”; “No, I did have a OnePlus backpack though”.
When the idea of writing on smart backpacks first popped into my head, I turned to Google, our saviour in many situations. Google's (still unedited) topmost response was“A smart backpack is an efficient way to cleverly carry and charge your laptop or smartphone on-the-go or if you're someone who has a coworking office setup."
The second result (also unedited), slightly more useful, expanded upon the term: “A smart backpack is a handy way of traveling and charging your smartphone or laptop simultaneously. Some of them even cover a handful of useful perks such as anti-theft zippers, built-in speakers, and solar panels.”
The problem is, the website this description was from didn’t list a single backpack with a built-in speaker.
Let me back up a little. There are two salient features of a backpack that turn it into a ‘smart’ one, according to many websites: the first is the addition of a USB cable and the second is an anti-theft zipper. I don’t agree with this. The former is something that has existed in backpack designs for over a decade. The latter is something that can’t at all be considered tech (what are anti-theft zippers, you may ask? Well, most backpack designs that ‘hide’ the zipper under a flap or with some clever design element call them anti-theft zippers. Yes, just concealing the zippers somehow turns the backpack into a ‘smart backpack’.)
I tried to go beyond the banal to find out if the world of backpacks had truly evolved into something smart and useful.
The state of smart backpacks in 2022
I went through many websites and Google searches and, to be very frank, couldn’t find much. Apparently, there are smart backpacks with solar panels such as the Voltaic Systems Array Rapid Solar Backpack, but none are available in India.
There’s EUME and their line of Massager Backpacks (more on these later).
The Carriall Smart Laptop Backpack has an AirTag like tile to track your device when it is “missing” or just “away” from you. Carriall also has suitcases that come with the tracker and an integrated USB charging port (the latter could possibly cause problems if you’re trying to check it in).
The Airwheel SR5 is “a smart robot suitcase that can follow you automatically”. It includes a UWB and sensor technology by which it can detect and automatically follow you without bumping into people or objects. It isn’t available in India.
One of the most loaded smart backpacks I found was on Kickstarter. The Barracuda Konzu is a backpack that can “Wirelessly charge your gear, be alerted if you carry an open bag, lock zippers with a button push”. I’ll let the product description do the talking here. “Imagine a backpack that can wirelessly recharge its built-in battery pack when you're home and charges your gear when you're on the go, one that gently alerts you if you accidentally leave it open while walking around, locks all key zippers at the push of a single button, keeps your info secure with RFID-shielded pockets, even acts as your camera mount when you want to take a picture; and, looks sleek and beautiful in your choice of great colors and so many thoughtful features.”
The big bad world of smart backpacks and airport security
Amazon, Flipkart, and other websites that ship within India turned out to be a colossal disappointment. Backpacks that weren’t smart at all dominated the search results. I had to dig deeper.
I remembered a conversation I had with one of my editors when I pitched this story about smart backpacks. He told me about one with a built-in massager from a brand called EUME. That was something that was truly unique and mostly unheard of. So much so that when I posted a simple question on Twitter and Instagram to see if anyone had used one, the most frequent reply was, “a backpack with a built-in massager exists?”
The problem arose when one posed some uncomplicated questions like “what happens when you have to pass through the airport security."
“The bag was comfortable, space was optimal, but airport security was a hassle – the bag used to get separated almost every single time and then I had to explain that it has a built-in massager, charger etc," said Rajesh, who had bought the EUME backpack. “Sometimes they would ask me to show them how it works so I would connect my power bank and have a demo while others waited for their bags – it was very annoying,” Rajesh says, having used the backpack for just five months back in 2019.
Continuing his rant, Rajesh said that some airports meant even more checks! “Sometimes they would ask me to empty the bag completely and then scan it again – smaller airports meant more checks – Bombay was the only one that let it pass a couple of times”. Rajesh says he would prefer a trolley with the same features (minus the massager) instead of a backpack. “To be honest, the massager only works well if you have the bag worn right and has some sort of padding which doesn’t create that annoying sound as it vibrates against your laptop."
I, too, frequently travel with multiple gadgets and get stopped frequently. I’d be doubly annoyed if the backpack itself caused a problem every time I had to scan it. Rajesh says that the only way to get the backpack through security without a hitch is by educating the staff at airports. That is something we can all agree with.
Akshay Makadiya, a spokesperson for CPS Test, considers himself “an early adopter, tech-savvy guy”. When Makadiya saw a smart backpack product on Kickstarter, he looked for a similar product on Amazon, and instantly bought it. For him, a smart backpack means something very simple. “For me, a smart backpack doesn't just have an option to charge devices but is smart in terms of space management and compartments.” Makadiya is neither overjoyed nor disappointed with his purchase. “Initially, I was excited to try its features like a USB charging port, headphone hole and 20+ independent multi-pockets but later it became a routine, and I didn't used the features that frequently anyway,” he says.
I pushed both Makadiya and Rajesh to tell me what they’d like to see in future iterations of a backpack. For Rajesh, it was simply just more ports and multi-device compartments. Makadiya had a more forward-thinking vision: “Here are some predictions from my end: fingerprint-enabled locks, an in-built tracker, a smart display to show a message, backpack cases to change colour and theme to match your clothes and a lot more.”
In a world where airport security lines are chaotic, spending those extra five minutes may make or break your day. Backpack and luggage manufacturers should keep this in mind for the next iterations of their smart backpacks. In the USA, some backpacks are now TSA (Transportation Security Administration) friendly and can pass through with relative ease. In India, we still haven’t caught up and, as pointed out above, a lot of the airport security staff need to be trained more.
Let’s hope we get some wildly innovative, but also airport-proof backpacks and luggages in the near future.