Gadgets, Gizmos, Thingamajigs and Doodads: What Do They Want From Us?

by Marjorie Dorfman

Have you ever visited a store and seen strange objects pulsing or flying around counters? Do you ever wonder what kind of mind could have invented such things and why? Well, enter the world of gadgets and gizmos. You may never be the same again.

If the words gadget and gizmo bring to mind surfing retro blondes (Gidget, but close enough) and darling pre-pubescent gremlins, you are definitely on the wrong track. We are referring here to technology with a capital T, which has spawned many wonders, big and small. Not the least of these is the market flood of gadgets, gizmos, doodads and thingamajigs that do just about everything under the sun (except maybe surf on their own and who knows even about that?). It doesn’t seem to matter what shape the economy is in or how precarious world peace is. Technology waits for no man or woman and of late seems to be running amuck on steroids with no end in sight.

For the sake of clarity, I will divide the ever-growing market of devices into four categories; security/emergencies, tele-communications, comfort/convenience and diversion/entertainment. Other unknown categories must wait their turn, even though at the rate technology is exploding, they too have probably already figured out a way to get in their own line. In other words, there is a gadget, gizmo, doodad and thingamajig somewhere in the world for everyone living in it. Maybe that’s as good a reason as any for all of us to lock our doors!

New inventions not only perform tasks never before imagined; they also reflect the mood of the world at large. Global jitters, for example, according to Reuters News Service, have been expressed by the increasing demand for high-tech spy gadgets and weapons. Exploding robots and remote-controlled spy planes are not dusty props from old James Bond movies; they are a response to our vulnerability and need to feel more secure. The French firm, Exavision, boasts of an 18-pound remote-controlled robot that is the smallest of its kind in the world. It carries two sets of explosives and can relay pictures day or night from hostile environments while soldiers or police keep at a safe distance. Personalized gun holders can now recognize their owner’s fingerprints and refuse to fire if an imposter tries it. British company, Aurora Computer Service Ltd., has developed a facial recognition security system that permits airport officials to instantly check passengers (wanted and unwanted) against lists of wanted and unwanted terrorists.

If the enemy isn’t shooting, there may be time for communication via a device currently being tested at the Office of Naval Research. The Navy has pumped about $4 million dollars into this program to develop simultaneous machine translation and interpretation. Headed by neurobiologist, Joe Davis, this project known as Interact, lets someone talk into the device in one language. It then spits out an audio translation with just a two-second delay and no need for the speaker to pause. The secret to Interact is not that it is a brand new technology, but rather an amalgam of existing solutions. (This only works if a white flag is waving in the distance and the terrain is flat with no bushes to hide behind.)

For those of us not in the line of fire but simply on the verge of trouble, technology has figured out ways we can dance more safely and even faster than we possibly can. Now new devices, which are a part of collision-avoidance technology, can help avoid car crashes. Eric Feron, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT has developed a wireless communication system that provides a flashing indicator of trouble, granting additional time for drivers to react before they see the brake light immediately in front of them. Even a few cars equipped with such a device would allow those vehicles to slow down sooner, alerting other drivers around them.

If drivers can’t ultimately make the world safer, maybe robots can. Second cousins of Gog are now being trained as rescue workers and they are worth their weight in gold because they can go where no human or canine dare to tread. In order to function effectively, however, they still require a human counterpart. Robotics, as the new technology is being dubbed, demands on the spot training. The University of South Florida under the leadership of Robin Murphy’s Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue provides workshops to teach researchers to understand what a real search and rescue experience is like without laboratories, white coats and laptops. According to Murphy, rescue robots could become available to both the police and the military within a year, assuming the project gets funding.

Martha Pollack, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at The University of Michigan, is involved in the programming of Nursebot, a robot that provides both cognitive and motor support to seniors. Robots can to do many things, but they are lousy substitutes for human companionship. Omron from Tokyo has designed a robotic kitten named Max who seems to have melted the hearts of robot skeptics. He is quite lifelike or should we say cat like, with sensors that trigger feline responses, including forty-eight different cat sounds with a touch or voice cue. Omron built five hundred Maxes last year, according to Elena Libin, project director at the Institute of Robotic Psychology and Robotics in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The institute studies Robotherapy, which its website defines as "the use of person-to-robot interactions to create new positive experiences."

In the area of telecommunications one probably cannot envision what more can be done by manufacturers to the cell phone. Although the global handset market is saturated by even a village idiot’s definition, new things are brewing to both avoid and create bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. For one thing, believe it or not, recharging a cellphone may be as easy as giving it a shot of tequila. (My cellphone drinks for medicinal purposes only. AA stand guard!) There is a new breed of battery fueled by alcohol that may soon become the power source of choice for portable electronics. Any alcohol can be used, although the battery does not care for carbonated beer or wine. (Fussy little devil, isn’t it?) Liquor can be poured straight from the bottle without so much as a single toast or a clink of glass. "All it takes is a few drops to power a cellphone for a month at a time," claims one of the researchers on the project. Well, Cheers!

Vendors have done away with voice only phones and are betting that consumers will pay a little extra to have a digital camera built into their wireless handsets. In particular, cell phone makers are banking on consumer demand for short messaging service, known as SMS, and for the ability to snap and swap pictures wirelessly. John Koo, chairman of South Korean LG Electronics, said that he expects the industry to sell thirty-seven million camera/cellphone combos this year which is twice as many as last year according to market research firm Strategy Analytics. "I’m pretty sure," said Koo, "that soon people will say: ‘How did I ever live without that?’

Other changes in cellphone production might make even the likes of jewelry mogul, Harry Winston, smile. Michael Mou of DB Tel Inc, Taiwan’s largest handset producer, has developed a new strategy for survival; turning the mobile phone into a luxury fashion item. His company has launched a series of hand-made diamond phones, including one that Mou claims is the most expensive in the world. This golden gizmo with a sparkling diamond encrusted flip cover and a three carat centerpiece costs a mere $28,736, or about as much as a family car in Taiwan! I wonder who will be the next smarty-pants to design matching earrings, and necklaces that double as extension cords! (Don’t stop there. How about diamond studded bras and jockey briefs for the couple who has everything!)

But cellphones, despite luxurious wrappings, are still utilitarian doodads of the highest order. A telephone might check a person’s pulse or glucose levels and as far as senior citizens are concerned, a wireless phone based system can help them navigate public transportation systems using artificial intelligence. (Where is the real stuff these days? Perhaps there’s a gadget or gizmo somewhere that can locate it?) Mobility For All, a project at The University of Colorado, has developed a technology that will put cognitively impaired people on the right bus by combining wireless technology with Java enabled smart phones that have high resolution displays. New navigation systems, with only a few buttons and commands, may help senior citizens stay on course, even though they can’t guarantee results for the driver of the bus.

In the area of comfort/ convenience, the Roomba dancing robot vacuum cleaner has to get at least a door prize. Not the sensual dance of its homonym from a balmy tropical isle, this gizmo vacuums automatically even when the owner is out of town or asleep. (Attention all you inventors out there looking for an idea! Can you think up something that can help one lose weight and pay bills the same way?) This cordless rechargeable floor cleaner dances as it cleans up dirt and dust in the good old American way. It works especially well on carpets, hardwood floors and kitchen tile. Roomba navigates around obstacles like children and pets, protected by its non-marring bumper and guided by infrared sensors. An infrared "virtual wall" unit keeps Roomba from crossing open areas as wide as twenty feet. And it’s all yours for $199.95!

If we can’t sell you a vacuum, how about an exceptional toy for your child or grandchild? The economy has been of no help to the American toy industry, which recently took a three percent sales dip. Action figures, traditionally big sellers, slumped 7.4 percent compared to the same period last year. But toy manufacturers hope to turn these grim statistics around by carefully mixing favorites of the past with futuristic technology. This year, Mattel’s Barbie takes the leap to interactive TV in the B-Anything Inspiration Station from Oregon Scientific. The toy plugs into a computer monitor and can be used as a learning lab, a video drawing terminal or a karaoke machine. Tiger Electronics’ GoGo, My So Real Walking Pup is the latest generation of robotic pets. Shaped like a white terrier pup, this realistic dogbot has stereo hearing and touch sensors around its body. When it name is called, it will "awaken" and move towards the caller’s voice in a puppyish sequence of moves. Petting the dog’s fur brings forth happy puppy sounds and tail wagging.

As you have probably already guessed, the list of new gadgets and gizmos, like the beat of Sonny and Cher, goes on. Making a selection appears to be the biggest problem as there is no slowing down of a million ideas whose time has come (or something like that anyway). Its all for the common good, I know, but still it makes me a little bit afraid. What if my new gizmos don’t like my house or me? What if I can’t stop them once they get started? What if I grow tired of them and want something else? Will they know and worse, will they be mad? Who can say in this crazy world? I’d stay and chat a bit more but my flying can-opener just banged into one of my cats and the vacuum is dancing to a tune I no longer recognize. Enjoy all these new contraptions, but if you have a minute, could you come over and help me please?

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Copyright 2003