Obama takes a break at gizmo summit, touts ‘share economy’

President Obama meets Terry Sandin, who is holding a replica of the presidential seal he made, during a tour of TechShop, a fabrication and prototyping studio in Pittsburgh.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

President Obama pulled up a stool and clutched a microphone Tuesday for a session with entrepreneurs that, but for the lack of an 800 number, could have been an infomercial for nifty gadgets and gizmos.

A quick-alarm app for the cellphone. A credit card slide for cabdrivers. A sturdy case for the digital devices of executives on the go.

By the end of the visit, Obama had showcased for the television cameras several enterprising young businesspeople and their products -- and thrown in a pitch for a few of his current favorites.


“Somebody have my DODOcase around here?” Obama shouted at one point, referring to the hardcover book-like carrier that holds his iPad. “Let’s bring out my DODOcase. This is a great product! I love this case!”

Obama clearly had heavier things on his mind as he met with entrepreneurs in Pittsbugh. He started off his talk by announcing the arrest of one of the masterminds of the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, relaying the news that Ahmed Abu Khatallah was on his way to the U.S. to face justice.

And as Obama traveled on to New York for the evening, he was accompanied by advisors helping him weigh options for responding to the insurgency in Iraq. Aides said Obama had ordered a range of options to consider while the U.S. kept tabs on the insurgents’ efforts to move toward Baghdad.

But Obama also took a break to let his inner gizmo geek run loose. He visited the local TechShop, a strip-mall storefront where would-be entrepreneurs and artists can buy shop time to test their ideas with expensive equipment and tools.

He wandered the shop floor interviewing workers, holding up their products for television cameras that followed him. One man was using a 3-D printer to make knickknacks out of plastic. An artist used a laser cutter to render intricately inlaid wall hangings and screens.

Terry Sandin, a corporate executive at TechShop, helped Obama show off the Square credit card reader, a plastic gadget that enables cabdrivers to run credit cards through their iPhones. The first Square prototype was made at a TechShop.


Aides say the products appeal to Obama’s fascination with what he calls the “share economy,” and with the notion that good ideas can become good business if the right people get together and collaborate.

One of Obama’s favorites is Uber, the Internet service that connects drivers to people who need rides. Airbnb is another, applying the same idea to guest rooms and tourists. He mentioned both on Tuesday.

DODOcase – it’s designed to prevent “extinction” of your iPad – captured his attention a few months ago after he met the creator, who developed a prototype at a TechShop in San Francisco and then turned it into a profitable business.

As Obama grapples with an increasingly uncooperative Congress, he is looking for ways to make a difference using tools that don’t involve lawmakers.

He brainstormed aloud on that subject Tuesday, musing about how government agencies might be a collaborator in the entrepreneurial process.

“Part of what technology has enabled is the same thing that’s driving something like Uber or Airbnb – this concept of the share economy,” he said. “Well, the federal government has a lot of assets.”

“Are there ways for us to generate some of this big data that then ends up being the platform by which we can come up with applications on a smartphone?” he said.

“Google Maps in part started [because] there is a whole bunch of maps out there that are already part of the public record and data’s already been collected,” he said.

“If you can make that accessible,” he said, “that then suddenly becomes an opportunity.”

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