A golden age for gadgets

Andre Kesteloot andre.kesteloot at verizon.net
Tue Apr 17 22:24:47 CDT 2007

  International Herald Tribune <http://www.iht.com>
A golden age for gadgets
By Allen Salkin
Sunday, April 15, 2007

Behold the Annoy-o-tron. The easy-to-hide magnetized device promises to 
drive a co-worker insane.

"The Annoy-o-tron generates a short (but very annoying, hence the name) 
beep every few minutes," assures the sales copy from ThinkGeek, its 
maker, which says it has sold 6,000 of the $10 practical-joke gadgets 
online since December.

"It is very annoying," confirmed Jennifer Kuropkat, a ThinkGeek 
spokeswoman, who was a victim of the Annoy-o-tron during its testing 
phase. After three days of wondering where the brief ear-jangling sound 
- bzz-eee-eeep! - was coming from, she found the device hidden under her 
desk and managed to switch it off.

And nowadays, from car to kitchen, from office to driving range, there 
is a profusion of gadgets that harness the latest micro technologies and 
the wackiest thinking of garage inventors. Whether the problem is how to 
one-up the office practical joker or brew a hot cup of espresso while 
driving to work, there's a gadget for it, and a cottage industry 
furiously bent on delivering more.


"Every day there's something new and weird," said Adam Frucci, a writer 
for the gadget-chronicling blog Gizmodo. "A radio that floats in your 
bathtub and makes the water ripple with music, heated slippers that are 
warmed by USB, sneakers that have a GPS device built into them so 
parents can see where their kids are at all times by tracking them via 
satellite. It's a form of entertainment to see what sort of ridiculous 
stuff is put out there every day."

Consider that Gizmodo and its main competitor, Engadget, both of which 
report news on forthcoming doodads serious, like cellphones and notebook 
computers, as well as bizarre (a dog-powered scooter), are consistently 
ranked among the most popular blogs on the Internet. In February, they 
garnered a combined total of more than 1.6 million unique visitors, 
nearly double the same month a year earlier, according to the tracking 
firm comScore Media Metrix.

Many factors have come together to make this a golden age for gadgets. 
On the technological side, there is the increasing ease and decreasing 
cost of adapting technologies like USB, the low-voltage computer 
networking connection; the global positioning system; and Bluetooth to 
almost any use. On the marketing side, the home-shopping cable channels 
have 24 hours to fill, and, on a smaller scale, niche gadget retailers 
can easily set up Internet storefronts and pick up traffic from the 
gadget blogs.

Demographically, the aging baby boom generation, gadget-friendly since 
the days of the Pocket Fisherman, the foldable fishing rod and reel 
advertised on television, is discovering new uses for doohickeys, like 
mop slippers, that make life easier as boomers age. Meanwhile members of 
a younger generation are living time-pressed lives in bigger houses with 
counter space begging to be occupied.

Behind it all may be an impulse to escape. What gadget hounds are buying 
is a sense of control over their lives, said Ronni Eisenberg, an author 
of books about how to declutter. Even if they can't control their 
mortgage rate or the war in Iraq, gadget buyers can at least control a 
mango, thanks to a splitting and slicing device from Oxo, or unsightly 
nose hair, using a trimmer shaped like a finger sold by X-treme Geek. 
"We have a society where more is more, rather than less is more," 
Eisenberg said. "It's a sense of security, of comfort, of intrigue."

Some new gadgets are high-tech, like the T-shirt that plays an animation 
of the video game Pong; and some are low tech, like the jar spatula from 
Oxo, which is due in June. "Now you can access every last drop of 
mayonnaise!" the Oxo catalog promises of the small-headed silicone scraper.

Oxo, a kitchen-tool maker based in New York, is a success of the gadget 
age. It has thrived by marrying contemporary design with ergonomics and 
introducing an ever-widening line of gizmos like its Parmesan grater 
with a storage compartment to eliminate the chore of putting away cheese.

"People have a lot of little pet peeves," said Alex Lee, the company 
president. "And often they don't know they have them until you point it 
out to them."

When Brooke Stephens, an amateur chef, sees a new kitchen gadget on QVC, 
she tries repeating her mantra, "You really don't need this, you really 
don't need this." But often she caves. The drawers of her recently 
remodeled kitchen in Brooklyn, are so full she is now stuffing a hall 
closet with gadgets, among them a shrimp deveining knife and a marinade 
injector. "I can always rationalize buying something by saying maybe one 
day I'll come across a recipe that might need that," she said. "It's 
nonsense. I know it!"

The success of the home shopping channels with their breathless hosts 
touting flashing dog tags and mop slippers ("walk your way to clean 
floors") spawned the ultimate tribute, a parody show, "Home Purchasing 
Club," broadcast on VH1's broadband network, VSpot. A recent episode 
featured two hosts extolling the virtues of the Bug Hammer, a rubber 
mallet with a target painted on one face to make squashing beetles a breeze.

The Internet is especially receptive to those who invent a better, or at 
least more colorful, gadget.

In Carmel, Indiana, an urban planner and home baker named Matthew 
Griffin invented a brownie pan that ingeniously makes every brownie have 
at least two crispy edges. "When we launched it we thought we had a 
niche product," Griffin said. "We liked corner brownies and were trying 
to create a new market, catering to the edge lover."

A few small blogs mentioned the pan last fall, and then Boingboing, a 
popular blog that often touts gadgets, ran an item last month.

Traffic to the Baker's Edge Web site, previously averaging 6,000 hits a 
month, became as intense as a triple chocolate brownie. "We did 1,000 
hits an hour for two weeks," Griffin said. His small company is sold out 
of the $34 pans for now. Next in the development pipeline: an all-edge 
lasagna pan.

Not that the big boys have given up on the gadget game. Black & Decker, 
seller of the DustBuster, a seminal gadget introduced in 1979, is set to 
release in May the Lids Off automatic jar opener, designed for those 
whose grip is no longer sure enough to unseal jars of gourmet elderberry 
jam. The $40 whirring Lids Off, big as a breadbox, is aimed at people, 
according to the product literature, who are "struggling from hand 
ailments or just struggling to escape the otherwise monotonous task of 
opening jars." Bzz-eee-eeep!

Some of the most sublimely ridiculous gadgets are designed to appeal to 
a younger set who spend hours in front of computers. The Dream Cheeky 
USB Missile Launcher plugs into a computer's USB port. A few mouse 
clicks aim and fire soft foam darts capable of clearing cubicle walls. A 
USB Hamster Wheel uses keystrokes to set a toy rodent scurrying nowhere, 
"the ultimate parody of modern society," an online retailer notes.

Going gadget ga-ga can lead to problems that no gadget can solve.

Sarah Lazarovic, a photographer in Toronto, said she rues the day she 
bought a trick camera lens from a Russian dealer on the Internet that 
turned out to be uselessly cumbersome. "I've tried to stop buying 
useless stuff I'm never going to use, like periscope camera lenses," 
Lazarovic said. "I'm not proud of the whole box of cords and digital 
detritus I have."

Eisenberg, the clutter expert, suggested a low-tech solution to gadget 
overload. "The good thing is you can go through your apartment, gather 
them up and have a tag sale," she said by cell phone. "Pass them on to 
someone else."

Not every gadget is useless. The Annoy-o-tron works. An informal test on 
an unsuspecting newspaper reporter yielded a slow-rising boil of 
annoyance, starting with the question "What is that annoying sound?" and 
cresting, about 18 hours later, with cursing, a furious hunt, the 
device's discovery and a brutal stomping on it. It survived. 
Bzz-eee-eeep! Bzz-eee-eeep!

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