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John Kowalski demonstrates the new ColorMuse unit that reads the exact color to match an existing color at the Variable, Inc. business in the incubator building on Cherokee Blvd.

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Variable launches consumer product Color Muse

Variable Inc., the Chattanooga-based startup that created the Node, has launched a product aimed at everyday consumers: Color Muse.

The tiny handheld device lets users scan the color of an object and find matches to specific products in everything from paint to fashion.

The device is useful for home decorating, Variable executives said. It's more streamlined than making multiple trips to a paint store, using paper cards with color blocks on them, for example.

It's also more practical, they said. "You can't bring a door with you, you can't bring a couch," said John Kowalski, Variable's vice president of marketing.

Color Muse also can be used to find clothing and shoes of certain colors, from Nordstrom to Nine West.

This is the company's fourth iteration of the device, one that took years to perfect, according to the company's CEO and founder, George Yu. An earlier version, twice the size, though still small at that, cost a prohibitive $399.

"You've got to love colors and want to measure color all the time" to pay that much, he said. "It wasn't really what I envisioned. What I wanted was something people could use."

The new version, released Sept. 1, is $49.

The cylindrical device, about the size of a glue stick, works with a free iOS or Android app. Users click the device a couple times, place it on a color, and then can search for flooring, paint, shirts and other things. Variable says it has built a database of more than 1 million products. The tool has a standby life of six months and can be charged with a micro USB cable.

Shrinking the device in both size and cost became a "massive engineering challenge," said Yu, 33, (he's 34 on Oct. 8) who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and worked as a contractor for NASA Ames Research Center to develop smartphone-based sensors for gases and chemicals.

A few key technological breakthroughs helped.

Color Muse uses a sensor and Bluetooth technology. Its earlier sensor, from a German company, was expensive compared with the one it uses now, from a different company, which Variable executives declined to name.

"That dropped the price tremendously," Yu said.

So did new BlueTooth technology.

Finally, engineers stripped away unnecessary components, keeping only what was needed to measure color, Kowalski said. Color Muse was based on the early Node platform, which measures heat, humidity and other things.

"Color Muse was built based on customer feedback," Kowalski noted. "One of our key requirements was that it needed to be small enough to carry. It had to be elegant and portable."

Several paint companies offer their own color-matching apps, Sherwin Williams and Behr among them. But many are inferior to Color Muse, Kowalski argued.

"It's limited to that one paint brand where ours includes them all, but in addition other interior materials — flooring tile, hard surfaces, wall coverings, textiles — and apparel, footwear, accessories," he said. "Another issue with using some of these apps is they require the user to use their cell phone's camera, which does not collect an accurate color."

Variable built 1,000 Color Muses for the product's launch. In mid-September, all but a few hundred had shipped, and the production team, which works in Chattanooga, was building several thousand more, Yu said. The company sells the device at colormuse.io and through Amazon. Variable has also created branded apps for companies — tools for sales teams to use, for example.

In 2013, a Kickstarter campaign for Node Chroma, Color Muse's early name, raised $39,473. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have gone into creating the device, Yu said.

The Node was Variable's first creation, widely seen as a breakthrough innovation, but one with limited use to ordinary folks. It raised $76,340 on Kickstarter in 2012, and in 2013 CNN said it was "the coolest gizmo" it came across at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the world's largest consumer electronics and consumer technology trade show.

Pennsylvania-based Gleason Technology Inc. has since incorporated the Node into its mobile app and cloud database for a food temperature-logging program that companies such as Whole Foods use, said Brian Rosen, Gleason's president.

Yu estimates Variable has secured about $6 million from investors, most in the Southeast, since it started raising funds in 2012. He declined to share the company's revenue. Founded in 2009, Variable has 12 employees.

Contact Mitra Malek at mmalek@timesfreepress.com or www.mitramalek.com.

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