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Feel the Thrill

Gamers love to claim they’re hardcore. They hoard esoteric PlayStation imports like All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling. They fire up Quake III six hours a day. Not even carpal tunnel can stop them from wiggling their joysticks.

Ultimately, though, gamers are only as badass as their stuff. I experienced this over the holidays when one of my more desperate friends came over to check out NFL2K on my Dreamcast. He conceded halfheartedly that the QB’s wintry breath mist in Soldier Field was cool enough. But what he really wanted to see, as he rummaged through my pile of swag, was the reel-shaped controller that came with the Sega Bass Fishing game.

Like obsessive music fans, car freaks, or sexual fetishists, hardcore gamers are compulsive about accessories: the superfluous hardware and high-priced simulators that only the most avid buy. Maybe it’s a way of setting themselves apart from the plebeian masses. After all, it seems like everyone’s playing these days. According to PC Data, computer and video game sales hit the $7 billion mark last year. This means we’re spending as much on Final Fantasy and the like as on movie tickets.

With that many Game Boys on the subway, it’s no wonder aficionados will shell out the extra bucks for gadgets like Nyko’s Shock ‘n’ Rock device ($29.95). By slipping a Nintendo Game Boy into this specially designed ergonomic sleeve, players get to experience tactile thrills with their Tetris. The sleeve vibrates according to the action on-screen. The louder Mario splats, the greater the Shock ‘n’ Rock recoils. Sure beats sticking your finger in the socket.

There are conspiratorial rumors that this tingly technology, known as force feedback, was originally devised—like so many awesome things, it seems—for military applications. Trainees on combat simulators would feel bumps and jolts every time they blew up stuff or made contact, enhancing the realism. Force feedback has also crept its way into the medical profession. And for about $5000, gamers who feel like having a go at playing doctor might consider the Virtual Laparoscopic Interface, which literally gives you the feel of performing minimally invasive surgery. Like, forceps please, bro.

These days, force feedback computer game controllers in the shape of steering wheels, guns, and fishing reels abound. The Sega Bass Fishing controller imparts a convincing little shimmy any time you hook a big one. The Force Feedback Mouse from Logitech trembles with every rocket launcher discharge. According to Logitech’s Web site, “force feedback can [also] enhance your WWW and desktop experience.”

A more full-body experience can be had courtesy of the Intensor LX Sensory Entertainment Chair. The $179 chair hooks right up to your console system or PC and gives you little blasts of vibrations and thuds corresponding to the action on-screen. There’s even a compatible vest you can buy that lets you feel, say, some bullets spray across your chest.

For serious machismo, nothing beats a realistic simulator. On the bargain end, Deer Hunter Electronic Skeet Shoot is an updated old-school-style game that lets you fire at tiny discs that project on your living room wall. If you really want to impress your buds, how about strapping them into a backyard cockpit? Desktop Sims, a small company in Texas, makes its own auto and flight simulator machines. You don’t just play these stand-alone devices, you go inside them. The $1595 Sim Hawk Personal Simulator, for example, is a cockpit big enough for two people. Inside the steel and aluminum shell—made from real airplane parts—there’s the big control board with rudder pedals and headsets. Customizable software plays on a screen while you practice your aeronautics. Barf bag sold separately.

The Lamborghini of sims is undoubtedly the Venturer S2ei Capsule Simulator, available through Neiman-Marcus. Made in England, this $96,000 pod seats two gamers who watch the action on a 33-inch screen. Customized software lets you tear up through your choice of motorcycle or auto races. Supposedly, the sultan of Brunei shelled out for a fleet of these babies for when he wants to blow off some steam. Imagine how many Sega Fishing rods that dude must have.

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Y2schlocK

Like any good impending disaster, Y2K has made a lot of people rich. Just think about the millions being spent to millennium-proof office and home PC’s. With sensational images of haywire jets and Summer of Sam blackouts, who can blame anyone for playing it safe? Then again, when Chicken Little says the sky is falling, the smartest people aren’t buying umbrellas; they’re selling them.

Which brings us to the inevitable fallout of doomsday economics: tchotchkes. In auctions and e-commerce sites across the Web, intrepid marketers are pawning off the next generation of nerd toys. More disturbingly, people are buying. Imagine what this does for the morale of office techies: After staying up all night trying to exterminate the bad, millennial code, they’ve got to walk past the cube of some nimrod who’s lined his shelf with Y2K bean-bugs. No wonder they write viruses.

Nerd toys, of course, are nothing new. ComputerGear, a company in Redmond, Washington, has made a cottage industry out of the stuffpeople like to balance on office dividers. For the past seven years, they’ve been running a store devoted to nerd toys within spitball distance of the sprawling Microsoft corporate campus.

Every day, Bill’s minions wander the aisles looking for the latest successor to the Koosh ball. Sure they can get a Circuit Board tie or a Computer Water Globe. But if they really want to be the envy of the gang, they should shell out $99.99 for the Lego Mindstorm Droids Developer Kit. This savagely dorky bot comes with over 600 Lego blocks that they assemble around microcomputer-controlled motors and light sensors. After an hour of assembly, their very own 10-inch R2-D2 can be rolling under the skirts of unsuspecting colleagues. (Strategically placed mirrors optional.)

With such sales expertise, it’s no wonder the marketing whizzes at ComputerGear have now set their sights on Y2tchotchKes. “Everyone knows someone who works with a computer,” says spokeswoman Terry Powers, “and Y2K is the ultimate glitch.” And gift, she hopes. Powers says one of the more popular items online in their Y2K Shop (www.computergear.com/computergear/y2k.html) is the Y2K Beanbag Bug ($7.99), a stuffed insect, which, the site promises, will “keep you company as you face the trials and tribulations of the new millennium.” And you were worried about spending New Year’s Eve alone.

Some toys at ComputerGear provide an outlet for pent-up human aggressions. The Y2K Voodoo Pillow ($7.99) is a soft, cushiony PC designed specifically to be stabbed with sewing needles. If that’s not comforting enough, the fashionable set can stab themselves with multicolored Millennium Bug Pins (oops, cancel that—at press time, the pins had completely sold out and were not being restocked). And nothing complements this accessory like a pair of $19 gold or silver Millennium Bug Cufflinks, available from a British company called The English Channel (store.yahoo.com/rf/beetlecuflinks.html). Okay, the cufflinks may not sound funny here, but they’re knocking ’em dead in York.

Of course, nothing’s funnier than those zany Y2K survivalists. There’s no shortage of novelties inspired by them. ComputerGear’s ultimate Computer Back-Up System ($14.99) is—get this—pads and pencils. Or there’s the perfect gift set, called the Y2K Survival Kit ($16). Packaged in a camouflage box, the kit includes sunflower seeds for food, a squirt gun for protecting yourself through Armageddon, and a twig to divine the necessary water.

Needless to say, not everyone gets the Y2K jokes. Sally Strackbein, a veteran computer programmer in Virginia, has been stocking up on Spam and Charmin for the possibility of a 2000 disaster. Though she says she can “take a little ribbing,” she’s dead serious about her Y2K Kitchen (www.y2kkitchen.com)—a cookbook ($20) and accompanying site that asks, why should postapocalyptic dining be unsavory? If you’ve got a can of vegetables and a package of Chinese noodle soup (chicken preferred), Strackbein will show you how to make a mean ramen casserole (courtesy of a visitor to the site named DarkWolf the Ravager). And you thought only stoned college students ate this stuff.

Should there really be a global meltdown, though, not only will it be difficult to find food, it’ll be almost impossible to buy rubbers. That’s the warning cry behind Y2K Safe Sex (www.y2ksafesex.com), a site that urges you to buy up its low-cost LifeStyles Condoms (100 for $35). If the computers go down, you might as well too.

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Cooking With Jane Jetson

Not so long ago, the dishwasher was heralded as a revolutionary new machine that would free up women to do more important things, like fold laundry. Now troops of so-called ‘smart’ appliances are infiltrating the kitchen with emancipation on their drives. The smarter machines become, of course, the dumber we get to be! All that’s left to do is masticate and digest.

Consider the Screenfridge—an intelligent icebox that can buy groceries online, send e-mails to Emeril, and broadcast Regis and Kathy Lee. Though yet to be scheduled for release, it was previewed this year by Electrolux, a Swedish company that has been producing refrigerators since the 1920s. The Screenfridge comes with a touch-controlled PC embedded right in the front door, as well as an audiovisual system that, among other things, can provide security surveillance of your entire home. Freeze!

The big bonus, Electrolux promises, will be a specially designed digital “reader,” which scans bar codes on food items inside the fridge. This enables the machine to automatically do stuff like monitor expiration dates (“The mango Yoplait will self-destruct in five minutes!”) or alert you when designated supplies are running low (“Olive loaf! Olive loaf! Olive loaf!”). If you add up all that time you spend surreptitiously sniffing the milk, the Screenfridge will save you minutes.

A similar wisdom is behind the Intelligent Microwave, a research project being engineered by Cook College/Rutgers University with the support of Samsung Electronics. Like the Screenfridge, the I-crowave relies on a bar code technology. On-the-fly cooks simply scan the label on, say, a box of frozen chicken à la king, and voilà, the CPU automatically sets to nuke the meal to perfection. “The intelligent microwave will completely transform the way people prepare food in the 21st century,” hypes Dennis Joyner, Samsung’s marketing manager for microwave ovens and room air conditioners. (Sure, it sounds like a bright idea now, but what happens when some punk bar-codes a cat?)

Less risky, perhaps, is the Advantage 2000, a kind of multimedia boom box for the countertop, expected to debut early next year. It’s the latest infomercial-ready product from Bob Lamson, the ubiquitous barker behind the Juiceman and the Breadman. The “A2K,” as it’s cheekily nicknamed, combines a TV monitor and CD player with a stripped-down, non-Windows PC appliance, capable of handling Web surfing and e-mail. And it’s got fashion sense, available as either a black TV monitor or a sleek 12-inch flip-down LCD panel that hooks up right under your cabinets. The device is also designed to be a “network manager” for all the data that will eventually flow between kitchen appliances. Wonder how the Screenfridge will feel about that.

The A2K, however, is not the first product to try to digitally organize the snarl of dining data. Brother created one of the first electronic recipe organizers with the Kitchen Assistant. Less a PC than a PDA, this $300 machine stores and prints all your recipes for easy access through specially designed memory cards. It also sports what it calls a “reverse recipe function,” which lets you type in a couple of ingredients, then press enter to get some suggestions for what to cook. “Let’s say you look in the fridge and see some mushrooms starting to go bad,” explains Joanna Cumberland, president of the product’s marketing agency. “The Kitchen Assistant tells you what to do.” (Throw them out?)

Sometimes the kitchen science is less gadget-oriented, though endearingly bizarre. A cooking surface now available called Cybernox (“cyber” prefix alert) is alleged to be the most indestructible surface ever. The impervious alloy coating, fused into a stainless steel pan, can resist temperatures up to 1800 degrees. Invented by a French company called Sitram, it was originally used on the nose cone of a rocket. Imagine the nerve it took to fry an egg on that.

Such innovations have been a long time coming. Only a couple hundred years ago, the first generation of high-tech refrigerators was rolling into Britain. But the luxury proved dangerous. Since the machines were filled with an ether-based cooling system, they were prone to minor inconveniences, like exploding in people’s faces. Thankfully, though, soon all we’ll have to worry about in the kitchen is spam.

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The Electronic Gender Gap

Do a Net search for ‘girl toys’ and you’re likely to find stuff that’s a lot more hair-raising than the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber & Beauty Shop. Janese Swanson, a digerati mom in San Francisco, was so aghast at the lame and lascivious results of such a search that she decided to get into business herself: making hip (read: techie) toys for daughters just like her own.

Swanson was already a veteran of the ballyhooed girl games scene; her CD-ROM Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? quickly became a staple for the market. But software, Swanson felt, had a limited audience since it was only playable by those who had computers. To reach a broader market of girls (and maybe turn more on to science), there was another medium for the message: electronic toys.

“[Computer games] and the Net are always considered the coolest, hippest technology,” Swanson says, “but there’s a lot more technology out there that’s cool and cutting edge.” Her company, Radica Games, is one of the first devoted to the rather untapped world of e-tchotchkes for girls. In the past, boys were considered the target for the mainstays of electronic toys— laser guns, handheld sports games, pet robots.

According to Tiger Electronics, recent hit electronic toys like the Furby interactive pets were originally designed for girls but ended up finding a boy crowd instead. “The fact that the Furby burps and does body noises makes it attractive to boys as well,” explains Lana Simon, the company’s director of public relations. Still, a lactose-tolerant doll doesn’t a girl toy make. Swanson, who studied gender differences in play while getting a doctorate at the University of San Francisco, saw a sizable void. With some research data in tow (e.g., girls dig privacy), she and her eight-year-old daughter hunkered down over the living room table to brainstorm ideas for their next-generation gizmos.

The theme for postmillennial riot grrrls: don’t fuck with our things. The Door Pass uses a voice activated chip to create a DIY bedroom security system. Once the Barney-colored box is affixed to her door, a girl records her own password— like “Faludi!” If someone opens the door without first uttering the code, a motion sensor goes off, triggering an alarm and, most embarrassingly, keeping a log of how many times mommy and daddy passed through. Diarists get similar security with the Password Journal— a voice-activated lock box for a girl’s Dear Kitty.

For other developers, it’s never too early to breed some future power-lunchers. Tiger Electronics has brewed its own popular line of girly personal digital assistants (PDAs). The bright pink Clueless Organizer sports its own scheduler, phone book, and calculator. And Mattel’s “Talk With Me” Barbie Smart Phones make the perfect accessories for the next Cybersuds. Each of these kandy-kolored flip phones has a built-in automatic timer that periodically triggers the toy to ring. If the kid’s too busy to answer the “call,” a voice mail system will later play back fun “messages” from Barbie’s friends; it’s never too early to learn how to screen.

Mattel’s licensed line of Barbie pretend electronics runs the gamut from CD players to answering machines to boomboxes. One of the more popular items is the “Shop With Me” Barbie Cash Register. Girls can scan their own items, swipe credit cards, and even make their own blue-light special announcements over the kiddy PA system (“Hey! there’s a special on poopy in aisle 8!”). Lisa McKendall, Director of Marketing Communications for Mattel, isn’t swayed by critics who think Barbie products like this breed pathological consumers. “It’s a great way for kids to learn about money,” she says. And debt.

Ultimately, the success of e-toys is up to finicky experts like my five-year-old niece, Alyssa. Despite the piles of fuzzy toys in her closet, her favorites are the realistic electronic ones like her Barbie Online Talking Laptop. With tiny floppies and whooshing modem sounds, it’s like playing with mommy’s
computer— guilt-free. As far as Alyssa’s concerned, it’s the real deal, and, even better, it’s Barbie. “I like it,” she says, “because it’s girl stuff.”

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Digital, Baby!

Despite its organic origins, birth has become a decidedly high-tech experience. Between fetal monitors and ultrasound machines, expectant mothers spend more time attached to biotech gear than Lindsay Wagner’s Bionic Woman. Now, moms-to-be don’t even have to wait for a trip to the OB’s offices to plug in.

Nothing gets a prospective parent quite as giddy as hearing the slushy thump of a fetal heartbeat. FirstSounds, invented by a neonatal nurse, is essentially like a Walkman for the uterus or, better yet, a Walkfetus. If you’ve ever dreamed of being an obstetrician, now’s your chance; just rub the ultrasonic sensor along the surface of your belly until it picks up the heartbeat.

According to some birth mavens, the sounds of the womb aren’t just a novelty, they’re music to the ears of newborns. Several companies are now marketing CDs and audiotapes that make Nirvana’s In Utero look like kid’s stuff. Sounds of the Womb is one such product; this one comes packaged with little foam bumpers that keep an infant from rolling on her stomach when she sleeps.

Developed by Dr. Jay Freed, a Long Island pediatrician, the music was recorded externally using a process called compound fetal Doppler holography. Since the womb is filled with amniotic fluid, sonar can transmit sound waves that change according to fetal movement and vibrations. These sounds are picked up through a series of transducers attached along the mother’s body. Crank it up and you’ve got instant womb rock.

Doug Berlent, who helped produce the tape, says that these sounds calm a child much more than your average Barney sing-along. “Those kinds of sounds just represent an adult’s conception of what’s soothing,” Berlent says. Uteral sounds do a better job because they remind a baby of his calm beginnings. Furthermore, he adds, the trippy, pulsing womb music is so calming that for adults it can “bring you back to places you’ve never been.” Like, for example, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon tour.

The power of music can come in handy down the line, too. The Hop On! Musical Potty is a little miracle of science that uses nursery rhyme melodies and some Pavlovian conditioning to help Junior’s target practice. Two tiny gold-plated sensors inside the plastic bowl pick up even the slightest presence of moisture, signaling the playback of a series of prerecorded digital tunes. Kiddo’s rewarded with “Yankee Doodle,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and, most appropriately, “Little Brown Jug.” Although Britney Spears’s “…Baby One More Time” seems like a natural for the Hop On! soundtrack, it’s not in this mix.

The conditioning is not likely to back up on the trainee down the line, says Hop On!’s inventor, Tony Ander, since the songs are played as a result of the accomplishment taking place. “It’s not like he’s going to have to go to the bathroom every time he hears the Pledge of Allegiance,” he says. And thank goodness for that.

For many new mothers, though, nothing comes in quite as handy as an electric breast pump. Medela, a Swiss manufacturer, is one of the more renowned developers of breast-feeding technology. Over the past 30 years, the company has been churning out milk machines for women on the go. One of the more popular recent items is the “Pump in Style,” a fashionable package complete with a Kate Spade–style carrying bag.

June Case, marketing coordinator for Medela, says that the mechanics of the breast pumps come down to a sophisticated system of pistons and vacuums. Essentially, the pumps are designed to mimic an infant as closely as possible. Their suction delivers suckling and nursing motions that stop and start just like a real kid.

One problem with other companies’ pumps, says Case, is that the mother has to manually release the vacuum pressure. To do this, she must cover and uncover a tiny blowhole (kind of like those on the side of a bong). Medela’s high-tech designs relieve pressure automatically.

Gizmos like this can be a new mom’s best friend, say some parents. Trudi Roth, a 33-year-old marketing executive, tried the pump a few days after giving birth. Though it took a little getting used to, she said that ultimately it took quite a load, literally, off her back. “I guess this is what a cow feels like,” she said. “The machine starts pumping and making all these noises and suddenly you realize you’re one big tit.”

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Cyborg Dreaming

Steve Mann hasn’t seen The Matrix. Strapped with cybernetic head gear and a battery-powered CPU undershirt, the 35-year-old professor is too immersed in his own alternate reality— or, as he calls it, mediated reality— to waste nine bucks on Keanu.

“This is something I invented before science fiction caught on to the idea,” he says flatly. “Captain Picard wasn’t around in the ’70s.”

Indeed, Mann is the anti-Trekkie: an engineer who has devoted himself not to science fiction, but science reality. He is the obsessive iconoclast of wearable computers, a burgeoning field that loosely describes everything from personal digital assistants to Mann’s latest untethered wares— a pair of sunglasses that allow him to record and manipulate images from the world around him. And the academic cyborgs are hoping you’ll join them soon.

Wearables, of course, are nothing new. Mann had a considerable burst of fame a few years ago when, inspired by England’s notorious coffee-pot cam, he began netcasting images from the point of view of his self-described WearComp: an intestinal-looking Cronenbergian helmet of bolts and wires. But now, the gee-whiz extremists are trying to design gadgets that are decidedly more stealthy— and, thus, marketable.

On a given afternoon, Mann might be seen roaming the University of Toronto faculty lounge with his covert eyetap glasses. Images are picked up through tiny cameras in the frames, then transmitted wirelessly to a receiving PC. The sleeker model is perfect for mundane human things like, say, grocery shopping. If Mann’s having trouble picking out a ripe avocado, his wife can tune in, see what he’s seeing, and e-mail a suggestion that will scroll across his lenses: “Honey, that one’s a little too bruised for the guacamole, no?”

Mann has spent three decades unabashedly fashioning himself as the über-nerd. In elementary school, years before the Walkman, he grafted a car stereo playback head and a pair of headphones onto a dictating machine so that he could hear music in the streets.

While pursuing his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab— the futurama think tank where Members Only epaulet jackets remain en vogue— Mann out-geeked everyone with
his first generation of head-mounted WearComps. Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte described Mann as “very much on the lunatic fringe.” Coming from him, that’s a compliment.

Now, though, the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Digerati machismo assumes that one’s status is proportionate with one’s microgizmos. As a result, Silicon Alley conference hosts have to sheepishly remind the audience to use their cell phones in the lobby and, please, set their pagers on vibrate.

If Tom Zimmerman has his way, your whole body will vibrate. Zimmerman, another MIT Media Lab alumnus, has been working at IBM’s Almaden Research Center to perfect what he calls a Personal Area Network (PAN): a kind of local area network (LAN) made from flesh and blood.

The body is able to conduct electricity because of its natural salinity. PAN hijacks this conductivity to transmit electronic data, like, for example, the contents of a business card. Imagine the applications. In the future, two PAN people, hooked up to transmitters and receivers, could shake hands, forming a complete circuit, and swap egg-salad recipes.

According to another engineer, Jakob Nielsen, the need for wearable wares is pressing. “Our lives are getting filled with ever more obscure codes, passwords, user IDs, PINs, and URLs of various services on the Web,” he says. “As we move into the network economy this trend will continue to the absurd.” In response, Nielsen helped create the JavaRing, a tiny computer that can store all your necessary numbers, and even open a computer-coded door lock.

Still, one conundrum of wearable computers is that they’re being manufactured by techies with admittedly limited fashion sense. “From a user interface perspective,” Nielsen once wrote, “one can also hope that future rings will be designed by jewelry designers and look less nerdy.”

Mann’s Risky Business eyetaps are an earnest step, at least, in that direction. So far, he says, it seems to be working. “In the ’70s, people would see me wearing these things and walk across the street to avoid me,” Mann explains. “Now I get kids running over and saying, ‘Hey, can I play with that?’ ”

machineage@villagevoice.com

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Bikini Kill

Imagine a life this sad and lonely: Every day, people conspire to get rid of you. They stare contemptuously, plotting your demise. Will you be cut? Burned? Shot with a laser until you are incinerated in a sulfuric cloud of dust? You are excessive, unnecessary. You are unwanted hair.


With summer on the horizon, beachgoers are booking up slots at beauty salons to rid themselves of their uncomely winter fur. New technologies are constantly offered to ease the Sisyphean trials of growth and removal.


Companies like SoftLight promise the latest, allegedly most painless treatments. Customers get smoothed down with a cool, K-Y–type jelly (actually a carbon-rich light-absorbing lotion), after which a wand-wielding attendant zaps them with dime-sized pulses of laser light. Problem is, you have to keep going back. But there may be no need to blow all the margarita money on trips to the Vanishing Point. Newfangled hair wares are sharpened, revved, and ready for the living room.


Judith Stephens, a nutritionist in Dallas, Texas, has spent the past decade perfecting what she says is the country’s only FDA-approved home electrolysis kit. After reading several plaintive Ann Landers columns about women with unruly mustaches, Stephens, who claims to be a distant relative of Thomas Edison, set to work.


The result: the Guaranty Hair Removal System. Instead of forcing you to jab yourself with icky electric needles, the GHR fries hairs using tiny high-powered tweezers. The skin is swabbed down with softening agents, and then the tweezers grip the hairs and send small galvanic currents right down to the nasty roots.


Stephens is not a customer herself; she says she’s one of the few “weirdos” who don’t have unwanted hair problems. But she says that GHR is popular with women and men. Also, she adds, her product is making waves with the transgender crowd. But post-op men might have trouble neutralizing their beards.


“Body hair is the easiest to kill,” Stephens explains. “Beard and neck hairs are a bit more difficult because they come from the gonads.” Come again? “It’s a hormone thing,” she says. “Gonads are functioning at a slightly higher level [than other hair-producing organs], which means it takes longer to kill your beard.”


Right. Of course it’s one thing to kill a beard; it’s another to snip those hairs inside your nose. Because nasal infections have a clear path to the brain, plucking the little buggers can be deadly (if you survive, though, the head rush is pretty awesome). Once again, the gadget mecca of America—the Sharper Image—has come to the rescue, with the Turbo-Groomer: a stealthy and stylish power trimmer that blades your fuzz at 4000 revolutions per minute. There’s even a built-in light to illuminate your blowholes on the sly (just the kind of ingenuity you’ve come to expect from the company behind the Electric Tongue Cleaner, “a fun item that does exactly what we say it does,” says company spokesperson Lou Soucie: “It scrapes your tongue”).


If the Groomer isn’t practical enough, the Sharper Image has been touting its ionization technology, which obliterates stench in shoes, closets, or, yes, even your coif. Soucie says that one of the company’s most popular items these days is the Ionic Hair Wand. The big steel brush looks just mod enough to have been squeezed into your back pocket in an early-’80s junior high. This battery-operated gizmo emits electrically charged ions that smooth the surrounding cuticles of hair strands, as well as remove schmutz and/or happy-hour smoke lingering in your hair.


Still, there are plenty of humans who prefer their grooming the low-tech way. Gary Flinn, the webmaster behind the Electric Shaver Page (iavbbs.com/gflinn/INDEX.HTM), has created a forum for power-razor enthusiasts. Here, connoisseurs reminisce about their first Norelco triple-head models or dis the biaxial cutting action of the Grundig Roltronic Pro.


After 70 years on the market, the electric shaver remains the most convenient way to shed foliage with the least amount of hassle, money, and blood, Flinn says. And the innovations keep getting better, as in some of the new high-end models, which, he says, “feature a blade arrangement so the shaving action is similar to that of an old-fashioned rotary lawn mower.”


So be it. In the name of progress, I’m going to mow my face.

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Wired Like Me

As a kid growing up in Flushing, Queens, Benjamin Sun found community everywhere he turned. He studied at a Chinese school, prayed at a Chinese American church, and ate at his parents’ Chinese restaurant. Having a strong, supportive network of other Chinese Americans was pretty much a way of life.

At 23, Sun got involved with another network: the Internet. As an investment banker for Merrill Lynch, he was assigned to work on the 1996 initial public offering for Firefly, one of the first so-called community Web sites. Firefly was novel— a surfer could drop by, type in the name of a favorite band, and get music and related recommendations based on the mutual interests of other members. Almost overnight, the Web entered its Soylent Green phase; its lifeblood, the e-preneurs declared, was people.

“Ultimately, the online world is based on people interacting and establishing relationships,” Sun says. “There must be some shared interest and background.”

Firefly succeeded because of the power of music as a binding, community force. If someone could find something equally or even more intense, just imagine the success. And that’s when it hit Sun: “What’s more powerful,” he asks, “than race and ethnicity?”

As the CEO of Asian Avenue— the first of what he hopes will be a network of ethnic online communities— Sun is banking on the answer. And he’s not the only one pioneering what might be called the Ethnet. Five years ago, there were only a handful of such sites, like NetNoir in California and Café Los Negros in New York; now major media companies and indie start-ups from Asian Avenue to HBO are all cultivating communities for the “urban market.” This trend is a fallout of the burgeoning Soylent fever, triggered lately by the shadowing eclipse of AOL and the shattering IPOs of homepage hosting sites like The Globe and Tripod. Even portals like Yahoo and Excite are cashing in on the human element with special tools that allow surfers to create their own DIY “clubs,” complete with chat, message boards, and personal profiles. The more niche (or “vertical” as the current buzzword goes) the cliques, the better. Ethnic communities, as Sun observed, are inherently niche. Problem is, they’re also inherently loaded.

Shortly after Asian Avenue launched in a sunny red-brick-walled loft between Chinatown and Silicon Alley, Sun and his predominantly Asian American staff assembled a member questionnaire. As with most online communities, here surfers would log on for free and check off interests and data that would be used to help identify them to others on the service. Since this was going to be an ethnic community, Sun figured it was important to list a choice of groups— something not done on a mainstream site like AOL. So they brainstormed: Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and so on. No sooner had the site launched than Sun got flamed. Where, wrote a group of Asian Americans in Minnesota, were the Hmong?

“To do this kind of job,” says Sun, as he tours his site, “you have to be knowledgeable about your audience. Being sensitive is the number one issue.”

It was a story learned the hard way by another Asian American site, Channel A. Cofounded in San Francisco in 1996 by Steve Chin, a former journalist, and businesswoman Peggy Liu, Channel A was one of the first Ethnet communities to make a splash. The ambitious site immediately hooked up with an ambitious partner, A magazine, a large Asian American print publication. At first the idea was to build something like an Asian American AOL, filled with special interest chat and relevant news and information.

But the new media dream was subject to old media realities. “We faced the same issues as any print magazine targeted to a niche audience,” recalls Chin— coming up with an appropriate business
model. Faced with slim revenues, Liu urged Chin to shift the focus. Channel A began hawking woks and Chinese cookbooks. “Liu’s vision was to make a Martha Stewart site for Asian living,” Chin says. And, in turn, Channel A acquired a Martha Stewart­hued audience, since most Asians had their own places to buy oyster sauce. “We were looking where we could make sales online,” Chin says, “and it wasn’t with Asians.”

Disheartened by losing his intended audience, Chin left the company last February. “It wasn’t driven by a journalistic concept anymore,” he says. “It was driven by how many people we could get into the store. That gets obnoxious.” Channel A folded in August.

Generating cash is a challenge that any new media company faces, but Ethnet communities have an even greater hurdle to overcome: the digital divide between technology haves and have-nots. In order to get advertisers and investors, ethnic communities have to convince cash cows that, contrary to popular belief and what some say are misleading reports, minority groups are in fact online.

[

Last April, Vanderbilt University released a study that found that less than one-third of blacks owned home computers, versus nearly three quarters of whites. In addition, 37.8 percent of white students said that they had used the Web in the previous six months, compared to 15.9 percent of blacks.

Three months later, the U.S. Commerce Department issued its own report on the matter, finding that twice as many whites (40.8 percent) owned computers as Hispanics (19.4 percent) and blacks (19.3 percent); even larger differences were apparent for Net use, the report said: 21.2 percent of white households were surfing the wires, compared to 7.7 percent of blacks and 8.8 percent of Hispanics.

These stats did not seem promising for anyone interested in creating an Ethnet site. But critics like the Center for Media Education, a public policy advocacy group in Washington, D.C., were outspoken on the realities of the studies. “When it comes to access to technology for persons of color,” says CME executive director, Jeffery Chester, “the dividing line is income, not race. You have equal number of poor whites who have the same kind tough odds of getting access as African Americans or Hispanics.”

Maybe so, but Ethnet producers say that many advertisers and digerati still think of the Net as the World White Web. After eight years working in print journalism, Lavonne Luquis realized, like Sun, that there were few communities offering content and interaction specifically for nonwhites. In 1995, using her credit cards and some bank loans, she launched Latino Link, a Hispanic community site based in California. It was only after the site went up— when she was faced with the tasks of raising more capital and selling advertising— that she encountered the blank stares. “When I tell people that this is an Hispanic site,” she says, “what comes to [their] minds is the stereotypical image: poor farm workers out in some field. I have to convince them that there’s a whole world of Hispanics who are middle-class professionals.”

Luquis believes that one of the reasons she’s been able to navigate the misconceptions in the new media business is because of how well she “blends in.” With dirty-blond hair, light skin, and no discernible Hispanic accent, she says she encounters less resistance from other professionals: [Stereotypes] “would probably be more of an issue if I looked differently.”

In Silicon Alley, diversity is seldom, if ever, addressed by the more prominent organizations. At a New York New Media Association meeting last fall, says executive director Alice O’Rourke, one member stood up in the back and asked why there weren’t more people of color on the panel. O’Rourke estimates that maybe 10 percent of her members are nonwhites. “Could that number be better?” she asks. “Should it be better? Absolutely.”

McLean Greaves, CEO of Virtual Melanin, a company that has designed sites for Spike Lee and Puff Daddy, founded one of New York’s first black bulletin-board services, Café Los Negros. After three years of good vibes and good press for what Greaves calls a “GenXfro site,” the money ran out. Despite having about 15,000 members, there wasn’t enough financing in the way of advertising or investors to keep CLN afloat. Now Greaves has launched Digital Downlow, a bare-bones community that relies almost entirely on message boards and member content. The big game to build profitable ethnic communities, he says, has grown more competitive and, ultimately, diluted.

Many Ethnet communities, he points out, are either owned or heavily financed by large, white-owned media corporations. The Tribune, a Chicago-based newspaper publishing company, owns Black Voices, a popular community site. Cox Media in Atlanta backs another African American site, Black Families. Even NetNoir, which Greaves respects for its longevity, is on the AOL dole. The cumulative effect, he asserts, “is a lot of homogenized content.”

“Ethnicity” has even become a keyword on AOL. Type it in and you’ll go to a subset of the Lifestyles section that is devoted to different ethnic groups. There are sites and information like NetNoir, Black Voices, Arab news, plus a smattering of Native American links. According to Mark Dewey, the group programming director for AOL who oversees the Ethnicity section, the content fits nicely in line with AOL’s original vision. Communities, he says, have always been “the lifeblood” of AOL. “That could mean people with a common ethnic background,” he explains, “or an interest in classic Mustang cars.”

It’s the end of another long day at Asian Avenue. Benjamin Sun is making the rounds at the computers, checking on the staff’s progress. This month, there’s an ongoing debate under the rubric “Everybody is Kung-Fu Fighting: ‘Chop Socky’ or ‘Chop Suey’— Are Asian Stars Promoting Old Stereotypes.” An evolving showcase section features art and essays about Asian women in childhood. Meanwhile, sweetpersuASIAN and GQ— NAM chat it up in the Filipino lounge.

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For Sun, it’s a perfect little moment, a snapshot of what an ethnic community can be online. Even more to the point, he says, is the story of Cindy Moy. Last year, her family came onto Asian Avenue because Moy needed a blood donor as she was dying of leukemia. Her best chance of finding the right blood was in the Asian community. The Asian Avenue members quickly rallied to her side, organizing trips to blood donation centers, creating an online message forum specifically for her. Within weeks, there were hundreds of postings.

Moy ended up finding a donor in Singapore, though tragically it was too late. Despite her death, the Cindy Moy message area still thrives on Asian Avenue. “You won’t find that kind of connected passion on big free homepage sites like GeoCities or Tripod,” Sun says. With a recent influx of about $1 million, Sun hopes to expand Asian Avenue and, soon, launch similar sites for African Americans and Latinos. Rather than using his Asian American staff to run those sites, he intends to hire people from within those community groups.

Currently, there’s only one non-Asian on staff and that’s Mike the engineer. And whereas in the traditional TV sitcom— and other mainstream media— the Asian guy often gets stuck playing the help, in an episode of Liquid Soap, Asian Avenue’s online comedy, the waiter is Mike.

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Joystick Nation

The buzz around vibrators is reaching a fever pitch these days. In Alabama, six women recently challenged a law passed in November that bans the sale or distribution of sexual devices. (The ACLU is fighting the Alabama decree.) Dong dealers face up to $10,000 in fines and a year of prison or hard labor; in jail, they presumably take your batteries along with your shoelaces.

Still, though at least 12 other states have passed similar legislation against sex toys, there’s no law preventing their use. One retailer, the 22-year-old Good Vibrations in San Francisco, reports annual sales hitting over $5 million dollars. The boom is due, Vibrations reports, to the rise of e-commerce. Shy customers no longer have to sneak into sex shops; they can just boot up goodvibes.com.

It’s rather poetic in a McLuhan sort of way; this new technology (the Internet) is rescuing the old technology (vibrators). And as author Rachel Maines reports in her historical tome, The Technology of Orgasm, published in January, vibrators are way old indeed. The first model came out in the late 1880s, shortly after the iron and the sewing machine, and was marketed as a therapeutic home appliance. “Vibrators were contemporaneous with the toaster,” Maines says, adding that “a woman cannot live by toast alone.”

Electromechanical massagers have come a long way since turn-of-the-century physicians used penal-looking contraptions to treat women for so-called hysteria. Today in Japan, the mecca of masturbation tools, there’s no shortage of inspiration for new and unique designs. It seems every time these manufacturers see something, they think, “Hmm, wonder
if we can rub that against a clitoris and make
it vibrate?”

Vibrators come in the shape of cultural icons: Santa Claus, Satan. There are vibrating eggs, vibrating balls. Most recently, there has been a Noah’s ark of vibrating animals: butterflies, rabbits, and the conveniently shaped dolphins. Understandably, no rhinos.

But like any effective rocket, a vibrator is only as good as its engine. Because the shafts are seldom larger than life, however, there’s little room to play with. For this reason, most battery-operated devices contain an ingenious bit of technology that’s equal parts Radio Shack and Barbarella: a thumb-sized oscillating motor.

These tiny engines are not easy to examine, since they’re usually encased in hard plastic. I had to run over the Smoothie— an ultra-smooth multi-speed stimulator— five times in my car just to crack it open. Inside the tip, I found the guts of many high school science projects: a spool of thin copper wire surrounding a tiny metal rod. At the tip of the rod is a small, off-balance weight. The battery’s current causes the rod to spin the weight, which oscillates and buzzes and vibrates. Bliss is centripetal motion.

Mubuchi, a Japanese company that makes motors for cameras and garage-door openers, is the Rolex of vibrator motors. Though most consumers might not know the difference, American companies like Vibratex sure do. According to general manager Dan Martin, Vibratex works closely with the Japanese to build love machines that, like good Spinal Tap amps, go to 11.

One of the most popular innovations since the introduction of battery-operated vibrators has been the Rabbit Pearl. Made of translucent pink vinyl, the Pearl has a “tickler” in addition to a shaft. Each has its own motor, with the one in the shaft customized to rotate as well as shimmy.

When the Rabbit Pearl was featured on a recent episode of HBO’s Sex and the City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, the Pleasure Chest in the West Village was inundated with requests. The same phenomenon happened, says owner Brian Robinson, after Howard Stern featured a new remote-control­operated vibrating panty on his show.

Whether a vibrator uses a sleek Mubuchi or the latest in waterproof microchips is irrelevant to customers, Robinson says. “People aren’t coming in and saying, ‘I want something that moves’; they say, ‘Oh my God, what would that feel like?’ ” It’s this passion that might be driving sales of the Auto Arouser, a device that plugs into a car lighter.

But one classic vibrator has outlasted all the innovations. The Hitachi Magic Wand Household Electric Massager, one of the bestselling items out there, actually harks back to the first era of inconspicuous home appliances. For true connoisseurs, the electrical option is a no-brainer. Compared to battery-operated devices, says Maines, electricity delivers “all the power of Niagara Falls.”

And, yes, the river runs through Alabama. Despite the cock-a-doodle crackdown, so-called appliances like the Magic Wand are readily available in the state. “Clearly [the Wand] is a straightforward product,” says Gerry Corbett, Hitachi’s head of corporate communications. “There are no implications of anything beyond standard health care use.” But of course.

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Technology Goes to the Dogs

Tech writers are inundated with gadgets: games, scanners, and the occasional vibrating tongue. But nothing recently has been quite as haunting as the LitterMaid, the automated, self-cleaning kitty litter box that’s advertised in countless airplane shopping magazines. Practical, ridiculous, yet somehow sublime, it seems teleported from a Jetsons utopia where bots mix our martinis, shiatsu our necks, and, yes, tend to the poop.

Like all great promises, even the LitterMaid had to be put to the test. Two experts, a pair of cats named Elroy and Vincent, were recruited for duty. But no sooner had I booted up the LitterMaid Web site than I stumbled on an underworld of high-tech pet products: anti-bark collars, ultrasonic critter repellents, even a tracking microchip that’s injected under an animal’s skin. The future is now, Elroy; better hide under the couch.

“Making bad dogs good and good dogs better,” is the slogan of Innotek, an Indiana-based manufacturer of electronic training products for pets. For the past decade, Innotek has been perfecting a legion of gizmos that would make Pavlov himself kneel down and slobber. “Traditionally, people call them ‘shock collars,’ ” says Jim Schlender, Innotek’s marketing director. “But that gives a connotation that we don’t want to be associated with.”

The key ingredient in these Innotek products is the zap: a small burst of voltage that, Schlender says, feels like putting your finger in a light socket. The No-Bark Collar is a battery-
operated collar that zaps when it picks up vibrations from a dog’s ruff. The Free Spirit Model FS-400A is a remote-controlled collar; simply press a range of four intensity buttons on the remote to dole out a corrective zap next time, say, Rover tries to eat the bonsai plant.

Innotek promotes its products as veterinarian approved. The devices, however, are usually tried on the company employee’s pets, not on people. (“It’s not like we’re running around here and shocking each other,” Schlender explains). Still, I felt obliged. After strapping on the No-Bark Collar for a test drive, let’s just say I won’t be hitting the high notes of an REO Speedwagon ballad.

On more innocent pastures, cows across the country are leading the way for microchip identification technology— a system that’s being used to trace livestock and pets back to their rightful owners. Since the mad cow scare in England, there’s been a push in the cattle industry to ensure more secure methods of tracing cattle, just in case someone buys a hunk of bad beef. The answer? Duh: inject a microchip.

A California company called American
Veterinary Identification Devices (AVID) is one of the largest manufacturers of injectable microchip IDs. With a hypodermic needle, the chips— which contain unique numeric codes— are placed just under the animal’s skin. A thin layer of protein encasing the chip anchors it to the surrounding tissue. Using a special radio signal device, a vet scans Elsie’s body to pick up the cow’s specific code. The code is then punched into a database of all the registered livestock and, voilà: name that meat!

The product is the invention of Dr. Hannis L. Stoddard III, a veterinary surgeon who, back in 1985, developed a way to electronically tag his collection of exotic birds. Today, the microchips are used by farmers and humane societies worldwide. The Queen of England’s cocker spaniels have been microchipped, as has Keiko— the wet and cuddly star of Free Willy.

According to AVID, over 75,000 pets have been recovered using the system. Powder, a lost cat from Battle Creek, Michigan, wandered 65 miles to Holland, where it was found, scanned, and returned. The owner renamed the pet James Bond Powder after learning that the cat’s ID number ended in 007.

It’s heartwarming. It’s high tech. It’s really, really weird. But it’s no less strange, alas, than what some New Yorkers have decided to do with their LitterMaids. According to company spokesperson Dr. John Prang, intrepid dog owners have been experimenting with ways to let their pooches explore their feline sides. Who says only cats can enjoy the wonders of a self-cleaning sandbox?

“For female dogs who squat, it works fantastically,” effuses Dr. Prang. “But part of the training is to get a male dog to squat instead of lift its leg. If you have a big German Shepherd who lifts his leg, he’s not going to hit a 15-inch box of litter.”

As for Elroy and Vincent, they had no problem marking their mechanized spot. Their owner Harry reports that the cats have taken well to their millennial crap shack. In fact, they’re somewhat in awe. Harry woke in the middle of the night to find the boys sitting in the blue moonlight as the LitterMaid sifted for clumps. “I caught them both staring at it,” Harry says, “just, like, amazed.”