The Cutthroat Race to Build the Ultimate Selfie Stick

Every selfie stick is not the same. They may look similar, but the category is remarkably diverse.

Some have Bluetooth-connected shutters, some have remote control shutters; some are bendy and durable; some are waterproof (yes, really). Some are very, very long; some aren’t so long; some are bedazzled. Some look like hands. Some are spoons. But they are all, at the end of the day, one thing: A stick that takes selfies.

When it started showing up in the “As Seen On TV” section of stores everywhere, the selfie stick quickly went from gag gift to totally legit consumer product. And usually, when something even mildly tech-related has a user base of more than, say, 200 people, the update cycle goes into overdrive. That’s why you can buy a selfie-stick that, say, folds.

“Right after CES last year, we came back, and realized we had a lot of competition in the market and people were coming to our booth in herds,” says Robert Rickheeram, co-owner of GoTech, which owns and makes TheSelfieStick. “We said ‘OK, we need to develop something we could patent,’ so we came up with the folding selfie stick.”

GoTech filed the patent about a month after CES. Now, if you’re thinking you saw folding selfie sticks before the patent was even filed, you’re right. “Either the factory or engineers [we sent the plans to] started knocking it off before we even had the patent filed,” says Rickheeram.

The selfie stick market is overflowing with patent infringement, trademark violations, and an unstoppable flood of blatant copycats and knock-offs. At the same time, it’s an insanely popular product, one that’s as much an unending cultural joke (a la the Snuggie) as it is a useful tool. And so, the competition to make a better one, a cooler one, another one worth buying, is about to explode once again, and just in time for holiday shopping, vacation season, and of course, CES. Oh sure, Rickheeram says, sales have taken a dip, but that was expected and they’ll almost certainly pick up again next month. “Some people missed out on the first run of selfie stickness.”

While selfie sticks are relatively simple—it’s a stick, after all—some of them are so poorly designed that they’re impugning the reputations of the good sticks. “They don’t use the right coating, so the [folding part] will get stuck,” says Rickheeram. “Or the part that holds your phone, if the plastic isn’t high quality, your phone will fall out or get stuck. The rubber can shift, and render the button useless.”

The trouble, Rickheeram says, is the vast majority of selfie stick vendors aren’t doing a lick of product research. “They buy a stick, put it in their packaging, and sell it,” he says. In contrast, Rickheeram says focus groups are essential to GoTech’s product development process. Users see the product and are asked what else they want out of it; it’s how GoTech came up with the idea for the folding selfie stick in the first place.

“People said, ‘It needs to be smaller to it can fit in my purse or bag or pocket.’ So we made it smaller and in order to do that, we had to find a design that works.” Now, while knock-offs abound, GoTech has received the patent for the folding selfie stick, which is available now and currently ranges from $10-$15.

SelfieOnAStick has faced the same problems with low quality selfie sticks as GoTech. “Our handle is made of silicone, which has an overall softer, more comfortable feel,” says CEO Jacqueline Verdier. She says SelfieOnAStick is also the longest one on the market, and that the device’s spring-loaded clamp is able to hold the larger smartphones out there—important, given that the “bigger is better” attitude toward phones is sticking. SelfieOnAStick’s most popular model is its Wired selfie stick, which was introduced last May as an alternative to its Bluetooth-enabled selfie stick (Verdier says some users really struggled with Bluetooth).

Multiple Exposure

The the midst of distinguishing quality selfie sticks and making minor updates based on user feedback, manufacturers are readying their product lines for a new iteration—everyone wants to make the next big thing in selfie sticks. Steve Heming, CEO of Solo Stick, says his company is working on adding a button to its stick that lets users view the photo they took, then switch back to camera mode to snap another. It saves the customer the trouble of bending his or her arm to retrieve the phone, remove the phone, look at the photo, return the phone to the stick, and then extend his or her arm for round two. “It would also allow them to switch between the front and rear camera to quickly go from selfie view to a picture view,” he says.

Another company, Selfie Stick Gear, is also updating its line. A representative says the manufacturer is redesigning its wireless selfie stick with a “premium look,” and possibly support for Bluetooth 4.0. It’s also working on a selfie gift kit, which would come with the new and improved selfie stick, a charger, a selfie flash, and a wide-angle lens.

Even more ambitious is an entirely new item from Selfie Stick Gear—a selfie stick that’s built into a phone case. Before you X out of this tab in horror, check it out: The stick will be placed on the back of the phone case and will include a slider so that it becomes compact. This way, you don’t have to carry a stick separately. The product will be available for iPhones and Samsung phones. But wait: GoTech, creators and owners of TheSelfieStick are making the same thing—and Rickheeram says his company has a patent pending on the selfie-stick-in-a-phone-case idea.

But the innovation doesn’t end there. The original creator of the selfie stick, Wayne Fromm, has his own plans for his selfie sticks, the Quik Pod line. “I have created the next generation, it is 100 percent invisible; there is nothing to even hold,” he says. “It is virtual and it is not a drone.” The mystery will be revealed in 2016, when Fromm’s evolved selfie stick is unveiled.

A Reflection of Ourselves

To make a successful selfie stick, one must first understand the selfie-taker. Take a look at this study titled “Exploring the Distance, Location, and Style of ‘Selfies’ With the Self-Pano Mobile Application.” Researchers from Malaysia’s Sunway University created an app they used to collect data on exactly how exactly selfie takers were using selfie sticks to take their selfies. They hoped to determine just how far the camera was when the selfie taker snapped the selfie, what the background looked like, and what the most common angle is.

“The outcome of this project can be used for future selfie stick development,” the paper explains. Self-Pano was in the App Store for about two years (it came down in 2014 when the project didn’t receive further funding), and surveyed all of 60 people about their selfie style. While not exactly a comprehensive representation of selfie stick photographers, the paper did bring a few facts to light:

• The average distance between the user and the camera when taking a selfie without a selfie stick is 27 inches (68.4cm).

• Most selfies skew photos so that the background is to the right, on the left of the user’s actual position.

• A suggestion: Selfie sticks should have a way to adjust picture size automatically according to the selected length of the sick. “Using the Self-Pano Mobile Application, the shortest selfie stick length (36 inches/91.2cm) will give the most desired image when the image size is set to 1280 x 640 pixels. At intermediate length (44.8 inches/114cm), the desired selfie will be achieved with a picture size of 1600 x 800 pixels. At maximum stick extension (54.3 inches/138cm), image size should be 1920 x 960 pixels.”

Clearly, there is some academic interest in creating the ultimate selfie stick. According to one of the researchers, Teh Phoey Lee, one encounters many problems with the angles, stick lengths, and properties of the lenses on the phones yet to be worked out. Hence the need for innovation. But the biggest motivation for building a better selfie stick? It’s is a great replacement for a photographer, Lee says, and if you want a picture while you’re alone, your selfie stick should be a good one. Sadly, she says no manufacturers have contacted her about the research for their own selfie stick upgrading purposes. “I am still hoping [someone will],” Lee says.