Thursday, February 02, 2006

Introduction (first column appearance)

I left Good Housekeeping to join etown.com and marry a space
alien!

by Carla Diana

OK, so the second part is not exactly true. The alien and
I broke it off a long time ago, that jerk. The first part,
however, is true. I've recently joined the boyz here at etown.com
to bring you this new column called "Carla's Corner." Welcome! I'm
looking forward to having some fun and bringing a much needed
woman's perspective.

In future columns I'll be exploring issues in technology and
sharing regular musings about what's happening now in the
ever-changing world of consumer electronics. And believe me, I do
have a few kilobytes worth to say about this stuff. I'll be
talking about the way we've adapted to technology's blessings --
and its shortcomings, the role of ergonomics in interactivity, and
kids and electronics.

"But why should we spend precious online moments digesting your
reflections on things technological?" you ask. "Isn't the 'net
full of endless ruminations from anyone whose hands can reach the
keyboard and the 'on' switch?"

Well, you may have seen my work in Good Housekeeping magazine
where I spent five years as a part of the print media. Or perhaps
you've caught one of my national TV appearances on shows like
CNN's "Money Matters," Lifetime's "Our Home," Fox Business News
and CNBC's "Steals & Deals." As Good Housekeeping's Director of
Engineering and Technical Editor, I was in charge of reviewing
every new electronic gadget from baby monitors and talking scales
to camcorders and DSS systems. I wrote, researched and edited
articles while managing a staffed engineering lab. I put products
through all the tests I could think of, including lighting
Barbie's hair on fire (a true pleasure), jamming microwave oven
doors open (yes, I feel OK now, really) and jostling portable CD
players until they skipped.

It was a good gig while it lasted (sigh -- no more free
gingerbread cookies or tips on keeping my bathtub its whitest),
but I left this past August to move on to new endeavors. [Can you
do anything for my bathtub? Oh, um, sorry. -- Ed.] Aside from this
regular column on consumer electronics, I'll be dreaming up some
new contraptions of my own as I pursue a master's degree in
product design at New York's Pratt Institute. Yes, that's right,
I've traded in my business suit and corner office for a wad of
clay, some smelly markers and my own corner on the web.

How did I become the woman people consult for insight into today's
technology? For starters, I have a crazed desire to know all about
the latest amazing invention and I've been this way since I lay in
a crib. There was no fooling me with that hollow toy phone. I knew
the real thing when I saw it. Much to my parents' chagrin, I was
taking apart their radio long before I was old enough to say
"frequency modulation." I followed my interests all the way to
engineering school to learn about what makes things work.

So began my career as a consumer electronics maven. When I got
bored of being a run-of-the-mill engineer I started reviewing and
criticizing products, and my word processor has been humming ever
since.

Over the next few months I'll be using what I've learned through
evaluating products all these years, along with my newly enhanced
design savvy, to bring you insights on the electronic devices that
will be entering our homes in the next century.

Thanks for clicking on this new feature. I hope that from now on
you'll make it part of your regular cyberintake. Check in every
couple of weeks for some new truths, trends and tribulations to
spice up your visit to etown.com.

# # #

This story is an etown.com exclusive.

Remotes that Make Sense

New ideas that fit in the palm of your hand

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

October 31, 1996 -- You embrace it with your [Image]
palm. Using your fingertips to gently press on
its surface, you use it to manipulate your surroundings.
You keep it within arm's reach, and sometimes you even
use it in the dark. Yes, it's the remote control.

In an ideal world, such an intimate object would look
sensuous, like a virtual extension of yourself, right?
Most remote controls, however, look like calculators.
Hard, slim black boxes with grids of tiny, rectangular
buttons, they require close inspectio n to distinguish
one function from another. They've spent decades as an
overlooked accessory, an infrared afterthought thrown in
to keep up with the competition's list of features.

In the past few years redesigned remotes have brought new
shapes, textures and -- gasp! -- colors into consumer
electronics. More frequently used functions like channel
up and down, volume control and VCR play have larger
buttons than the less commonly us ed mute, record and
channel numbers. Keypads are laid out in a logical order,
buttons are made with touchy-feely materials like supple
rubber, and forms like ellipses, semicircles, and
triangles have emerged. Not only does all this smooth the
process of s etting your home theater into motion, but
the different shapes and surface indentations help you
find controls when the lights are dimmed. Some remotes
even have backlit or glow-in-the-dark buttons.

Overall shapes have improved, too. Thomson researched the
space inside the closed hand (by asking 300 users to
reform a ball of clay into a comfortable shape). The
result is the curvy CRK61, which operates a ProScan TV
and external VCR. Scottsdale Techn ologies makes a
similar product in a gorgeous, egg-shaped design that
nestles into your palm and lets your thumb fall naturally
onto the main control pad.

With each appliance sporting its own separate controlling
device, things have gotten pretty messy. Many of us let
out a sigh of relief when the universal remote control,
which uses one controller to activate several devices,
came around. Now standard with most midrange and higher
television sets, they've become a strong product category
on their own. They're great for controlling three or four
devices, but beyond that they start looking as though
they could launch spacecraft, and programming all your
devi ces with those elusive brand codes can turn into a
real headache.

To make controlling simpler, some products feature
onscreen menus and super-simple remotes. The VideoGuide
system, which delivers program-listing grids and headline
news on the television screen, has a sexy remote with
only two buttons, a rocker switch an d a joystick for
smoothly moving around the screen to make channel
selections. (By the way, its one-button VCR record
program feature is really sweet.) Digital satellite
systems and Starsight, an interactive program guide built
into some VCRs and TVs, hav e a similar on-screen menu
control. While this improves ease-of-use, you usually
have to wade through a couple of screen layers before
making a channel selection or performing a function that
was previously handled by one dedicated button.

Technophiles and designers alike have raved about the
Kenwood KC-Z1 Home Theater Controller. This high-end
audio/video preamp handles six video inputs, five analog
audio inputs and four digital audio inputs (yikes!). It
comes with the Lamborghini of universal remotes, a liquid
crystal touchscreen which shows icons of your components
to indicate control choices. Touching an icon reveals
more detailed screen layers, much like the menus in a
computer operating system. Slick features include its use
of radio frequency signals (900 MHz, just like high-end
cordless phones) instead of infrared so that you can use
it without pointing it at your equipment, even from
another room. Creston's SmarTouch remote also has an LCD
screen, and can allow the remote control ling of
integrated home systems like alarms, temperature controls
and motorized windows (in high-tech Smart House homes).
The KC-Z1 costs $2800 and includes the handheld
controller along with a tuner/preamp, while the SmarTouch
is a whopping $4200.

If you like the idea of using the remote for zapping
things other than home theater gear, but can't handle the
heart-stopping price of the SmarTouch (and don't live in
an automated Smart House), RCA's Home Control is a new
remote that can be used to turn off lights, start up
coffeemakers, and activate almost anything that plugs
into a household outlet. It's a classy Clapper!

Remotes have become the control center for lots more than
turning the TV on and off. Getting the coffeepot going is
a neat trick, but my wish-list remote control is more
like the shiny orgasmatron in Woody Allen's Sleeper. Put
one of those on your coffeetable. Now *that's* control.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

The MP3 Revolution

The freedom of downloadable media

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, February 3, 1999 -- [Image]
Probably the most exciting thing about industrial
design is the ability it gives you to envision the future
as if it were a scene from "Space Odyssey: 2001" and then
watch as that dream is transformed into reality.

Not too long ago the concept of downloadable media was
part of just such a futuristic utopia. Prescient
industrial designers (such as those working on Philips'
"Vision of the Future" project) had proposed models of
devices that distributed music in a variety of forms from
a downloadable source, but to most people this
Jetsons-like concept was difficult to grasp, let alone
believe in.

Well, Diamond Multimedia and MP3 have made it a reality
virtually overnight with the introduction of the Rio MP3
player, a portable device that allows users to record and
play back CD-quality music by downloading from the
Internet.

On a purely practical level, today's MP3 players are
great. They're discrete, you can jog or walk without
worrying about mechanical skips, they eliminate the need
to trek out to the store, and you won't run out of shelf
space.

The design of the Rio, which makes it look like a
miniature Walkman-wannabe, is disappointing. The buttons
look sleek, but it seems that little attention was paid
to creating a truly new interface to match the novelty of
the medium, e.g. including scrolling wheels or larger
onscreen displays. Nevertheless, the implications of
bringing this new technology to a mainstream audience are
nothing short of thrilling.

New spins on music consumption

Some say that the printing press turned everyone into a
reader and the Internet turned everyone into an author;
now, MP3 turns them into DJs. It gives users more power
and control over organizing, storing, cataloging, and
perhaps even manipulating music.

In the near future we can expect MP3 technology in
products such as digital voice recorders, sound mixers
and personal organizers. With new devices and
well-designed interfaces, the average person might have
more access to sound mixing tools. And these tools might
encourage experimental music composition by virtue of the
fact that one no longer has to play an instrument to
"write" and play music. In addition, the availability of
an MP3 chipset will allow designers to bring music into
new territory by literally hiding it in the existing
domestic landscape (How 'bout an MP3 La-Z-boy?) or in
articles of clothing.

Not surprisingly, there is a legal battle raging over how
MP3 should be handled. Some musicians and independent
music labels think it will provide new opportunities for
exposure and distribution. In addition, some artists
might find it gives them greater control over their
music, profits and performance rights. DJs, for example,
can set up their own "stations," streaming many types of
audio information including talk as well as music.

On the other hand, artists will have to be active in
maintaining their rights against some listeners who will
illegally pirate music whenever possible. And of course,
the record distribution companies -- represented by RIAA
(Recording Industry Association of America) -- are
furious about all of this. Nevertheless, the initial
popularity of the format, the ease with which novices can
learn to use it, and the tenacity of a web-linked
subculture are helping MP3 to maintain a foothold.

Ultimately, MP3 offers new possibilities for
dematerialization and hybridization of objects. In other
words, industrial designers are no longer limited to
forcing a "skin" or shell around bulky electromechanical
innards. Instead, as Derrick de Kerckhove, director of
the McCluhan Institute, wrote in his book "Brainframes,"
there are new opportunities to make design the veritable
"skin of culture". The design can focus on the use,
application and cultural significance.

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Vegas and CES

It's all a matter of location, location, location

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, December 31, 1997 -- Just days after [Image]
ringing in the New Year, etown.com staffers will
listen to some real noisemakers in Las Vegas for that
majestic trade-show tradition, the International Consumer
Electronics Show. Why Vegas? As the quintessential place
you'd love to visit but wouldn't want to live, it's got
the practical advantages of dry weather [which takes the
skin right off my face -- Ed.], swanky hotel rooms [kept
at subzero temperatures to get you into the casino --
Ed.] and nonstop entertainment [i.e. gambling and
prostitutes -- Ed.]. Beyond those, however, lies a
subtler significance that can be traced to trends in
architecture.

As a general comparison, Vegas building design started
out with the same overall layout as electronic
componentry. Structures were low and squat, and spread
out over one level for ventilation purposes, resulting in
flat geometric spaces. VCRs, DSS receivers and CD players
may house circuitry rather than blackjack tables, but the
general design is the same: flat boxes.

While original Vegas buildings kept a low profile,
graphic electric signage took center stage, with each
casino and wedding chapel illuminating a sign brighter
than the next. In the early days of the Strip, each
structure gained its identity not from the profile of the
architecture but from the glowing, boasting lights as
seen from the road, like the wild-west saloon style of
the Golden Nugget or Circus Circus. The character of the
place was communicated entirely through the facade, a
strategy similar to that used by CE designers: products
are identified not by their shape (hey, a rectangle's a
rectangle) but by an up-front, glowing LED display and
the heraldry of the brand name (no matter how
meaningless) plastered across the faceplate. Vegas'
buildings are meant to be viewed as a car approaches from
the highway, and CE componentry is viewed en route from
the fridge to the couch.

Just as consumer electronics have begun to evolve into
new designs including towers and more sculptural handheld
shapes, so too has a new Vegas architectural shtick
emerged. The latest hotels wouldn't dare opening up shop
without signature forms that communicate a theme, like
the colossal MGM lion, the Luxor's pyramid, and the
skyline at New York New York. While it's still
ostentatious, the use of overall form as an architectural
style (where the building functions as a giant "statue")
has come a long way since the fast food stand shaped like
a giant hot dog.

Economically, both Vegas and the CE industry have grown
at breakneck speeds. In "Learning form Las Vegas," the
architect's textbook on the phenomenon of urban sprawl,
author Robert Venturi states that "architectural
evolution that would have taken decades in other cities
has taken place in just years." Any visitor to the city
in the last 10 years has witnessed constant
reconstruction activity -- Vegas version 3.1 replacing
3.0 in a heartbeat.

The real poetic beauty of hosting a CE show in Vegas is
that it's the best place for fast-paced escapism. (No
wonder it was Albert Brooks' ill-fated first stop to the
wild life in the comedy "Lost in America"). As Disneyland
for grownups, it's got commodified illusions-R-us from
dancing showgirls to the Mirage's volcano and, of course,
Elvis impersonators aplenty. Aren't illusions what
consumer electronics are all about? Virtual reality,
speakers that sound live, and totally immersive home
theater environments are just a sampling of how new
gadgets boast the ability to help you forget the dreary
here and now. And ultimately, every CES rolls out more
opportunities to completely lose your shirt than ever
before.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Virtual Petting

Tamagotchi: Can't buy me love

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, December 15, 1997 -- [Image]
I thought virtual pets, those little hand-held
electronic key-chains that supposedly respond to the user
like a living creature, were in the same category as sea
monkeys and mood rings: they seem fantastic to the
seven-year-old (and this I know from firsthand experience
of a healthy, happy sea-monkey family) but absurd to the
respectable grown-up. Then I learned that more than one
of my adult friends are a die-hard Tamagotchi owners, a
fact that has left me more than a little puzzled.

For those who missed this recent craze, the first
Tamagotchi "eggs," produced by the Japanese company
Bandai (makers of the Power Rangers series of toys),
landed in the U.S. in May, causing the latest toy-lust
craze that made lines form around the block at F.A.O.
Schwartz. Reuters reported that 13 million Tamagotchis
had been sold by September of this year. Meanwhile, lots
of copy-cat products have cropped up, such as the "Giga
Pets" by Tiger Electronics, and a new breed of screen
savers that require user TLC.

A Tamagotchi, which I've seen translated loosely as
"lovable egg" or "egg watch," is basically a pixelated
LCD display housed in a flat, plastic, egg-shaped case.
It comes in many colors, although a shortage of the white
model (perhaps because of its similarity to a real bird's
egg) has prompted higher demand. The catch is that it is
marketed as needing "your love" to stay "alive." This
means you must care for your virtual pet by pushing one
of three buttons that supposedly feed it, administer
medicine, offer discipline or play, and of course clean
up the little devil's excrement. According to the product
packaging, "if you neglect your cyber creature, your
Tamagotchi may grow up to be mean or ugly."

Once again, consumer culture has exhibited its
perversity. After craving no-effort, couch potato
gadgets, we're now buying millions of a product that
requires extraordinary maintenance. Huh? It's absurd, but
it's also a brilliant marketing scheme: you get the
illusion of nurturing and responsibility without the mess
or hassle of a real, live creature. Tamagotchi owners
claim that watching their virtual pet die or having to
perform euthanasia causes great pain. As someone who
recently had to put her cat up for adoption, all I can
say is yeah, right.

Virtual pain, perhaps, but this thing is the ultimate in
fast-food, instant-gratification consumption. It's
formulaic, like buying a friend. And if your first hand
at parenting doesn't work out, well, you're in luck, just
press a button and presto, a new infant Tamagotchi is
created. Isn't that convenient? What other
pet/friend/living thing gives you the satisfaction of a
"happiness meter" that shows exactly how appreciated your
attention is?

Tamagotchi fans claim it's a great product because it
taps into the nurturing side of human nature, but the
whole concept still sends Orwellian shivers up my spine.
It is a keychain. It's not alive, it's programmed (and
quite primitively at that). It is bad enough that the
Japanese public has already fallen in love with a virtual
performer (her name is Kyoto Date and she has a cult
following), but putting a virtual creature into the hands
of millions is going too far. Don't we still value the
life of the slow-and-steady turtle? Or how about the
humble but athletic hamster? Sure, cleaning up virtual
on-screen turds is much less nasty than the traditional
variety, but please, folks, if you want your kids to care
for another living thing, give them another living thing
and save us from enduring another glimps into the world
of robotic companions.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

We Are What We Wear

The aesthetics and ergonomics of headphone couture

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, February 11, 1998 -- [Image]
Whether we like it or not, the products we choose
communicate something about ourselves. They become a part
of the image we portray to strangers, helping to form a
first impression. Our choices of style, shape and color
speak to the outside world, like the clothes we wear or
the cars we drive. Portable electronics are especially
telling since we wear them outdoors where we're
conspicuous to others.

The devices that get the most fashion play are
headphones. While they're worn on the head and take up
just as much room as eyeglasses do, we ignore them as we
do with most electronics. Knowing that not much personal
choice is possible in terms of style, we're tempted to
glance over them, as if they were almost invisible.

Despite their anonymous looks (usually in black with
little variation in shape from one brand to the next),
headphones do vary greatly in style and function, going
from the oh-so-discreet ear bud (those tiny headphones
that slip directly into the ear) to the more showy
Mouseketeer-like large models. Here's what I've noticed:

Ear buds are about as minimal as you can get, allowing
you to be the stealth listener who's last to get scolded
by airline stewardesses during takeoff. While many people
I've spoken to seem to detest the invasive feeling of
having these things sitting inside the ear (I don't mind
them, except they hurt when I smile), they offer the
added benefit of keeping others from knowing that you've
got them on -- the paranoid might say they keep people
from talking about you when they think you can't hear.
Their small size makes them least annoying for working
out, and they're easy to tuck away (some even come with a
wind-up protective plastic case that is about the size of
a compact mirror). Plus, they don't mess up your hair or
press against your skin.

The next step is the in-ear with headband. They're still
more discreet than most, but the telltale headband makes
them a little more obvious. Again, they don't press
against the skin and may be a good option for workouts
where other headphones might cause sweating in the
covered area.

Standard headphones with soft foam earpieces, usually
about one and a half inches in diameter, are probably the
most comfortable; they don't touch inside the ear or
cover your face. The person who wears this type is
stylistically middle-of-the-road, and she may just not
have bothered to upgrade from the standard fare that's
usually supplied with most portables.

Beyond the standard types are the big 'ol cups that sit
on the sides of your head like earmuffs. Depending on
whether the earpiece material is smooth or porous, they
may completely seal in sound or allow some leakage. These
are often a sign of the serious listener who doesn't want
to miss one nanosecond of a good tune. She makes no bones
about total immersion, since many of these styles don't
allow you to hear ambient noise as some of the smaller
ones do. They're almost the equivalent of Les Nessman's
imaginary walls in the old sitcom, "WKRP in Cincinnati."
The big thick headbands also indicate a certain
dedication to listening: music takes priority over
hairdos getting smashed [unless you're a buzzcut bohemian
-- Ed.] or phones get smooshed against the face. Truly
fastidious types might opt for noise-cancellation styles,
and freedom lovers might invest in wireless sets.

Today's style choices have only started to allow for
personal expression in the electronics we wear. Some
designers and researchers are taking it a step further.
This month's Vogue magazine shows fashion-oriented
projects from the MIT Media Lab's Things That Think
consortium, which is working on incorporating computers
into all forms of clothing. So if you thought it was hard
to get dressed in the morning, just imagine how much more
complicated it may become in just a few years.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Why Nomads Love Email

Home is where the modem is

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, January 11, 1997 -- Some people say [Image]
technology is quickly stripping us of our
humanity. The development of cyberspace is supposedly
leading us to become more alienated from one another by
replacing face-to-face contact with a computer. Well, I
don't buy it. If anything, the popularity of cyberspace
helps us be more social than ever.

As I move into the 12th apartment of my adult life, I'm
no exception to statistics that say Americans are
changing residence more frequently than ever. My
snailmail goes from Brooklyn to suburban Long Island,
then to southeastern Michigan, making me feel at least
partially responsible for the post office's overall
inefficiency. I enjoy my way of life, but it makes
maintaining friendships pretty tricky since I'm almost as
hard to get hold of as someone in the witness relocation
program. My closest friends have learned to jot my number
down lightly in pencil, since it's likely to change
before the year's up. Even when they've kept track of my
home number, I'm on the road whenever I get a chance for
a few days' vacation. Fortunately, technology has
provided me with a near perfect solution: e-mail.

E-mail has allowed me to be in one "place" -- that is, on
the net -- consistently. Now, no matter what city I'm in,
if I have access to a computer I can receive and send
messages every day. And since most of my friends are
online, they now have a way of reaching me quickly. I
suppose a cell phone or call forwarding (or a personal
800-number that can follow me around) would have the same
effect, but this gives me much more control over where
and when I choose to respond. What's more, the net
functions not only as a means for sending and receiving
messages, but also as an alphabetized e-mail address
book, and storage for old letters and photos sent via
cyberspace (though my e-mail provider has a limit on
message storage).

E-mail adds a new dimension to interaction. I have
relationships that are deepened by e-mail, and others
that are made more distant by it. Some friendships, such
as a regular correspondence I have with a friend living
in Rome, wouldn't exist without cyberspace (the phone
calls would be too expensive and snailmail isn't nearly
as convenient as the electronic variety). Of course, for
some, communicating over the net is an opportunity to
adopt an entirely new identity (a 50-year old European
man posing as an 18-year old Asian woman, for example).
Now not only is the computer functioning as a home of
sorts, but it is the only place where this new person
exists.

With cyberspace as a new social sphere, perhaps a virtual
version of the public square or piazza, people gain a new
conspicuousness that they may not like. A professor I
know can't stand the fact that people who wouldn't think
it appropriate or necessary to call him on the phone now
look him up out of the blue, sometimes just for the mere
joy of having "found" him on cyberspace: "Hey, aren't you
the guy from that class five years ago?" On the other
hand, it's a new way of giving the equivalent of your
number to a not-so-special someone without really giving
out your number. Alienation can come in handy sometimes.

So "home" for me has a strange definition. Between Rome,
New York City, and Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, I have
never been dislocated in my life. But with the help of
the net I can maintain my social contacts while still
being as disorganized as ever.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Iridium: Something In the Air

A paranoid's take on Iridium

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI, March 19, 1999 -- We [Image]
citizens of the late 20th century have become
pretty jaded toward new technology. Today's average adult
has witnessed the manifestation of countless products
once imagined only in fiction. What's more, the cost of
these innovations invariably plummets so quickly that
they're affordable to the average Joe in just a few
years' time.

Despite our nonchalance, every once in a while a
technology comes along that has the potential to really
blow one's mind -- if its cultural implications are
closely examined. The Iridium satellite phone system,
which provides wireless communications anywhere on the
planet, is just such a technology.

My fear is that we've become so accustomed to wireless
technology, particularly due to the soaring popularity of
digital phones, that we'll take in stride the changes to
our world -- both good and bad -- that Iridium will
bring.

What's the big commotion?

Iridium closes a gap in space and time by allowing us to
call anywhere, from anywhere, at any time. No location is
too distant or secluded to be out of reach; geographical
boundaries can no longer serve as a barrier to
information. (Even though the Internet has opened new
vistas of communication, it is still dependent on a
system of phone lines whose layout is dictated by
geography).

As such, the Iridium phone represents a new kind of
freedom in communication. It is a freedom from
maintaining a central base of operations, which in turn
allows for more alternative, "off-the-grid" lifestyles.
For example, one could live in a different city every
month of the year because this "communication without
borders" would present fewer logistical hassles.

It shouldn't be long before Iridium accessories include a
modem for laptop computers, which will give the
modern-day nomad more legitimacy than ever before. "Have
satellite phone, will travel" could become the
catchphrase of the 21st century, because one will be able
to live in the wilderness yet still communicate with
anyone on the planet.

But there's a downside...

On the other hand, a product like the Iridium phone
destroys any remaining possibility for the existence of a
true wilderness. Many of the parks and natural preserves
in this country already include areas that are wired for
electricity and pay phones. The Iridium takes the concept
of a wired wilderness to its inevitable conclusion. Soon,
we simply may not be able to "get away from it all," no
matter how far into the woods we go.

And while it's easy to understand how the Iridium phone
offers a level of freedom never before imagined, further
reflection reveals that it also represents a new type of
limitation -- a literal, physical restriction in the form
of a net of satellites around the planet, 485 miles from
Earth. It's a claustrophobe's apocalyptic nightmare. I
can imagine control of this system -- and the attendant
power -- ultimately becoming a bone of contention among
nations.

Some impressive astronomical phenomena have already
resulted from the presence of the Iridium satellites.
While it's true that humans have been sending various
objects into orbit for several decades, a recent article
in Hotwired News reported that "brilliant flares ...
caused by sunlight reflecting off the antennae of the
Iridium satellites ... can brighten to an intensity that
outshines everything else in the night sky." The Visual
Satellite Observers Home Page reports that these alleged
Iridium flares "can last up to 20 seconds [and] the
reflection can be 30 times brighter than Venus."

Some astronomers consider the lights a form of "space
pollution." The scientific community (including the
astronomers at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson,
AZ) is also greatly concerned by the satellites'
interference with telescopes that track radio waves of
objects in space. Iridium is reportedly working on
agreements with a number of observatories to minimize
interference.

Never mind the radio astronomers -- what about the poor
animals that have no idea what's going on and could
become increasingly frightened by the strange flashes in
the sky? Are we due for a global animal freakout?

On the other hand...

When I calm my paranoia, I can get really excited about
the pros of the Iridium phone. All right, I admit it. I
do want one. Sure, the awesome implications of this
system are a real mind-boggle, but considering that
Nostradamus predicted a dismal 1999 anyway, maybe it
makes no sense to ruminate about one particular brand of
doom versus the other.

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

The Ergonomics of WebTV

Set-top clutter or media streamlining?

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

October 17, 1996 -- Consumer electronics fans are [Image]
all abuzz about WebTV, the new set-top box that
hooks up to your TV and lets you cruise the web. While
last week's poll showed that etowners said "no big whoop"
to this new technology, it is a dramatic step toward
making the internet a truly mass medium.

Yes, WebTV is innovative, but technobrats like us don't
have much use for it. We've already got computers.
There's enough junk hooked up to the TV as it is.
Besides, if you're going to add a gazillion websites to
the many choices we've already got with TV, cable and
satellite broadcasts, how do you decide who gets the
remote?

It's easy to pooh-pooh WebTV, but as the cheapest on-ramp
to the much-hyped information superhighway, it's a big
breakthrough for people who can't afford a computer
system. Until now, the internet's reliance on the
computer as its only vehicle has been widening the gap
between the haves and the have-nots. Rich folks got to
check out services, job leads and a slew of on-line
magazines while others were left wishing and wondering
about those cryptic www addresses that snuck into TV ads,
billboards and magazines.

At $329, plus $69 for optional keyboard, WebTV is a much
more affordable way to get on the net than a web-worthy
computer system. Considering the number of manufacturers
competing for the Internet-TV market (through set-top
boxes, gaming system cartridges and TVs with built-in
web-browsing capabilities), we're likely to see these
prices get even lower, making the Internet a more
democratic medium.

"But you can't compare WebTV to a computer," you say. As
one etowner put it, it's one-fifth the price for
one-fifth the capabilities. Very true, but add to this
equation that WebTV is much less intimidating and you can
see why it's enticing to people who have no interest in
any computer function other than getting onto the net.
The remote control makes it easy to browse, and you can
switch from the net to a TV show with the touch of a
button.

Some other plusses: it's basically plug-n-play, logging
on takes less than a minute, the image looks good on a TV
set and it offers e-mail for up to five users. The
LineShare feature lets your call-waiting come through
while you're on-line and remembers where you were on the
web when you resume. There's a front slot for the
addition of a SmartCard that will let you insert your
credit card when you want to make purchases through the
internet. And a little blinking light tells you when you
have e-mail messages, just like your answering machine.

Bringing the internet to the family TV will inevitably
create new conflicts since televised broadcasts today
will wait for no one. Almost every household has had to
create a solution to the TV power struggle, an unspoken
agreement about the amount of time any one person gets
control of the remote. But what happens now when your kid
looks up to you with puppy eyes right smack in the middle
of the best Yankee game of the season and says, "I have a
homework assignment to look up the US Patent Office on
the Internet. May I use the TV?" If WebTV takes off, we
just might see a surge in the divorce rate right around
Super Bowl Sunday.

Potential conflicts aside, it's clear that WebTV is
likely to be a big hit, especially with the holiday
season approaching. For under four hundred bucks you can
give someone you love a warm welcome into cyberspace.
It's a sweet gesture, but it's also a good idea to
consider the fact that the $20 monthly fee can turn your
generosity into the gift that keeps taking.

What's that website doing in my living room?

Whether we like it or not, the internet is bridging its
way from computers to television sets, which will soon be
available with web browsing ability as an added internal
feature. There's a certain logic to this. After all,
isn't the web just a primitive version of interactive TV
with still graphics yearning for animation, abbreviated
sound bytes and an eruption of text? Web designers are
already racing to fill our desires for eye candy by using
moving image technologies like Java and Shockwave to make
web pages come to life. Before we know it, websites may
turn into television programs you can talk to. Most major
television networks already have websites that offer
programming information. And NBC has shown its commitment
to the convergence of media by offering Intellicast
Broadcasting which allows you to get interactive with
your favorite TV shows through the use of an add-on board
in your computer. Now, "Homicide" fans can play an
on-line whodunit to solve a crime along with the TV show.

My guess is that after some moments in the living room
spotlight, WebTV will get relegated to secondary
television sets in dens, kids rooms and home offices. For
users not fortunate enough to have an additional TV, I
suggest this: try creating a detailed scheduling plan
surrounding shows and including ESTs (estimated surfing
times). Considering the amount of TV programming
available, this can be such a daunting task that it's
best managed through an effective spreadsheet program.
Any decent computer will do for handling one of these.
Hey! Wait a minute! We do need our computers for the web
after all!

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Greetings From Italy

Gastronomic bliss, electronic culture shock

by Carla Diana

February 13, 1997 -- As a person who's lived in [Image]
New York all her life, I knew that moving to Rome
for five months to study design would require some
adjusting.

Emotionally, gastronomically and linguistically, the past
few weeks in the land of sweet wine and majestic statues
have been close to blissful. Electronically, however, I
haven't acclimatized so well. Despite being only one
generation removed from my Italian roots, the appliances
that came across the Atlantic with me are a nagging
reminder of how much of a foreigner I really am.

Eleven angry Italian neighbors don't make for a fun
night, as I discovered the first time I plugged in my
laptop (which can run on either 220 or 100 Volts).
"Maledizione! Porca miseria! Cosa successa?!" It seems
that I broke a circuit that controls lights for the
entire apartment building. Before sheepishly emerging
from my doorway and 'fessing up, I practiced my
apologies, and then introduced myself as one of the new
group of Americans that just moved in. The situation was
resolved quickly; I've decided to use the laptop with the
power converter I brought, and my neighbors have reverted
to the smiling buon giornos that I've grown fond of
hearing.

A pre-trip visit to the local Radio Shack was all it took
to get the converter that changes 220V to 110V, which
gadgets like radios, razors and laptops can more easily
digest. But I was upset to see what a bulky box it is,
nearly three inches long. (That's a small deal in most
situations, but every cubic inch counts when you're
packing for five months in two suitcases.) I crossed my
fingers and hoped this baby would do the trick, and it
does.

But I'm continuously unplugging, moving and replugging it
to maintain a supply of juice for my American appliances.
As if an oversized power converter weren't enough, I had
to toss in an assortment of plug adapters to change two
flat prongs to three cylindrical prongs, two horizontal
prongs and a vertical one to two cylindrical ones, three
cylindrical prongs to two, etc. Ideally, a converter and
a set of adapter plugs for each appliance would have made
life swell, but the cost held me back (about twenty bucks
for each converter and adapter set). An extension cord
was on the "to bring" list that my four apartment-mates
and I compiled before taking off, but still there is a
limit to the number of appliances we can use
simultaneously.

We'd planned on setting up shop as comfortably as
possible by carrying over a telephone/answering machine,
but we still found ourselves out of luck. Either the
AC/DC adapter that came with the phone doesn't work with
the converted frequency, or it's broken. In any case, we
can't replace it here, so we just hope that our friends
and families, accustomed to leaving messages at the beep,
will still love us when the phone rings off the hook.
Also, the phone jack doesn't accept a standard American
modular plug, but we found an adapter at the Sunday flea
market.

Every day we discover another way in which we fail to
connect with our Italian counterparts, be it the little
stud that screws into the camera to attach it to a
tripod, the different videotape format (good thing none
of us brought copies of our favorite Simpsons episodes),
or the fact that most Roman homes don't use clothes
dryers (I don't think that pair of jeans will ever be
dry).

Our failure to feel like members of the European
Community has made it a little harder to adapt than we'd
expected, but we're not complaining. Minor frustrations
are a small price to pay for the ever-present aroma of
fresh-baked bread, the delight of discovering an
interestingly shaped doorknob or light switch, or the
thrill of strolling along marble ruins once trampled by
great emperors. The small details that we take for
granted in the rituals of everyday life at home provide
daunting challenges along with a heightened sensitivity
to cultural differences. As designers, this is the best
education for which we could hope.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

No Place Like Home

Americans: We're uglier than I'd thought

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, July 23, 1997 -- I used to think that [Image]
American and European cultures were basically the
same thing, except that over there they had better food
and a predisposition for languages. I was wrong. After my
six month sojourn in Rome, returning to the States was
both comforting and frightening. No other group of people
is willing to put as much work into being constantly
entertained and pampered as we are.

Consumer electronics are a big part of our cushy cocoon.
The home theater craze happening here is not nearly as
big in Europe, where open squares, outdoor cafes and
public events are a central part of daily life. We
construct our environment from the inside out, filling
our homes with entertainment devices and designing
pedestrian-unfriendly roadways outside our doorsteps and
individual, manicured lawns. Building communities and
supporting public happenings are nowhere near as
important as cultivating the insular American dream of
the private house. On a typical day, my housemate looks
up from her video-game screen to see me in shorts and
running shoes and says, "Are you actually going out to
the world now?"

My first American social event this summer was a barbecue
on July 4 (a day when the sky is, in fact, the limit).
Taking a break from outdoor activities I stumbled upon a
group of people sitting in front of a projection TV,
another group fighting over a computer keyboard, and a
final few in the game room clustered around a TV set and
camcorder, watching a videotape. I looked a little closer
at the video and suddenly realized it was filmed that
day. I was actually at a party indoors watching a
videotape of the same party.

Sure, it's easy to be snide, but I'm having trouble
remembering why I was into all this stuff in the first
place. I've returned to the maintenance of not only my
two cats, but my computers, stereo, phone, caller ID, air
conditioners, and three VCRs which my boyfriend keeps
methodically and maniacally running simultaneously
throughout the day. The computers have caught viruses
from one another; the universal remote has lost all its
programmed codes; the car battery's dead; and the phone
inevitably rings as soon as the food hits the dinner
table. Sigh! I feel like my neglected appliances have
banded together to make me pay for my six-month absence
with a litany of headaches. Maybe that 40-hour backlog of
"ER" and "Dr. Katz" tapes that were recorded while I was
away will help me recover.

Entertainment may be the artery-clogging byproduct of our
sedentary lifestyle, but no one does it better than the
U.S. Our movies, music and television programs are
distributed throughout the globe so that teenage Italian
serenaders strum Nirvana songs and Simpsons-watching
Australian five-year-olds advise their fathers not to
"have a cow." In a culture that brings us something as
decadent as John Woo's "Face-Off" (chock full of large
explosions, an Orwellian prison complex, and the piece de
resistance, the isolated flesh of John Travolta's face
floating flaccidly in a vat of liquid) you'll never be
left asking "where's the beef?" We may be guilty of
sequestering ourselves in our living rooms but we are
united in our pursuit of entertainment, collectively
watching the white Bronco ride off into the sunset.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Object Overload

Less is more ... or is it?

by Carla Diana

SANT'ANTIOCO, ITALY, June 11, 1997 -- In [Image]
Manhattan, where a square foot of floorspace is
about as coveted as a Vatican jewel, the accumulation of
stuff is a constant preoccupation [especially in my
apartment -- Ed.]. "The less, the better" was an unspoken
credo I shared with neighbors when I lived in the East
Village. Getting rid of a slightly ratty couch or a pile
of unhip clothes was a source of pride and a spiritual
catharsis worth boasting of to friends during an evening
gathering. I can still remember experiencing the rush, as
if the physical act of getting rid was a necessary
precursor to gaining greater control over life and making
room for the future.

Living in Italy, a country whose culture focuses on its
ability to keep intact precious items -- buildings,
paintings and artifacts -- has challenged this point of
view. As I sit writing this column from the island of
Sant'Antioco, just off the coast of Sardinia, the human
tendency to collect objects takes on new meaning for me.
Sardinia is filled with "nuraghi," fortress-like ruins in
the shape of round towers built between 1800 to 500 B.C.
One part of me marvels at ancient construction efforts
and the excitement of being able to touch something that
was used by people so long ago, while another part
wonders why in the dickens these particular piles of
rocks are left to stand untouched and uninhabited while
structures throughout the world are being demolished to
make room for new buildings. I'm not talking about one or
two "nuraghi," you see, but rather a network of remains
of some 7000 structures on an island smaller than New
Jersey. In addition to the towers, there are several
museums housing the trinkets left behind by the ancient
peoples: vases, tools and bronze sculptures.

"Look at all these things!" I exclaim with delight as I
read about the artifacts in preparation for my travels.
Yet that's the same sentence I mumbled with disgust when
touring the flea market in Cagliari, Sardinia's port city
and capitol, this Sunday. Amid the hamster cages, cheap
cameras and old porn tapes were other questionable items
such as a Commodore-64 cassette tape disc drive, a bulky
"portable" tape recorder, and a super-8 camera, complete
with a single roll of Kodachrome 40 film. These were
painful reminders of how much junk there is in the world,
filling our landfills, creating eyesores in our homes,
and burdening us with more decisions about how to manage
all the stuff.

With all the products in our culture that are
unfortunately designed for "obsolescence" (that is,
created with the knowledge that they're not going to last
too long either in style or function; quasi-disposable),
I wonder when the things we now hang onto will become a
burden. After all, we're usually not predisposed to hold
onto other people's stuff. Recall George Carlin's
observation on the nuisance of having long-term visitors
in your home, sort of: "Their stuff is junk, but your
junk is stuff!"

Down the block from the house where I'm staying, the
repaving of a well-populated square has been suspended
indefinitely due to the discovery of an Etruscan urn
under the street. Similar situations were common in Rome,
where torn-up streets can be seen around every corner,
and plans for expansion of the extremely limited subway
routes are always interrupted by the disovery of ancient
ruins. What would an Etruscan think about our hanging on
to another urn? Would it be similar to how someone today
would respond to the veneration of an old piece of
Tupperware? At what point in time does other people's
junk turn into stuff?

The real quandary, of course, is deciding what's precious
and what's not. Etruscan urns and bronze statues are kind
of cool: they're handmade of dense, durable materials and
take interesting forms. They've retained rich textures,
developed new patinas, and offered us a window into the
past that we wouldn't have otherwise. Early '80's
computer peripherals and cheap plastic ashtrays aren't
quite so compelling, and we've got much better ways to
record our history. At some point it's time to clean out
the attic and 'fess up to the fact that we've bought into
our disposable society by wanting the latest innovation
long before the old one was ready for the graveyard.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Online Commerce

Giving new meaning to the phrase 'window shopping'

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, April 8, 1998 -- A [Image]
frothy cappuccino, a crumbly blueberry scone and
the latest glossy hardcover from the National Design
Museum: this kind of luxurious coffee break is inevitably
what happens when I steal a few moments to stop into the
nearest Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore. Y'know what
doesn't happen? I don't buy books.

When I really want to buy a book, I go to Amazon.com (the
online merchant which boasts being "the world's largest
bookstore"). The whole transaction takes two minutes if I
(and the necessary telecommunications apparatus) am
especially efficient.

The bookstore? How arcane! It takes 20 minutes just to
get there. Then I have to wait on line at the info desk,
physically find my book on the shelf, then wait on yet
another line at the register. And that's if I'm lucky
enough to find what I want there. If not, I'd have to go
to another bookstore (all the while maintaining the
energy it takes to smile cheerfully at each store's
salesperson -- I am a New Yorker, after all), sending me
yet another 15 minutes out of my way, just to have
someone perform the search that I could do in a flash in
the privacy of my home.

While books are a particularly good model for this system
(as are digital products like images, audio files and
software, as Howard Blumenthal pointed out in When Worlds
Collide), online shopping is expanding to apply to other
goods. Online supermarket services such as www.peapod.com
let you buy groceries and humble incidentals like shampoo
and batteries on the internet and have them delivered to
your home or office.

While the continued growth of online shopping might be a
natural progression for a networked interactive medium,
it seems ironic that corporations are putting billions
into the construction of megastores in major cities.
Anyone who has visited one -- those New York theme-park
tourist attractions like Niketown, the Warner Brothers
Store and the Swatch Timeship -- can see that simple
sales of jogging shorts and stuffed Tasmanian Devil toys
aren't supporting the extravagant displays and
elaborately crafted environments.

Instead, these "brand cathedrals" (as the British
magazine Design called them) are gigantic 3D corporate
identity ads. The physically located store in this case
functions much the way my local bookstore does for me:
it's a nice place to look around, but I wouldn't want to
buy there. After a visit to Niketown to learn all about
the latest high-tech fabrics and ultra resilient
air-pocket-laden shoe soles, consumers can go to a local
discount shop -- or better yet, to the convenience of the
Internet, to have purchases delivered to their doorsteps.
For them, the store becomes a product museum.

As a designer, I take particular delight in seeing the
retail store turned into a design showcase. On the other
hand, I cringe at the thought of the physical location
eventually being cut out of the purchasing loop. When
people start buying products based on two-dimensional
images and product specs alone, they'll be ignoring the
aesthetically crucial object qualities, such as weight
and texture, that contribute to a person's interaction
with the product. The irony of online sales is that when
the traditional browsing and impulse buying do not take
place, the whole experience becomes less interactive.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

PC Design

The transition from office to home

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, October 8, 1997 -- [Image]
Efficiency expert Ratbert to a bemused Dilbert,
as both stare at a computer screen: "Those words in
boldface look like they're sucking up the ol'
electricity." (From "Casual Has Gone Too Far," a
collection of Dilbert cartoons by Scott Adams.) It's no
wonder that the PC is an important prop in the satirical
corporate environment of the popular cartoon, "Dilbert."
It's a product that has fallen victim to a pathetic
office aesthetic that encourages sterility and grayness.
(Or shall I say, "putty-ness"?)

While it's true that some PC manufacturers are starting
to bring more innovative designs to new computers, the PC
hasn't evolved from its piecemeal components -- it's
barely one step removed from an ugly TV set connected to
a pared-down typewriter. In the workplace, where the PC
first entered many people's lives, many environments are
contrived so that the objects say, "you're no different
that the guy in the next cubicle." Unless you work in a
creative field (in which case you probably have the
blessing of using a Mac, design-wise one step ahead of
its IBM-compatible counterparts) the boss probably wants
the kind of uniformity that will create the illusion of
an industrial environment, with no distractions or
splashes of color. If one office brought in a PC that
somehow looked like it was styled or meant for an actual
human being as opposed to a robot, the manager might be
perceived as being frivolous. Let's not forget the
puritanical-work-ethic-turned capitalist credo. The PC
isn't friendly? Good! A hardcore work environment likes
its PCs awkward, cryptic and nondescript.

Since their introduction into the market, PCs have been
identified mainly by the description of their guts: 486
or Pentium, how fast, how large a hard drive. In general,
industrial design is often mistakenly perceived as being
merely decorative, introducing extraneous styling or
unnecessary gadgetry -- a distraction and a waste of
resources. What's ironic is that the PC's lack of good
design has made it more difficult for the average worker
to use, so an attempt at bringing seriousness and
efficiency to the office resulted in a real waste of time
and resources. PC support systems comprised of highly
skilled computer "experts" were created to service the
needs of people who had trouble operating their machines.
Many of those calls for help were in response to simple
needs, like locating the on switches or installing
software.

Of course, these hard-to-use office tools gave rise to
the revenge-of-the-nerds geek counterculture in the
American workplace. People who understood and got along
with the enigmatic computer were suddenly perceived as
being more valuable assets to the office. This gave some
a reason to actually defend the sorry state of PC
affairs.

The status quo of bad design continued until the PC
started becoming truly personal and moved into the home.
This meant that the market would be driven by human
needs, and not by the decisions of some pasty,
desensitized purchasing agent in a corporate office.
Currently there's a struggle for the computer to find its
identity, both in its transition from office to home and
in its new role as multimedia communications device.
Whereas people may not have a strong opinion about what
they use in the office, consumers will resist investing
in the hardware for home use unless they feel that it is
designed for them.

As in so many situations in life, we might benefit from
taking our cues from children. They're not afraid to show
their enjoyment of small victories and the subtle,
sensual pleasures that happen during interaction with our
created environment. They have no shame about enjoying
knobs, switches, colors, textures and sounds, and they
demand that the tools they use be fun and easy to work
with. Wondertools, the Compaq/Fisher-Price
hardware/software creation for kids is a step in the
right direction. Though it still doesn't address a
redesign of the entire computer (the hardware replaces
the keyboard only) it shows a willingness to rethink PC
design, rather than accept the idea that it must
necessarily be an impersonal, utilitarian device.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Pint-Sized Audio Gear

Ain't nothin' like the real thing

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

November 25, 1996 -- "Hands off!" is the message [Image]
kids usually get after their first few
experiments with the family stereo.

Sure, today's youngsters are spoiled by loads of
electronic games and interactive learning toys, but what
happens when your five-year-old wants to listen to music
by herself? She's not quite ready for her own delicate
audio gear, but that make-believe radio you got her two
years ago just won't cut it anymore. What she needs is
one of the new children's electronics that look like toys
but perform like the real thing. A cross between
playthings and audio gear, these products offer fun,
durability and a volume-limiter switch for parents -- to
preserve your child's ears as well as Mom and Dad's
sanity. Big buttons with a few simple functions (like
play, stop and rewind) make them simple to use while
letting your kid feel like she's in control.

Sony, one of the pioneers in this category, continues to
offer its successful My First Sony line with a Walkman,
tape recorders and microphones for kids to sing along.
They're chunky, sturdy and colorful, although their use
of strict geometric shapes and primary colors on white is
a little cliched for today's tykes.

Another red, white and blue favorite, the Playskool
Cassette Tape Recorder with Dual Sing-A-Long Microphones,
is quickly becoming a kids' classic. It's one of the
sturdiest tape players I've seen, but locate that volume
control switch. Quick! Two screaming toddlers amplified
through sing-along microphones on top of a Barney
recording can make you feel like the Road Runner's anvil
just landed on your head.

Meanwhile, Toshiba has made its pact with the Tasmanian
Devil [my man! -- Ed.] by featuring Warner Brothers
characters on its Toontronics line of products. While
they're marketed for kids, I think Bugs and Tweety aren't
quite as hip in their eyes as they are to dinosaurs like
me in the 20-and-over crowd. The characters look cute,
but the personal stereos have pretty standard overall
designs (gee, boxes -- how, um, exciting). For an
up-to-date licensing dream come true, the Toy Story
characters will continue to be stars this holiday season.
In the film, Mr. Mike is the robot who thinks he's a
cassette player, and Playskool has followed the craze
with its Mr. Mike Voice Changer Tape Recorder, which lets
your kids play recordings in normal or robot voice.

Another Disney-inspired personal stereo features the
overgrown mouse with his dimpled face plastered on a
sing-along tape player, walkie-talkie and personal
stereo. The headphones sport Mickey's gloved hands
positioned right over your kids ears in a "hear no evil"
kinda way. His omnipresence is a bit spooky, I must
admit.

Although Mickey can be scary to a grown-up like me, my
prize for the most nauseating kids' electronics goes to
the Barbie line of bubble-gum pink products. Along with a
Discgirl, clock radio and personal stereo, there's a
pretend cellular phone that lets your child hear Barbie
exclaim an inspirational, "Let's go shopping!" over and
over. Before you know it, your daughter will able to say,
"Oooh, I hope Ken can come over and show me how to turn
this icky mechanical thing on!"

One group of kids' audio equipment that really sings is
the Nickelodeon line, which includes the BlastBox
cassette AM/FM boom box, the CD BlastBox and the BlastPak
personal stereo. It's the only stuff I've seen that dares
to be funky while retaining the simplicity kids need. All
the products feature exciting designs with a
mad-scientist lab look. Squiggles, off-center graphics,
generous squishy "green slime" accents and offbeat colors
accompany well-thought-out details like large tactile
buttons and mesmerizing dials. Even the adults who caught
a glimpse of my BlastPak let out an envious, "Hey! *I*
want one!" I suppose I should've loaned it to a kid for
an opinion that really counts, but I didn't want to give
it up. [Carla has been listening to her inner child. --
Ed.]

It's clear that youngsters have got it made this holiday
season. Too bad the grinch who stole colors and exciting
forms has left us adults with black boxes and Chiclet
shapes instead of the fun stuff kids have.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Pint-Sized, Living Large

Life on the road with portable products

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

ROME, March 27, 1997 -- Many people who read [Image]
Gulliver's Travels wonder what it felt like to be
the giant in Lilliput. Now, as I live surrounded by a
collection of miniature travel accessories, I have a
better idea.

While I've been grateful that the existence of portable
appliances has allowed me to bring so much with me to
Italy, I haven't gotten used to the proportions of the
objects around me.

My makeshift sound system consists of a personal stereo
and portable "sports" speakers (a handsome set,
affectionately referred to as "Ross" by one entertaining
etowner). When I need to turn down the volume, my fingers
itch for the comfort of a bulging knob, but instead have
to contend with the measly dial that pokes out of the top
of the tape player. Advancing a cassette can't be done
easily with a stretch and a backward lean while sitting
in a dining chair. Only the clumsy procedure of holding
the thing with one hand and pressing the buttons with the
other yields successful results.

My laptop, while not the most powerful of its kind, is
delightfully small and light. It's a dream when packed in
carry-on luggage, but looks puny when dwarfed by the
hefty, five foot long desk in my apartment. My eyes have
just begun to adjust to the smaller screen, but my hands
still battle for room on the scaled-down keyboard.

At the end of the day, when my eye-hand coordination is
at its most pathetic, I have to do fine surgery on the
back of my mini alarm clock as I squint at the face to
set the time.

As if the diminutive stature of the things in my indoor
environment weren't enough, the Lilliputian trend seems
to continue outdoors. I have to turn sideways to let
people pass on the narrow cobblestone streets. A
Volkswagen bug, the "little guy" on North American
highways, towers over the Fiat parked next to it.

Yes, it's cute; it's charming; it's a reminder that every
day is an adventure. Still, I wonder if the buttons,
knobs and displays of my travel gadgets had to scaled
down as much as the objects themselves. Should I have the
opportunity to design portable electronics, I'll keep in
mind these frustrations.

Much as I love it here in Rome, I'll know I'm home the
day I see a skyscraper, a T-Bird and a full-sized
computer keyboard.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Poetry In Motion: Kinesthetics

Celebrating kinesthetics -- design beyond form

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, January 28, 1998 -- [Image]
"What is beauty?" This one's stumped 'em since
Plato's day. We're tempted to think it's something
external, to be viewed or listened to as an outsider.
Some say it's skin deep, but I say that the appreciation
of beauty can go right through to our muscles.

The esthetic I'm referring to is about experience and
motion, about the human muscle interacting with an object
when we flip a switch, turn a knob, or pedal a bicycle.
Often referred to by designers as "kinesthetics," it is
ultimately the kind of pleasure we experience through
playing an instrument, though it can be felt in the most
simple of activities, like lighting a match or winding a
watch. It's in the subtle and overlooked moments in
everyday life that the designer can make a difference.

In consumer electronics design there's been a severe lack
of attention to kinesthetics, with the answer to many
interface problems being a distillation that resulted in
the ubiquitous small, black button, or worse, the
membrane keypad. (Fortunately, computer keyboard
designers include a distinctive "click" and springy
resistance to the keys so that even in the fraction of
the second it takes to type a single character, one gets
the satisfaction of physically feeling like the key is
touched completely and accurately.) The traditional Bell
telephone offered the satisfaction of slamming the
telephone receiver down on the base after an angry phone
call and feeling the plastic collide, followed by the
echo of the ringer letting out a little murmur. Now, the
blip of pressing the "talk" button on a cordless doesn't
quite do the same thing.

When I control my stereo via remote control, the
sensation of pressing the "volume up" button doesn't feel
as related to the action of jacking up the volume as does
the twist of the wrist when I turn the knob. A car today
could easily be controlled by a couple of buttons or even
a touchpad, a la 007, but when making the big motion of
turning the steering wheel we more fully engage our
bodies in the activity of driving.

Knocking the whole realm of electronic products for a
lack of mechanical poetics isn't exactly fair. Some CE
designers have come up with a few subtleties that stick
out in my mind. For example, there's an elegant
kinesthetic to the way the Bose Acoustimass speakers
rotate in the hands, offering just enough resistance to
make the experience satisfying while maintaining the
grace of the gliding motion of one surface on top of the
other. The Sony Sports Walkman is really fun to open and
close, letting out little clicks when parts lock in
tightly, and letting the user feel the cushioning force
of the rubber gaskets. And Bang & Olufsen have taken it a
step further by letting the gesture of waving a hand in
front of a CD player be the force that opens the console
doors. [Meaningful contributions also abound in the
high-end audio community -- for instance, the giant knobs
on an Audible Illusions preamp. -- Ed.]

Much of the lack of engagement of today's products has to
do with a lack of cooperation between engineers and
designers, where the techies on a given project focus
only on efficiency and function, while the designers are
relegated to making just a discrete shell. In the best of
all worlds, product planners would be more openminded
about having both engineers and designers involved in the
early stages of product development to allow the
subtleties of kinesthetics in design to shine through.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Putting WebTV to the Test

A good set of wheels doesn't make the road any smoother

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

January 15, 1997 -- As a consumer electronics [Image]
critic, I regularly dole out complaints about
products. Last week I got a chance to put one of my
favorite products, WebTV, in front of an even harsher set
of critics: my parents. For Christmas, I showed up on
their doorstep with a Philips/Magnavox WebTV unit and
wireless keyboard, gift-wrapped with glad tidings from my
boyfriend and me.

Why would I subject my dear folks to the agony of
fruitless searches, the disappointment of meaningless
content, and the mind-numbing ennui of waiting for
webpages to load up? [Harrumph! -- Ed.] For one thing,
they've expressed interest in this thing called the
Internet for some time now. My mother -- as someone who
can start out looking up Mark Twain's birthdate, go
through six Encyclopedia Brittanica volumes, one World
Almanac and a Physician's Desk Reference, and end up
researching antidotes to Mad Cow Disease -- seemed the
type of person who could enjoy exploring cyberspace. Add
to this the bonus of their being able to e-mail me during
my impending extended visit to Rome, and I had a surefire
gift. Even if they had no use for the Web, twenty bucks a
month for unlimited e-mail is a pretty good deal.

Getting a computer was out of the question. The
unfriendly interface was intimidating to them -- why
force them to learn to use a mouse if you can get a
remote control to do the same thing? -- and way out of my
price range. WebTV, on the other hand, didn't require a
separate workstation or demand that they leave the
comfort of the couch to use it, so it quietly joined the
mountain of black-box set-top appliances.

Due to my family's excruciatingly discriminate tastes,
gifts are always bestowed with a patient understanding
that they might have to be returned. Since this one was
no different, I stood anxiously with receipt in hand as
we set it up (a breeze) and walked my parents through a
brief tutorial. We surfed through etown.com, which looked
pretty good, then The New York Times online, which looked
not so good. After programming some "favorites," sending
an e-mail message and checking the weather in my mother's
native Milan, my parents found surfing the Web to be
frustrating at times, but exciting enough to be worth the
effort.

There were some minor drawbacks to the hardware. The
remote control was well laid out, but its black buttons
are not terribly visible against black background and
have miniscule gray legends, so that even the commonly
used "go" button is difficult to read. The keyboard,
basically a compact version of a computer keyboard, shows
a similar lack of attention to detail. Keys corresponding
to basic functions like "send," "search" and "scroll up"
are labeled using mote-sized gray letters. The function
keys themselves are the same size and shape as the letter
keys, so that the user must revive her hunt-and-peck
abilities to avoid making a mistake. Since a major
function of the unit is e-mail, the "@" key could have
been isolated so you don't have to press "shift" each
time you use it, and the "return" key could have been
labeled with the word "go" to correspond with the screen
prompts. All of these are small complaints, although my
parents didn't enjoy having to continuously remove
eyeglasses (distance and reading), Clark Kent-style, in
order to see both the screen and the keyboard. They're
now considering bifocals.

The legibility of a screen full of
not-formatted-for-WebTV text was my biggest fear, and not
an unfounded one. We came across inscrutable letters more
than once, but for the most part I was pleased with the
way most websites looked from the couch. Whether it's
pleasant to read long texts on the TV screen is a
different question. I'm pretty sure that my Dad, who'll
never give up his beloved newspaper, no matter how bad
all those black smudges on the furniture are, will soon
resent this interactive takeover of his TV set when my
mother needs to look up the Italian stock market right
before a round of "Final Jeopardy." Sorry, Dad, but look
at the bright side: WebTV's inability to print or
download text means that it's more likely to be used for
quick checks rather than in-depth research.

The overall verdict: WebTV remains an affordable,
low-maintenance, user-friendly interface, but the
Internet still presents obstacles to the casual user.
Searching for information can be a chore, waiting for web
pages to load is tedious and good content isn't always
the reward for a tenacious hunt. As the web continues to
grow, getting a handle on what's out there becomes a
challenge for both users and content providers, and WebTV
is only the first iteration in the development of good
surf-ware. For now I doubt my parents will spend much
time reading on-line magazines or participating in forum
discussions. What they will do is use their WebTV as an
up-to-the minute living room/library reference tool when
they need to look up museum information, check theater
schedules, find out the weather and, of course, e-mail
their darling daughter while she's on the road.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Seinphone

Jerry teaches us telephone etiquette

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, May 20,1998 -- I didn't watch the OJ [Image]
trial. I've never seen single episode of the
"X-Files." But I couldn't miss this Thursday's big
televised event: the final Seinfeld episode.

Jerry, you see, is a man after my own heart. In his
celebration of the minutiae of everyday life, he doesn't
miss a beat when it comes to commenting on the cultural
importance of objects. His last show went through a
rundown of the crucial considerations of using
telecommuncations devices. Here's what he's taught us.

Rule #1: The performance of the equipment should be
matched to the importance of the call. When Elaine needs
to call a friend who's in the midst of a personal crisis,
she makes her first faux pas by placing the call on her
cellular phone while walking down the street. The call
gets interrupted by interference, and Jerry scolds her
for her egregious error. "The cell phone call is the
lowest form of phone call," he explains, "It's pompous!"
[Oh, like *he's* not. -- Ed.]

Rule #2: Call acceptance hierarchy. Don't end an
important call by taking another one. When Elaine finally
calls her emotionally fragile friend back (from her home
phone), she cuts her off when she hears from Jerry on
call waiting. This is another huge blunder. Her friend
knows that she lost in the "phone face-off," and,
according to Jerry, "that's worse than the cell phone
walk-and-talk!"

Rule #3: Timing matters. After her first two strikes,
Elaine attempts to call the distressed friend during a
few free moments before she heads out for the gang's big
trip. Once again, Jerry comes to the rescue and explains
that "you can't make a call like that when you're going
out the door." She agrees, but then had the audacity to
contemplate calling from the plane. This, of couse, leads
to more Seinfeldian scolding (see Rule #1).

By the show's end, the "New York Four" find themselves in
prison, and Elaine still hasn't had the sympathetic
conversation she owes her friend. At this point, she has
the foresight to consult Jerry by asking if a call from
prison would show an acceptable measure of concern. It
would not only be all right, he says, but it might make
up for all the previously insulting uses of communication
devices. After all, you only get one call. "The prison
call is the king of calls," he concludes, leading us
to....

Rule #4: Location, location, location. Where you are when
you place the call is a crucial consideration.

I'll miss Seinfeld, but I've loads of respect for a guy
who knows when it's time to move on. A show that claimed
to be about nothing was in so many ways about everything.
Perhaps its success lay in the way its characters'
obsessions so often mirror our own, even when they
revolve around consumer electronics.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Snapshots of Tunisia

Camera formats battle it out in the Sahara

by Carla Diana

ROME, April 10, 1997 -- Africa was the last place [Image]
in the world I thought I'd be having revelations
about the pros and cons of film formats. But there I was,
enjoying my spring break with friends in front of a
campfire in the Sahara desert and thinking to myself,
"Y'know, leaderless drop-in film loading really is a
convenient feature!" I considered discussing it with our
native Tunisian guide, but he was still too fascinated
with the magic of our flashlight to pay heed to anything
else.

With the possible exception of suburban New Jersey,
Tunisia was as far from my own culture as I had ever been
(and, incidentally, the backdrop for much of Oscar's
favorite soppy epic, "The English Patient"). Awestruck,
my fingers feverishly hit the shutter release button on
my brand new Minolta APS (Advanced Photo System) camera.
My travelling companions shared my trigger-happiness, and
we continued snapping photos of turbin-sporting locals,
mules, flamingoes, sand dunes, sunsets and oasis palm
trees.

The pinnacle of our trip was a dromedary ride into the
heart of the desert. [Got a problem with the word
"dromedary," dear readers? Get a dictionary, you wimps.
I'm not going to do all your work for you. -- Ed.] Aside
from the obvious advantage of being able to take panorama
shots of endless expanses of sand, I discovered my
favorite APS feature: drop-in loading. (Just slip in the
film cartridge and close the flap -- no dealing with the
leader, that little piece of film that sticks out of the
roll, and no messing with the inside of the camera.) I
never really had a good defense for those who quipped,
"Who cares about not having a leader on your film?
There's nothing tough about loading film, especially with
an auto-load 35 mm camera." I can now say that loading
film from atop a dromedary is no small feat, and there's
nothing more damaging to the inside of a camera than
Saharan sand.

My friend Seth was the first to complete a roll of 36
exposures using his 35mm camera. I had an APS 40-exposure
roll loaded, so I was set for a few more shots. Since his
dromedary lumbered next to mine, I watched the beast
become increasingly more ornery as its rider tried to
balance himself. While struggling with an open camera
resting on the camel's back he manipulated the new roll
with his fingers. He almost managed to latch the naked
film onto the little teeth inside the camera's cavity
when the animal decided it'd had enough of my friend's
fidgeting. It bucked, sending Seth flying in one
direction and the open camera into another. Seth's fall
was broken safely by the powdery hills, but his camera
was a mess. Scratches on the outside of the lens
abounded, and the tiny abrasive particles found their way
into nearly every moving part, both inside and out.

After a serious heart-to-heart with his camel [I *love*
this column! -- Ed.], Seth remounted and our caravan
continued. My film ran out shortly thereafter, and within
a few seconds I popped open the film-load door, dropped
in the cartridge and got set for some more
picture-taking. While the sand still managed to find its
way into some exterior crevices, my camera survived its
days in the desert, and if Seth is nice to me, he just
might be lucky enough to get copies of all those African
sunsets that his camera missed.

Long before my trip to the south, I'd been well versed in
the benefits of APS like drop-in loading, smaller camera
sizes, a sheet of thumbnail prints (similar to a contact
sheet) for ordering reprints easily, and the ability to
choose among three print shapes (normal, panoramic and in
between). Unfortunately, I was also too familiar with the
drawbacks: higher prices for film and equipment,
difficulty in finding the film in stores, and the
commitment of investing in a brand new format. Why should
someone discard the tried-and-true 35mm format for
something just being introduced? In the past I
recommended the APS system only with hesitation. I still
wouldn't tell anyone to get rid of a perfectly good 35mm
to switch to the new format -- but for the traveller in
the market for a new, automatic, easy to use camera
(like, for example, a person whose camera got totally
ruined by an episode with a camel and the Sahara desert),
an APS model will serve well.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

His and Hers

Yes, there is sexism in product design

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, November 5, 1997 -- [Image]
When I was seven I had a Matchbox car collection
that was to die for. Once, while I was playing with a
Camaro and a pickup truck, another kid's mom saw me and
exclaimed with disgust and disbelief, "Those are yours?!"
The message was loud and clear: there were toys for girls
and toys for boys, and my desire to play with the latter
was strange behavior. Fortunately, I decided to embrace
my strangeness rather than suppress it, growing up to
follow my interests into engineering and design. [Now
that you mention it, though I enjoyed my Matchbox cars, I
was never too enthused about my Civil War action figures.
Too macho. And that led ... well, never mind. -- Ed.]

Even as adults, the "toys" we choose to play with give
off clues about who we are, and product design provides
many props that reinforce or break down stereotypes.
Social distinctions become linked with visual codes, such
as associating women's objects with delicate powder-pink
pearlized finishes, and men's with black or gray and
hard-edged geometric shapes. Take a product like the
razor: the mechanics of the man's and woman's razor are
the same, but design turns them into two distinct types
of products.

In some cases, consumer electronics design is
refreshingly unisex, such as the bright yellow sports
lines of portable audio equipment which speak to a way of
life, rather than an age group or gender. On the other
hand, CE in general can be viewed as one of the worst
culprits of gender-specific design. The black boxes and
cryptic controls that have been standard outerwear for
stereo receivers, VCRs and tape decks communicate an
exclusively male aesthetic in the same way that pictures
of little boys on the package of a toy chemistry set do.
CE fetishes have given men an opportunity to bond with
one another in an exchange of shop-talk-like specs about
subwoofers and tweeters, turning the home entertainment
system into the garage of the indoors.

So what if stereos are designed with men in mind? Women
still get their teapots and dishwashers, don't they? With
men losing all sorts of privileges to women, why not
leave them with these remnants of their masculine
identity? The obvious problem with these attitudes is
that they perpetuate the communication gap between the
sexes; they maintain outdated design traditions that grew
from times when men and women led very separate
existences, and women were excluded from many aspects of
society.

If domestic appliances like irons, washing machines and
cooking ranges are going to remain the female domain
while the guys get all the good stuff -- objects whose
sole purpose is recreation and entertainment -- there's
bound to be a conflict. With so many instances of both
men and women working full time, housekeeping as well as
playtime become shared activities. New divisions of labor
in the home mean that the systematic exclusion of women
won't work anymore. (That's right, guys, we want you to
change diapers and let us control the stereo once in a
while.)

At the same time, men can get something out of the
democratization of design by being relieved of the role
of technical expert. Nowadays, instead of complaining
about how user-unfriendly a design is, a guy might feel
compelled to struggle with it and get into the techie
details in order to prove his machismo -- the human
equivalent of the peacock showing his feathers. This is
absurd in a couple of ways. Of course it limits the guy's
freedom to express his feminine side -- I thought I was
treated badly with my Matchbox cars, but that was nothin'
compared to the little boy who brought a doll into the
second grade. Still worse is the fact that he's going to
pay money for a poor design that he has to waste time
learning to use. Perhaps the severity of the
VCR-flashing-12:00 syndrome has finally given men an
opportunity to admit electronic limitations.

Women's updated roles in society have made them a bigger
part of the decision-making process when it comes to
family purchases, and manufacturers are starting to wake
up to this by marketing to us both in design and
advertising. Let's hope this will result in more
enlightened product concepts, as well as an interesting
way for American industrial design to evolve.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

How Small is Too Small?

Consumer electronics' great disappearing act

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, October 22, 1997 -- [Image]
The philosopher Hegel once wrote that "there is
nothing in heaven or on earth which does not contain in
itself being and nothingness." He probably never thought
that those words, meant to describe human consciousness,
would be applied to something as banal as consumer
products, but in the case of electronics, they seem to
foreshadow a trend toward product invisibility.

Today, we witness the speed of technological development
through the shrinkage of electronic components. Computer
systems that occupied an entire room now can be the size
of a notebook. Modems once as big as a shoe box can fit
comfortably onto a VISA-shaped PCM/CIA card. Super-thin
LCD screens can replace their chubbier CRT ancestors.
What's more, our ability to digitize information has
placed entire libraries onto a few compact discs -- or in
the immaterial world that is cyberspace.

The smallness of the components that make up our
electronic appliances gives designers new freedom. Once
they were limited to designing a shell to hold necessary,
bulky components; now they have the freedom to experiment
with more sculptural forms. The mass of the object itself
has almost no relation to its inner workings.

On the other hand, recent affections for extra-small
gadgets have threatened to erase the role of the designer
from the product development process. Some technology
gurus predict that speakers will disappear into walls,
becoming all-but-invisible flat-panel membranes, and the
walls themselves will turn into giant all-purpose screens
for program viewing, communications and general
computing. Remote controls and other physical interfaces
can be replaced by hidden voice activated sensors that do
everything from making coffee to balancing a checkbook.

The Motorola Micro-TAC telephone was the belle of the
ball when it was first introduced, yet its
design-worthiness came not from its form, but from its
miniature glory. If we so desired, we might soon have
tiny telephone components implanted under our fingernails
so that we have only to gesture with our thumbs and
pinkies whenever we want to reach out and touch someone.
And furniture could be reduced to invisible force fields
that gently support us in our favorite couch potato
positions.

Sure it sounds kinda cool -- for a while. But if left
unchecked this uber-modernist "less is more" trend will
lead to sterile environments, leaving us with homes full
of nothing. It's like having lots of really efficient
servants, but no real friends. As Ralph Caplan, author
and design writer says, "We need things. Things made of
stuff." After all, even the Jetsons had physical objects.

The bottom line in all this is that electrotechnology
introduces into our lives devices that function in a very
mysterious way. People once could see the mechanisms
around them and had a rudimentary sense of which gears
were touching and which springs were being activated as a
button was pushed (like the satisfying resistance of the
lever on a toaster). Now we have at best only a vague
grasp of how our electronic appliances operate. Human
nature makes us crave a connection with our environment,
and when you're an urbanite as I am -- several steps
removed from finding comfort in the great outdoors --
you're going to get it from the things that fill up your
home. So it's becoming more important than ever for
designers to show an acute sensitivity to creating things
that will enhance our contact with the constructed world
around us.

We've already started seeing a backlash to the
immateriality of technology. Stores like Pier One Imports
and the Pottery Barn capitalize on a desire to have
crafted objects made from natural, tactile materials in
styles showing a human influence in the making process.
Even The Gap, that bastion of mass-market consumerism,
has responded to our need to have sensual experiences in
the material objects of everyday life by marketing
fragrant candles and a "grass" room deodorizer --
literally, a block full of cut grass. (Go figure.) While
this lawn-mower-residue-cum-hipster-product fad might be
taking things a little too far, it shows encouraging
signs that we'll search for a balance between the
benefits and drawbacks of technology.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Ignoring Instructions

Good designs speak louder than use-and-care manuals

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, August 27, 1997 -- "While keeping [Image]
actuation switch depressed, turn adjustment knob
until Y-slot releases coaxial cable." [Stop, you're
turning me on. -- Ed.]

Huh? Why bother reading this junk when your fingers are
itching to get your new piece of electronic equipment up
and running? Studying directions like these sometimes
make you feel more confused than you were before you'd
seen them.

What some manufacturers don't realize is that clear
instructions on how to use the product are as much a part
of the overall value as the "on" switch. Whether through
design, component labels, or use and care materials, a
good product should communicate its use to the person
handling it. Cryptic or incomplete directions can lead to
hair-pulling frustration and dissatisfaction.

Many use and care guides are poorly written, and consumer
electronics, which can have as many buttons and knobs as
the cockpit of a 747, don't score high on the overall
user-friendliness scale. Miniscule type and poor layouts
offer few clues as to which information is more important
or should be read first. Often, instruction booklets are
little more than edited engineering spec sheets.

Use-and-care manuals written for a group of products,
instead of one particular model, leave the user wondering
whether she has the ZX101 with the adjustment knob in the
back, or the ZX103 with the adjustment knob on the side.
Manuals that are simply translated from another language
give advice that's culturally inappropriate -- for
example, a microwave oven booklet boasts recipes for
Dutch fish patties while skimping on instructions for
hotdogs. Furthermore, bad translations with awkward
grammar make you lose confidence in the instructions.

"But let's be honest," you say, "no one actually reads
those things." The satisfaction of getting your equipment
set up without reading the manual is akin to being in the
car and finding your destination on your own, resisting
the temptation of asking a stranger for help. It's the
same conflict:

"Honey, we've been lost for hours. Won't you
please just stop to get directions?"

"No! I'll find the #$%^& switch by myself or
die trying!"

Success may offer a good ego boost, but is all that
bravado really necessary? Ignoring the use-and-care
literature is an invitation to product misuse. Tossing
aside instructions may save a few moments, but ultimately
can waste time and possibly hurt the equipment. In
worst-case scenarios it can lead to damage that will void
your warranty.

Videotapes included with many new products are an
improvement when it comes to enlightening consumers. They
provide an introduction to a product, show its use by
visual example -- not just through potentially confusing
written instructions -- and often provide the extra value
of helpful tips. For example, a videotape that comes with
a camera would have advice on taking better photos,
including do's and don'ts. When the narrator says, "To
take photos of children, crouch down to their level," the
video can show a child, the photographer, and some
examples of good shots and bad shots, with a clear visual
demo of how the desired effect was achieved.

Videos are practical only for first-time setup, not as a
handy reference. Information in a video may be impossible
to find quickly, requiring the drudgery of fast-forward
and rewind searches. CD-ROM would make a better vehicle
for a use-and-care manual. You could search for help
topics, as you would in a book's index, watch visual
demonstrations, and hear audio instructions when
necessary. Until the household penetration of PCs
equipped with CD-ROM drives [hey, make that DVD-ROM
drives -- Ed.] equals that of VCRs, CD-ROM use and care
guides won't be an ideal option. Plus, computers aren't
always powered up and ready to go when you need to look
up something quick.

Ultimately, it's the designer's job to speak to the user,
before the latter even opens the instruction booklet.
Drawing on icons we're already familiar with, colors and
shapes to distinguish functional elements, and a logical
organization of components, a good design can be more
revealing than any written guide when it comes to showing
people its own use. Finally, manufacturers are starting
to face the dirty truth that use-and-care books often
stay untouched. By implementing designs that contain
helpful visual cues and on-screen menus, they show
they've gotten the message.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Interactivity a la Francais

France Minitel: Vive la difference?

by Carla Diana

PARIS/NEW YORK, July 9, 1997 -- Those French, [Image]
they always think they've got a better way of
doing things. They eat snails, sunbathe topless [you're
saying this is bad? -- Ed.], set up crepe stands instead
of hot dog carts, and think their wine is better than the
Italian variety (harrumph!). While they stand apart from
others, their snootiness doesn't make them provincial or
backward. Au contraire! They still get things done, and
sometimes better than anyone else.

My week in Paris -- after my long sojourn in Rome, a
beautiful but chaotic city -- made the French efficiency
seem even more clear. The beautifully cross-referenced
"Plan de Paris" is one of the best maps of any city that
I've ever seen; the extensive subway system is fast and
clean; and my credit cards were finally worth something.
Perhaps even more impressive than the wine service at
McDonald's was the Minitel, the small computer-like
device with a screen and a keyboard that has become a
permanent fixture in the homes of my French friends.

Minitel began 10 years ago as an electronic white and
yellow page listing, created and maintained by the phone
company, France Telecom. This service continues to be its
core no-fee service and contains all residential and
business listings throughout France. Users don't have to
specify a location, and searches can be done by typing in
only partial information, such as the first few letters
of a last name, or a first name and a city. The hardware
is provided free to any private telephone customer in
France, and a majority of the telephone-using population
is now Minitel-equipped.

Much more than a glorified electronic phone book, Minitel
functions as a limited, miniature, France-only Internet
system, with many networked services including banking,
plane, train and hotel reservations, stock market quotes,
movie listings, classifieds, user forums and Internet
e-mail. Each of these is accessed by dialing a four-digit
code, and a small fee, anywhere from ten cents to a
dollar a minute, is added to the subscriber's phone bill.
Minitel services can be located either by using the
on-screen search menu or the printed Minitel listing. The
system accesses information both for private and business
use, and some businesses, such as automotive repair
stations, have access to information that is available
exclusively on Minitel, like part numbers and inventory
status.

The Minitel service is no substitute for the Internet: It
won't allow for in-depth research of a particular
subject; it won't provide information outside France
(except through e-mail); it doesn't have the
sophisticated graphics or beefed-up content of the World
Wide Web. On the other hand, it is a brilliant interim
device that has succeeded in becoming mainstream in a way
that the Internet has not. It's much more affordable than
any hardware and Internet hook-up combination and it
offers user-friendly access to practical information and
services.

The Internet may have more to offer (just think, Minitel
users have no access to etown.com!), but searches for
exactly the right website can send frustrated users
running away from the mouse. With the continuing growth
of the Internet, it is going to become increasingly
important for software and search engines to help users
to quickly and easily obtain the kind of practical
information that a system like Minitel has to offer. A
Minitel search for "babysitter," for example (pronounced
"beh BEE seet hair," of course), will immediately yield
information about how to reach individuals and agencies
in the country who will care for a child while his
parents are away; it can then be narrowed down to one
particular town. An Internet search for the same thing
using a popular search engine, Lycos, results in more
than 2000 global listings, including information about
baby products unrelated to babysitting, background
information about the film "The Babysitter's Club,"
something called "Babysittervermittlung," and a link to
"Amanda & Malories Home Page," whatever that is. The user
well-versed in the logic of search strings might be able
to use the Internet to obtain the kind of narrow results
that Minitel provides, but in many cases the exhaustive
results of a straight search ends in user frustration,
not to mention a huge waste of time.

To Internet users, it may seem silly and downright
elitist for the France Telecom to have created its own
nationally contained pseudo-Internet system. Doesn't this
mean that the French turned their backs on the global
sandcastle construction of the real Internet? While
Minitel may cause some to lose interest in the Internet,
ultimately it could act as a gentle way of introducing
the general population to the concept of interactivity.
In the U.S., the Internet was presented as a sink-or-swim
proposition, with the technologically literate enjoying
greater buoyancy that the rest. More affordable,
user-friendly devices like Web-TV have helped bridge the
gap, but they were created only after the initial
stumbling. Minitel has gotten people accustomed to using
a keyboard and screen to request information, holding
their hands through the processes of searching and
navigating around a screen full of text. Now it's up to
France Telecom to go the distance and offer Minitel users
greater access to the Internet through more extensive
hardware and services.

Sounds like a good excuse for me to start planning
another vacation in Paris. If I had a Minitel system, I'd
book my flight online.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

It Slices, It Dices: Products that Function Too Well

Products that function too well

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, March 11, 1998 -- How [Image]
would you like to own a wristwatch that "uses the
vibrations of the Cesium 133 atom" to maintain accuracy
to one nine-billionth of a second per day? Or how about a
nose hair trimmer with "stainless steel precision cutting
blades rotating at 8000 rpm along the blade guard"?

I know. You didn't realize you needed these features, but
now that they exist, how could you settle for less?
Offered in the latest Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue,
products like these are a dream come true for the person
who thinks that multiple features or ultra-precise
function alone can make a product worthwhile.

Many people in the function-over-style camp roll their
eyes when I give an impassioned speech about the
importance of design in the joy of everyday life. They
sneer at the apparent frivolity of product aesthetics, or
the supposed pointlessness of focusing on the sensual,
psychological elements of design. Yet they'll go gaga for
super-precise, feature-laden products. They're ignoring
that they, too, are part of a large design trend, best
described as "hyperfunctionalism" or, as one German
design professor called it, "techno-baroque."
Masquerading as a functional-only "anti-style" attitude,
it is in actuality a distinct style in which added
functions and features become ornamentation.

Arguably, hyperfunctionalism has been a trend in consumer
electronics for decades, but now it's broadened to
include everything from tube socks to automobiles.
Hyped-up products often offer performance beyond what the
average user would ever need, like the bathroom scale
that measures to one-tenth of a pound and "is sensitive
enough to detect even one swallow of water," or the
oh-so-hip sport utility vehicle whose wheels never leave
asphalt.

Savvier designers are capitalizing on techno-baroque
tendencies by adding product details that visually
communicate the idea that the object has "enhanced"
functions. Sneaker manufacturers like Nike and Reebok
bank on it with in-store displays that list features
corresponding to tread-like ripples or clear plastic "air
pockets" that can be seen and felt when the shoe is
scrutinized. It's the psychological equivalent of
attaching extra springs and pulleys, Rube-Goldberg style,
to a lamp or toaster-oven.

Don't get me wrong. I think a product should, of course,
perform well, but the degree of necessary functioning is
so much less than what Consumer Reports die-hards are
looking for.

Hyperfunctionalism goes beyond being a fetish for the
physical qualities of the device, and plays into a desire
for knowledge about objects, much the way being
interested in sports is often less about athletics than
it is about the chatter that surrounds the game when fans
try to top each other with info and trivia. In today's
revenge-of-the-nerds climate, hyperfunctionalism is part
of a subculture that revels in minutiae, one-up-manship,
and the satisfying feeling of being in the know.

None of this is to say that there's anything wrong with
relishing the details of a high-tech gadget. (After all,
where would etown.com be without its hyperfunctionalist
tendencies?) But we can acknowledge that the function is
not always separate from the aesthetic, and has a
big-picture value above and beyond whatever physical,
tangible, functional characteristics we might think we
need in a product.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Italian Advert-Aversions

Comparing TV scheduling schemes

by Carla Diana

ROME, June 25, 1997 -- When it comes to TV [Image]
watching, Americans have accepted frequent
interruptions as a fact of life. A battering of
commercials intrudes upon even the most exciting,
heart-wrenching moments of televised drama. We just wince
and endure it like an inevitable pain, a recurring mental
hiccup during which we assure ourselves we'll be able to
restore the same emotional state we had before the
interruption happened. Commercials make our
consumer-oriented world go round; without them we
wouldn't have the newest shows or the fastest food or the
state of the art in carbonated beverages. We respect the
power of a system that has the ability to keep us
entertained round the clock, albeit with constant
reminders of how we can live longer, be thinner and act
smarter for less money and in fewer hours (freeing us up,
it seems, for more TV watching).

The Italians are not as tolerant of sponsors messing with
their TV time. They want their bread fresh-baked, their
wine mature and their TV shows intact. There are plenty
of commercials, but they're broadcast at the end of the
program in one long chunk. For example, instead of three
interruptions, each three minutes long, there will be a
single nine-minute break. This convenient lumping of
publicity is great for the viewer -- who is offered a
long break during which to grab a snack or go to the
bathroom -- but not so great for the advertiser.

Often the most important TV events in any given week in
Italy are the soccer matches. While 3-second, on-screen
brand-awareness flashes of corporate logos are allowed,
programmers haven't dared to schedule longer commercials
outside of the halftime break. Some fans claim the
non-ad-accepting nature of the soccer game as the main
reason why the sport hasn't become more popular in the
States. The action happens too quickly, and the structure
of the official soccer match doesn't offer long, regular
break periods during which ads could be sandwiched. No
time for commercials? Then there's no time for the
promotional spots that will make corporate sposorship
worthwhile, is there? Programmers could insert ads anyway
and risk robbing fans of juicy moments, but advertisers
in the U.S. opt instead for the more rhythmic (and
culturally ingrained) pastime of baseball, or the
frequently interrupted game of basketball.

The Italian tendency for wanting programs intact extends
to movies broadcast on TV. The puritanical censorship
commonplace in the U.S. -- preparing movies for TV by
cutting out questionable language, nudity, violence and
other naughty bits -- doesn't happen here. Instead,
movies not intended for children are broadcast in the
evening. The Italian desire to leave things intact
supersedes American emphasis on broadcasting any movie at
any time. In America, power resides with censors; in
Italy, with parents. Italians may demand better service
since they pay more than $100 a year for the right to
receive even the basic state-run stations. "Pay channels"
or cable cost extra.

Where the Italians have gotten it wrong is in the movie
theaters. Intermissions send lights blasting on suddenly
in the midst of a film, leaving the audience looking like
a pack of seated deer dazed by a glaring headlight. It's
horrible, but it allows people to go out for a smoke, ice
cream cone, or quick shot of espresso in the middle of a
movie. Furthermore, the movies prepared for Italian
theaters are usually dubbed, which is sometimes the worst
tampering of all since it means that the viewer must not
only trust that the dubbed dialogue is an accurate
representation of the filmmakers' intentions, but never
hears the real voices of the actors.

We Americans, perhaps spoiled by our stable political
structure, are too patient. We buy into consumerism with
blind faith that advertisers have more power than they
actually do. TV offerings have improved with cable and
digital satellite broadcasts -- they offer better, more
specific content -- but viewers don't get the most
convenient, uninterrupted service possible. Instead of
seeking better service by complaining to providers, we
opt for passive resistance by "time shifting." We zap
through commericals when we play them back, or invest in
VCRs equipped with a commercial fast-forward feature.
That is our secret revenge.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Judging By the Cover: Electronics Publishing

Cardboard and plastic surround our ethereal digits

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, July 22, 1998 -- When it comes to [Image]
consumer electronics, creative packaging design
is not the first thing that comes to mind -- many items
are sold in anonymous brown cardboard boxes with cryptic
model numbers printed on the side [barring a few
exceptions such as accessories and
home-theaters-in-a-box, which often come in highly
communicative color packaging -- Ed.]. While the
equipment itself isn't dressed in anything fancy, where
software media are concerned (i.e. discs, cartridges,
cassettes), packaging becomes a critical element of the
total design concept.

In the case of music CDs, most of the package is
inseparable from the product, since the jewel box stays
with the CD throughout its life. Mesmerizing as the CD
is, with its iridescent reflective surface and the
satisfying snap-fit of the disc into its case,
design-wise it went through a rocky introduction. In the
shift from LPs to CDs both artists and record labels have
had to contend with the loss of space -- the CD is a
fraction of the size of a 12-inch LP -- on which to
reinforce an identity and market a product. In many cases
the CD graphics were just a scaled-down version of the LP
jacket, and the design didn't always translate well to
the smaller space. Beyond the cover, lyric sheets and
liner notes now had to fit into this miniature package,
leaving everyone involved in the creative process of
package design with a much smaller canvas.

At the same time, store owners suddenly needed to
reconfigure shelving spaces to fit the new format, and
consumers had to adjust to the idea of paying more for a
physically smaller object (though often one with extra
tracks and longer running time). The quick-fix to the
sizing quandary was the "long box" which was just as tall
as an LP jacket, but no wider than the CD inside it.
Though clearly a waste of material, it offered more room
for eye-catching graphics, filled the psychological gap
for consumers and made it easier for store owners to
adapt LP shelving for CDs.

Consumers' guilt got the best of us when we became aware
of the overwhelming waste of cardboard and plastic that
went into making a 12-inch long box to house a little CD.
Some innovative packaging designers created a long box
that could fold up into a small cardboard jewel case, but
by '92 major recording companies stopped using long
boxes. They opted instead for the kind of packaging we
have today, with jewel boxes encased in protective
plastic wrapping (still a pain in the neck to open, but
not nearly as annoying as having to scrunch up those
cardboard or stiff plastic boxes).

While the CD has nestled into a comfortable strategy for
packaging, designers will be left with greater challenges
when dealing with new formats. In a sense, digital media,
as far as the physical product is concerned, will be all
packaging. As the physical nature of the medium shrinks
or disappears, the package will be all that's left to
give a sense of the presence of the contents. Just think
of the pride people take in large record collections,
savoring the experience physically cataloguing each item.
What happens when all that's left is software that can be
simply downloaded?

Today, software and CD-ROMs are still sold in extremely
wasteful packages, with oversized boxes that are mostly
full of empty space, like the joke birthday gift that's a
tiny present wrapped in an enormous box. Pretty soon both
designers and consumers may have to become more
comfortable with the concept of "virtual packaging" --
that is, icons or screen images that represent what the
product is.

While the idea of virtual packaging is a little worrisome
to someone like me who revels in the joy of the physical
object, the overall concept is intriguing, and the
opportunity for using moving images and 3D graphics to
identify a product may lead to more creative product
identities.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Kids' Electronics

Turning red and green (with envy) for the holidays

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

December 12, 1996 -- For my 29th birthday (yes, [Image]
my first 29th) I took a trip to a couple of toy
stores. My mission was twofold: First, I needed to do
some research for my next column and second, I wanted to
feel like I'm still a kid, keeping in touch with my
"inner child," as some might put it.

With my consumerism-loathing, "all things corporate are
evil" boyfriend in tow I scoured the aisles, taking
notes, playing with samples and shoving little tykes out
of our way. (It was my birthday, after all.) The day
started out fairly well. I saw lots of the products I
already knew about from press releases and trade shows,
but soon I became overwhelmed. The shelves in the
Toys-R-Us electronics section started looking like an
endless collection of dream-gadgets. My boyfriend and I
darted out suddenly -- me in a fit of jealousy (where was
all this stuff when I was a kid?), and he to escape the
ordeal of spending so much time next to in-store
point-of-purchase displays. After the hyperventilation
subsided I faced the fact that I'm a year older and yes,
kids today have got it good. Well, the rich kids do, that
is. This stuff is not cheap.

The big stars of electronic products for kids continue to
be the gaming systems. Leading the pack are the Sega
Saturn, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64, each for about
$200. I tried to get in a game with everyone's favorite
Italian-American, Super Mario, but the toy store crowd
was so fierce that I had to give up. If your kid's
already got a gaming system and there's no way you're
shelling out the dough for a new one, there are dozens of
new control pads, steering wheels and joysticks that can
enhance his mastery of the digital competition.

If you'd like your child to learn a little more than mere
eye-hand coordination, there are lots of electronic
learning aids (ELAs) for kids aged 2-1/2 to about 12.
Most have LCD screens and keyboards that fold up,
laptop-style, to get children used to the look and feel
of a computer. VTech makes many of the talking ELAs and
has vastly improved the quality of the synthesized voices
since I first started reviewing them six years ago --
when many sounded about as clear as the school teacher
from Peanuts. Products like PC Fun and Alphabet Desk
start out with basic activities like teaching letters,
numbers and phonics, while more advanced ones like the
Talking Whiz Kid series come with computer-like mice and
activities that teach geometry, music, science, geography
and algebra.

If your kids have access to a computer with a CD-ROM
drive, then you'll be better off with software that
covers the learning activities you're looking for. The
advanced color graphics and high-quality sound you get
through your computer will make the ELAs look really lame
in comparison. Kids software has been around for a while,
but it's only recently that manufacturers have started
tailoring computer hardware to fit children's needs.

Compaq and Fisher Price have teamed up to offer the
Wonder Tools Keyboard and Cruiser, two products that
replace your keyboard and mouse (each one sells for under
$150 and is recommended for ages 3 and up). The keyboard
features big buttons, a touchpad and thoughtful details
like vowel keys that are color-coded to distinguish them
from other letters. The Wonder Tools Cruiser is a
super-friendly interface that allows kids to navigate
through special software (CD-ROM for Windows 95 and 3.1)
by using a steering wheel, horn, throttle, play phone,
number pad and joystick. Products like these help make
the computer seem less like a daunting putty-colored
grown-up machine and a lot more like something that's fun
to use.

Virtual sketchpads like the Sega Pico and the Sony
HB-A5300 ($99, pictured under "see photo") let kids
create drawings on the family TV screen using a pen-like
stylus on a special surface. Nothing on a screen is as
good as a tangible paper-and-crayon drawing that can be
added to the refrigerator art gallery, but both
electronic units let kids edit their drawings on-screen,
and the Sega model has animation capabilities.

Play telephones have always been popular, and today
they're a lot more satisfying than tin cans on a string.
The V-link portable communications system for ages 7 and
up gets kids hooked on cell phones early. Shaped and
styled like a real flip-phone with a keypad and LCD
screen, it works like a sophisticated walkie-talkie with
a range of about three blocks. Three-digit codes can be
programmed in to act like telephone numbers so kids can
dial between phones, and it even has a voice-mail
feature.

The store shelves have some new toys for the young
paparazzi in your life. The Tyco Videocam for about 100
bucks needs to be hooked up to your VCR in order to run.
In other words, it's basically a camcorder without the
"corder" part that works by sending black-and-white video
signals to your VCR for live recording. I'm sure it's
pretty cool at first, but just how many videotapes of the
living room can your kids make? Unless you feel like
toting your VCR all around the house, it'll get boring
mighty quickly.

One camera toy that gives kids the freedom and autonomy
lacking in the Videocam is the Fisher Price Creative
Effects Instant Camera (about $55). The digital black &
white image is fairly crude, but your kid has total
control over everything, including the printing. The
picture shoots out of the camera like a Polaroid, and you
can buy special paper to output pictures onto pre-printed
backgrounds or greeting cards.

I survived my day in the toy stores (which is more than I
can say for the bank accounts of the parents I saw there)
and lived to subject my boyfriend to a late showing of
101 Dalmatians as my final birthday wish. Even in my old
age I love looking at kid stuff, but if you see my mom,
please tell her that this is not a hint.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Let's Do the Time Warp: Video on Demand

Longing for video-on-demand

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, April 29, 1998 -- [Image]
It's amazing that in an era when we're sending
our robot surrogates to Mars, videoconferencing overseas
and farming human livers inside a pig, I still have to be
in front of a TV at 10 p.m. (or have had the foresight to
program my VCR for that time) if I want to catch E.R.

The VCR was originally conceived as a device to help
solve this problem via "time shifting" -- literally,
taking a televised event that occurs at one time and
allowing it to happen at some other time. While scheduled
programs that occur live, such as sporting events and
political speeches, make sense as fixed events in time to
be broadcast on schedule, so many other programming
options do not.

That's why video-on-demand seems like a too-long-awaited
solution. It would work much the way pay-per-view works,
but with a much more extensive selection. A list of
programs are available (or you can do a search for what
you'd like to see) and you choose what you want to watch
when you want to watch it.

While several venues for providing video-on-demand are
technically feasible, its slow start seems more related
to questions about marketing and profit margins than to
the inability to find desirable applications. Some
video-on-demand services go for a substantial fee, and
have found lucrative business applications. The
possibility to download video feeds from the net (see
RealMedia) has also been growing, with an
extra-enthusiastic push from the porn industry.

Video-on-demand has a much more pedestrian, mainstream
application: allowing the average TV viewer to control
what he or she watches, and when. It seems obvious that
this is something that would make any consumer happy. So
what's the holdup?

For one thing, content providers have to feel confident
that people will suddenly be willing to pay fees on top
of what they already do for cable or satellite service.
More important, video-on-demand takes the advertiser, AKA
the cash cow, out of the loop. If the viewer is choosing
what he wants to see, why would anyone ever watch the
annoying commercials that fund today's programming? What
could motivate a content provider to promote an
application that sets the audience free to watch only
what it wants to watch? While infomercials and shopping
channels do have their faithful viewers, the tried and
true commercial interruption (no matter how untimely)
offers advertisers the most for their money: a captive
audience.

I have faith in the modern-day entertainment businessman,
however, and feel confident that someone can find a way
to force-feed us enough product placements and
brand-awareness devices to make video-on-demand
worthwhile to someone. In the meantime, I'll just keep
honing my VCR programming skills and making frequent
trips to the video rental place so I can feel somewhat in
control of my TV viewing.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Milan Furniture Flair

Television sets get louder

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

ROME, April 23, 1997 -- While at the Milan [Image]
Furniture Fair (Salone Del Mobile), an exposition
of the boldest new designs from around the world I
thought, "This is it." This was what my five months in
Italy were all about. This showcase of color, form and
material was design with a capital D. Showrooms contained
every kind of large object you'd find in a well laid out
home, with one glaring exception: home electronics.

Perhaps decorators and designers think that all consumer
electronics are peripheral accessories, dotting the
landscape of the room like subtle accents, and meant to
be treated as virtually invisible elements. This attitude
doesn't quite jibe with reality. Though Europeans focus
less on home theater than Americans do [because they'd
rather go to the opera and other in-the-flesh cultural
events -- Ed.], their living rooms are still set up the
same way [perhaps suggesting that we exert a cultural
influence of our own, but not always a positive one --
Ed.]. The furniture revolves around the hulking mass of
the TV set and entertainment system. Like a Cyclops of
flickering light and beckoning sounds, it commands the
attention of everyone who enters the room. That this
mesmerizing thing can be ignored as a significant piece
of furniture seems absurd.

Designs that glorified the television, radio or Victrola
were common decades ago. People savored the time spent
huddled around the precious machine as if captivated by
the delight of a living thing. The decorative trend
deteriorated into units with chintzy veneers or massive
wooden boxes with small details on the facade. Instead of
taking on the challenge of designing a TV set or
speakers, furniture designers often opt for developing
networks of cabinetry meant to camouflage their contents.
Consumer electronics manufacturers go along with this
logic by providing uniform black boxes. Essentially,
consumers are sold the "guts" of their TVs stereos and
home theaters, with a minimal housing to keep it all
contained. While this makes sense for many people,
diverse and creative options would make for a more
inspiring living environment.

One feisty designer from Finland named Timo Salli took a
stab at home electronics. His Milan showroom, an exhibit
called Snowcrash, featured a 21-inch TV nestled into a
translucent acrylic box. Pressing a remote control caused
the inside of the box to emerge, exposing the screen and
interior of the TV. Though it was still a container, it
celebrated the device in a jewel-like display, instead of
hiding it in shame behind cabinet doors, as many
entertainment units do.

This was a brave step in a new direction. Let's hope it
leads the way for more inventive approaches to home
electronics.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Multimedia, the Blur Tool

As disciplines mingle, artist and geek become one

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MI, December 3, 1998 -- It's [Image]
human nature to classify, qualify, and quantify.
When strangers meet, their minds go through mental
gymnastics to try to fit each other into recognizable
boxes ("Hmmm ... opera fan, business major, likes
travel"). Many spend their lives honing their one-phrase
description to respond to the inevitable "What do you
do?" question: "I write about food trends." "I practice
family law." "I'm a botanist."

Technology is giving us a reason to beat around the bush
when describing ourselves. The availability of digital
tools is blurring the boundaries between disciplines,
allowing artists to learn more about technology and
engineers to build more creatively. Whereas a visual
artist once spent a lifetime collecting brushes and
paints, and a musician toiled over a piano keyboard,
computer software gives artists a palette on which to mix
many media. When you add file manipulation to your skill
set, you suddenly find that your computer is a canvas
onto which sights and sounds can be mixed. Plus, digital
artwork now affords the opportunity to add two new
elements: time and user control. In the end, whether it's
video, music, or graphics, it can all be stored on a
shiny little disc.

Within the art world, the effect has been dramatic,
exposing a need to break down an existing structure of
classifying disciplines. Many painters have used an
element of three-dimensionality through the texture of
the paint itself, but what's going on now is a radical
rethinking of graphic design, product design, sculpture,
printmaking, and painting. Three-dimensional modeling
software, which allows users to create realistic images
of three-dimensional forms (like the dinosaurs in
"Jurassic Park"), is changing the way designers present
images on a page. People who historically used flat
images are now experimenting with three-dimensional
letter forms, and sculptors and product designers are
doing more experimental CAD (computer-aided design) work.
Rumor has it that the metal-smith department of the
Savannah College of Art and Design, for example, is on
the verge of going entirely digital.

While digital arts allow sculptors and designers to make
fantasy objects that defy the laws of physics by
dissolving, floating, or otherwise morphing, it is also
allowing designers to reach a new level of physical
reality. That is, automatic fabrication techniques like
stereo lithography allow drawings to be turned into
objects without having anyone lift a finger. Kevin
Kelley, executive editor of Wired, explains it well in
the book "Out of Control": "First, an object is just
lines on a screen; then it's a solid thing you can hold
in your hand or walk around. Instead of printing a
picture of a gear, automatic fabrication technology
'prints' the actual gear itself."

So much for the arts -- this is the point at which the
techie enters into the picture. With so many creative
types embracing digital tools, a newfound respect for the
hardcore geek has emerged. What was once a mental block
about math and science is now an opportunity for another
branch of creative thinking. Just as the sculptor may
have obsessed over the smoothness of the clay, so, too a
programmer pores over the clean logic of newly created
code. In the end, the goal of both the ambitious artist
and/or the renegade scientist (a la MIT Media Lab) is the
same: to create new experiences.

In my most idealistic moments, I believe that computer
technology has brought a resurgence of the renaissance
man/woman. A more cynical read might predict that digital
tools put the artist/scientist at the mercy of the
software manufacturer and will lead to widespread,
uniform mediocrity. Either way, digital tools are giving
us more reason to break down stereotypes, and, if nothing
else, give a more interesting response to the age-old
cocktail party question, "What do you do?"

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Designing History: Henry Dreyfuss

America's secret affair with Henry Dreyfuss

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, August 6, 1997 -- "Industrial Design? [Image]
Oh yeah, I know. It's, like, building factories,
right?" That's the unfortunate response I've often gotten
when telling people what I do. Sometimes I wouldn't even
wait for an answer before going ahead with my stock
descriptions: "It's architecture on a small scale; it's
graphic design, only in three dimensions; it's in between
engineering and art."

Of course, industrial designers know about industrial
design, and graphic designers and architects often know
about industrial design. Modern art fans sometimes know
about industrial design, and trend-following furniture
collectors know as much about industrial design as they
need to make a profit. The general population, however,
often doesn't realize that someone else besides an
engineer was involved in conceiving of and creating the
lamps, furniture, electronics, kitchen tools, vacuum
cleaners, automobiles and train interiors that they use
everyday.

Lately I've been pleasantly surprised to overhear many
people talking about their experiences at the Henry
Dreyfuss Exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt National Design
Museum, Smithsonian Institution, in New York until August
14. "The Henry Dreyfuss Exhibit?!" I thought my ears had
deceived me. The name of this unsung hero of American
industrial design from the '30s to the '60s was the new
catchphrase of mainstream New Yorkers. Angels sung
Handel's Messiah above my head. Yesss! My day had come.
People were finally recognizing the work of industrial
designers. Well, some people, anyway.

Henry Dreyfuss, also known as "the man in the brown suit"
for his business-like demeanor and respectability (and,
of course, his wardrobe), was a pioneer in the field of
ergonomics, thinking about utility, safety and "fitting
machines to people" before focusing on external
aesthetics. This pope of pragmatism is credited with the
redesign of the Westclox "Big Ben" alarm clock, irons,
kitchen tools, Hoover vacuum cleaners, John Deere
tractors, Honeywell thermostats, and the interior of the
20th Century Ltd. train. But perhaps the work that has
most affected the life of the average American is the
Model 500 telephone, introduced in 1949. It's the
traditional black phone with a clear rotary dial and the
receiver with a chunky rectangular middle. Between 1959
and 1982, more than 93 million units of this model
[including my first phone -- Ed.] were produced and, like
Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Rodin's Thinker, it has become an
image imprinted on our minds. It's an icon and a valuable
part of American history [which is why I still have it.
-- Ed.]

It was shiny, black, and heavy. While dialing, you felt
the resistance of the wheel against your fingers and the
solid reminder of the finger rest (that little
comma-shaped piece of metal that sits in the 4 o'clock
position), followed by the sound of the click, click,
click of the dial spinning back to its original spot.
Think of how much easier it was to make an angry phone
call, inserting a finger into the hole, gesturing with
the entire arm to bring the dial around, then ending it
abruptly, removing the finger, and repeating the motion
with a sneer. Banging the receiver down onto its cradle
released a remnant jingle of the bells inside. [After
those mechanical bells made me jump out of my skin one
too many times, I stuck subscription blowout cards
between them and their ringers to control the clangor.
Now the phone gently purrs. -- Ed.] The push-button
touch-tone cordless phones of today may be elegant, but
they don't offer the same joys of physical interaction.

Besides being an important tool for home and office, the
telephone plays other roles in our culture. As a prop in
movies, plays and television programs, its often rings in
critical plot twists and segues. It represents our
connection with the outside world and our ability to
communicate globally. Henry Dreyfuss's original Model 500
phone served as the basis for all modern telephones --
many designs today retain elements of this early design,
even when that form is no longer entirely appropriate
(see Carla's Corner: Cutting the Cord). The details of
the experience of this particular object are shared and
remembered by many. Its designer is finally getting the
acclaim he deserves.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Digital Design Tools

Is the pencil still mightier than the mouse?

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, June 17, 1998 -- Some people say that [Image]
if the only tool you've got is a hammer,
everything else starts looking like a nail.

This may be an exaggeration, but it's true that the
limits of the tools available to us will affect the
outcome of any creative process. In industrial design,
where the sophistication of the software, hardware, and
eventual manufacturing process directly affects the
quality of the product, this is especially true.

One raging debate among designers over the last decade
has focused on the use of computer-aided design (CAD).
There's no doubt that CAD has provided a more efficient
means of working through the design process: no more
sweating over drafting tables with paper, pencil and ink
-- perfect lines and geometric shapes can be drawn on the
screen with the drag of a mouse; solid objects can be
modeled on the screen (using a Silicon Graphics
workstation or a modeling program such as Form Z) a lot
quicker and cleaner than crafting a physical model from
clay, foam or wood. One great benefit of CAD is the
ability to take greater risks in altering designs --
quickly working through variations and "what if?"
situations, where the designer knows that the original
drawing can be accessed in an instant.

In some cases, the product design process has become so
streamlined that sketches are made directly on the screen
and final designs aren't realized in three dimensions
until the part is ready for production. The controversy
arises from the feeling among some designers that the end
result of an entirely digital process is necessarily
inferior to one in which the hand is used to create the
design. For example, when you're given a palette of
geometric shapes in the menu of a computer program, you
may be more likely to use those shapes than to explore
form in a more experimental way.

The biggest drawback to designing products directly on
the computer is not getting to feel how the object fits
the hand or relates to the body. While there are plenty
of resources for determining the average size of various
parts of the anatomy (such as Henry Dreyfuss Associates'
"The Measure of Man and Woman"), there are still many
aspects of object/body "fit" that can't be determined
through the dry application of measured values. Think of
an object as simple as the telephone. It's going to fit
onto your ear, into your hand, on a wall or desk, and, in
some cases against your shoulder. [Cradling a phone with
your neck can cause spinal injury, however. A headset
phone is preferable. -- Ed.] Those variables, among
others, are best accommodated through a hands-on
trial-and-error method where designs and redesigns are
held and observed in three dimensions. While it's true
that these iterations will happen with physical
prototypes even if the designs originated on the screen,
the development of the forms may still have been stunted
by the origins of the process.

While the digital approach to design has been a growing
concern in the design community, there have been a
reassuring instances of "hybrid" design that is part
handcrafted, part digital. In these cases, the computer
is not the sole tool, but can be used to speed up the
process. Hand-drawn sketches can be scanned into a
computer or drawn with a digitizer, and then used as the
basis for draftings or even three-dimensional images.
Similarly, models can be roughly crafted in foam or wood,
then photographed and manipulated (using programs like
Photoshop) to change details or textures.
Three-dimensional scanners also exist that can reproduce
small-scale models in virtual space, so that the image
can go through further manipulation. In these cases,
designers still have the freedom to hand-create forms,
but they don't have to go through the tedium of every
stage of handcrafting models or drawings. This is truly
the best of both worlds.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

The Advent of Digital Photography

Waiting for digital cameras to grow up

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, March 25, 1998 -- [Image]
Like the ugly duckling with latent swan
potential, digital cameras were awkward in their first
generation. Initial designs bore some formal resemblance
to 35mm cameras, but the true beauty of this new, digital
breed of camera still hasn't fully emerged.

The digital camera I had while working on a website in
Rome last year was one of the clumsiest devices I've ever
used. After I pressed the main button (to take the
picture) on top of the large, boxy casing, the camera
chirped a confirming beep about a second later. In many
situations, a second may seem like a short time, but when
you've been spoiled by the satisfying feedback of a
traditional shutter release, it's infuriating. On top of
the frustration of miss-timed shots, the camera took a
few seconds to warm up for consecutive photos, so the
whole situation often added up to one giant misfire.

Most digital camera designs show few innovations over the
traditional layout of a 35mm camera. Models with
attached, revolving lens sections (a la Sharp ViewCam)
are useful, but don't take full advantage of one of the
inherent wonders of the digital camera: the fact that the
lens can be separate from the viewfinder so that the
exposed part of the camera is tiny and easily held, or
hidden (providing great paparazzi potential).

Poor resolution and data-storage hassles (often requiring
lugging around a laptop or returning to the "mother
station" to download) have been other thorns in the sides
of first-generation digital camera users. Ideally,
storage will become one of the digital camera's strong
points, since storage media can be smaller than
traditional film. [I love the Sony Mavicas unveiled last
summer, which store pix on regular 3.5-inch floppy disks.
-- Ed.] And resolution has continued to improve.

Digital "negatives" are fine, but some people may find
comfort in the sheer bulk of storing traditional
photographs. The stacks of photo envelopes and stuffed
albums (despite their problems of crumpling, warping, or
fading under plastic album sheets) serve as a tactile
timeline. Someone may not be organized enough to file the
photos in an album, yet may be able to know, consciously
or not, that the first two envelopes on the bottom of the
pile contain photographs from the trip to Mexico two
years ago, and the ones on top are from this past holiday
season. Digital storage techniques and two-dimensional
representations of a "pile" of photos -- as an icon on a
screen, perhaps -- may not offer the same opportunities
in terms of passively keeping track of our memories. Of
course, printed outputs of digital photos can provide the
best of both worlds.

On the other hand, our desire to hold paper may simply be
a fetish, like vinyl versus CD. A decade from now we may
be more comfortable dispensing with the tangible, and
will feel content to view photos on a screen. A picture
frame, instead of being a bulky combination of paper,
glass, and cardboard backing, could simply be a screen
attached to some digital storage device that brings up a
new photo with the turn of a dial.

Formats will change once we're not restricted to the
sizes offered for typical 35mm and we get accustomed to
looking at pictures on a large screen or monitor. The way
we formulate our memories could change so that otherwise
overlooked details such as the features on your
grandmother's face (or details in your first home, or the
fabric of your favorite shirt) will become crystallized
in a memory that's been reinforced by the digital photo
as opposed to a small, hand-held four-by-six.

At best, today's digital cameras represent this product
at the clumsy adolescent stage, but the flexibility of
digital photography holds promise for the emergence of a
sophisticated grown-up.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Electronic Moolah

Does a life of ease mean an invitation to Big Brother?

by Carla Diana

ROYAL OAK, MICHIGAN, September 10, 1997 -- The [Image]
promises seemed impossible to fulfill. A piece of
plastic would work like cash. You'd be able to have bills
paid automatically, without the hassle of fussing with
those primitive, perforated handwritten checks. You
wouldn't have to stop for tolls. Someday you might not
even have to check out items at the grocery store -- the
amount could be automatically detected from your shopping
cart and deducted from your individual account. A
magnetic reader would see who you are, and everyday life
would continue its approach toward "ease."

Just a decade ago, all this stuff seemed like sci-fi to
the average American, but today many of these automatic
systems have already been implemented. But are we really
ready for all these anonymous transactions?

It seemed to start with "direct deposit," which made a
marked difference in people's lives by automatically
putting paychecks into people's bank accounts. There used
to be one day a week when employees lined up at the bank
during lunch hour to cash or deposit checks. Stomachs
grumbled, feet ached and workers kvetched about taxes
while bank employees clammered to handle the overload of
customers. Direct deposit gave people with weekly
paychecks 50 lunch hours back. What was not to like?

Then came the use of debit cards to pay for purchases.
Suddenly, the supermarket checkout experience became
slicker. You could leave the house with just a plastic
card in your back pocket and come home with all the
groceries you needed. No more writing checks or holding
off on that box of Froot Loops because you forgot to stop
by the bank today to get dirty, crumpled cash. Heck, with
all this automatic deduction, you can already go for
months without making a single in-person bank transaction
or putting your John Hancock on a single check. (Not to
mention avoiding the added work of mailing checks with
your bills or filling out withdrawal slips. And licking
stamps? Yuck!)

The latest addition to our society's collection of
quasi-extra sensory money exchanges is EZ Pass. At first
glance, it's a wonderful thing. The electronic reader,
which lets drivers go through tolls without having to
throw cash into a tollbooth, works like Drano to unclog
our highways and eliminates the panic of wondering
whether you can get your wallet out and your window open
in time for the toll. Though the current system has you
stop briefly while a gate lifts, eventually drivers will
be able to whiz by without stopping or slowing down.

Designers and visionaries salivate at the high-tech
possibilities: public phones, parking meters, and movie
tickets can be automated. New applications crop up every
day, like the Speedpass which lets Mobil customers fill
'er up with just a wave of a magnetic keychain. And the
potential goes beyond money transfer to the realm of
identification for security purposes.

What could be bad? Lots. For starters, we may start
seeing innovative scammers cropping up every few months,
and victims can lose money without knowing what hit them.
Imagine the criminal who manages to duplicate the EZ Pass
reader to skim a nickel off each car that passes through.
EZ Pass just might be too easy -- after all, how many
people will bother to meticulously check each toll
deduction or keep track of how many tolls were passed?
Personal debit cards offer a nightmare on a grander scale
if charges can be deducted just by having someone pass
through a scanner. The years ahead pose great
electronic-watchdog challenges to the FBI.

Speaking of surveillance, what about our own personal
privacy? With all these electronic scanning contraptions,
detailed information about where we are, where we're
headed and what we ate for breakfast will be floating
around. As the devices get more sophisticated, the
information will become more specific. One
design-award-winning product concept last year featured a
doorknob with an electronic eye that allows access when
it reads an authorized fingerprint and matches it with a
database. The possiblity of being spied on will be more
frightening than ever, way beyond the situation that
already exists with today's extensive use of credit
cards.

If the invasions weren't offensive enough, consider the
possibility for nuisance marketing. In this land of
opportunity someone somewhere will find ways to take this
information and use it to turn a profit, so the time we
save at the checkout counter will be spent sifting
through junkmail, unsolicited e-mail and telemarketing
phone calls.

Reducing wasted time and aggravation may be a welcome
improvement, even if it does mean losing that warm, fuzzy
feeling of interacting with a human being. But before we
buy into electronic cash and send all our cashiers to the
unemployment office, it just might be worth an extra
effort to keep a few good ol' greenbacks floating around.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Energy Pinching Devices

Devices that leave you in the dark

by Carla Diana

ROME, May 5, 1997 -- I spent my first night in my [Image]
new apartment in Rome freezing under the covers,
for fear that the "heat police" would cart me away if I
got too toasty. The place where my friends and I live in
came equipped with a perfectly operational heater, but
we'd been told by the woman who rented us the apartment
(utilities included in a flat fee) that it was against
the law to leave the heater on while sleeping.

"The police will come in the middle of the night," she
warned us. "They'll look at your faces and see the sleep
in your eyes and you'll be hit with a huge fine!"

The more impressionable of us fell for it, but it didn't
take long before my Equadoran housemate stumbled out at 3
a.m. and headed for the heater in a half-conscious
craving for warmth. The reason for the vigilance was
supposedly fear of carbon monoxide poisoning, but now
that we've been here long enough to see how frugal the
Romans are with energy, we think it may have more to do
with our landlord's desire to save on utility bills than
anything else.

Those cold nights are gone now, but there are lots of
cost-saving measures that continue to be tough to contend
with. Public restrooms are often the scenes of such
indignities -- there are few things as degrading as being
caught in the dark in a public bathroom with your drawers
down because the electric eye was timed to shut off after
ninety seconds. After talking to friends I found that I
wasn't the only one left to wave her arms frantically as
if swatting a fly the size of a great dane in order to
reactivate the light. The sinks can be as obnoxious as
the stall lights. I felt sorry for the woman in the great
silk suit when she dripped soapy water all over herself
after repeatedly thrusting her hands under the sink's
stubborn electric eye to get a rinse.

And then there are the hallway lights in apartment
buildings: some need to be turned on by a switch, making
you grope at the wall like a lost soul trying to find his
way out of a cave, and many of these are set on
auto-timers so that any dillydallying on the stairway
will leave you tripping over the next step in the dark.
[I had similar problems at a fleabag hotel in the center
of Paris and at a similarly downscale rooming house in
north central London. Could this be a Europe-wide phenom?
-- Ed.]

Within my apartment there's more evidence of the
landlord's energy consciousness.The water tank holds
enough for four hot showers, and the five of us who share
the apartment get mighty competitive in the morning.
There's no electricity-guzzling clothes dryer, so doing
laundry is a three-day process involving decorating rooms
with the eyesore of sopping clothes on drying racks. We
swoon at the thought of taking a steamy bath when we get
back home and having a warm towel straight from the dryer
waiting to embrace us.

Not all the cost-saving devices are an aggravation. The
compact fluorescent light bulbs that are virtually
omnipresent in light fixtures do a fine job of lighting
spaces at a third of the cost or less, and electric eye
switches, when easy to use, can be both a cost-efficient
and sanitary solution for a public restroom. Though we
didn't appreciate the myth of the "heat police," we do
recognize the ultimate benefit of energy savings and
conserving the planet's resources, and will return to the
States with a keener eye for energy-saving appliances.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Farewell: Final Column

One last trip around the corner

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, NY, June 8, 1999 -- We've been getting [Image]
together on a regular basis since the fall of
1996. In this column, I've explored product trends,
examined cultural differences and celebrated the joys of
product design within the context of consumer
electronics.

In its early days, Carla's Corner explored some basic
themes in design and consumer electronics. In "Poetry in
Motion" I looked at kinesthetics, the physical
interaction between products and their users. "We Are
What We Wear" and "Pint-Sized, Living Large" examined the
freedoms that portable products afford us in our
day-to-day activities. "Pint-Sized Audio Gear" and "Kids'
Electronics" explored how manufacturers have been
catering to a vast new market -- the under-12 crowd. And
no self-respecting design column would be complete
without a nod to the past: "Designing History" was a
tribute to the American Designer Henry Dreyfuss.

In 1997 I took you along with me as I traveled through
Europe and northern Africa, examining design
sensibilities and commenting on the ways different
cultures embrace technology. From France ("Interactivity
a la Francais") and Italy ("Colors of Rome" and "Milan
Furniture Flair") to the Sahara ("Snapshots of Tunisia"),
I reported on object culture while putting my own
portable home office to the test.

In the past year, Carla's Corner has traveled to more
virtual than physical destinations. Recognizing that the
shrinking of electronic components is shifting the
emphasis from the physical object to the on-screen
interface, I focused on scrutinizing the interactive
aspect of product design. "How Small Is Too Small?"
addressed the shrinking of electronic components.
"Electronic Moolah," "The MP3 Revolution", "Digital
Photography" and "Online Commerce" all explored
de-materialization in consumer electronics.

In "Focusing on the Interface," I looked at the evolution
of the control surface in product design. "Digital Design
Tools" and "Multimedia: The Blur Tool" explored how the
growing sophistication of virtual interfaces and
computing has opened doors for artists and designers by
blurring the boundaries between disciplines.

Throughout the life of Carla's Corner, I've looked at
product design not only as a freelance journalist but as
a product designer. I've experienced the changes I
discussed in my column in my own design work. Like most
contemporary product designers, I've embraced digital
tools and have incorporated 3D animated images into my
presentations. I currently use traditional graphic design
principles in combination with 3D imagery to create
interactive environments, and I'll continue to develop
motion graphics within the realm of interaction design.

However, just as product design in consumer electronics
has reached maturation, so too has Carla's Corner. I've
decided to bid farewell to my readers as I pursue a
freelance career in multimedia design (you can visit me
online at www.technokinetics.com).

Thank you for your 2-1/2 years of loyal readership.

-- Carla Diana

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

# # #

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Focusing On the Interface

Putting design where it really matters

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, January 13, 1999 -- [Image]
Today's product designer can't help wondering
about dematerialization, the ability to create powerful
electronic devices that take up very little physical
space. Philippe Starck, one of the few rock-star-caliber
industrial designers of the '90s, was quoted in a popular
design magazine as predicting a dematerialized future. He
said, "If people ask for 'warm' you give them warmth but
no heater. If they want sound, then sound without
loudspeakers. If they want a toothbrush, the idea is to
make teeth clean without cleaning them."

Much as I respect Monsieur Starck's work, his vision here
leaves much to be desired. For warmth, the designer may
strive to produce the desired sensation without a
traditional heater, but the ability to control the heat
is still the essential material concern. This object --
heater, controller, thermostat, call it what you will --
offers an important emotional link to the environment.
When we come home on a cold, dark evening we find solace
in our ability to flip a switch to create light, punch a
few buttons on a phone to talk to someone, or simply turn
on a TV to escape for a while.

The phenomenon of shrinking electronic appliances cannot
be ignored, however, and innovations like flat screens,
thin speakers, and downloadable media allow our
components to almost disappear into the walls. Many of
the ornate mechanisms that went into simple traditional
operations like rewinding an audiotape or ejecting a
video (etown.com's Ron Goldberg likes to reminisce about
his auto-reverse audiocassette deck) can potentially be
replaced by a tiny chip. But losing such mechanical
functions has the unfortunate drawback of making products
even more enigmatic than they already are, with no visual
cues to tell you what's going on inside that black box.
When the object as we know it no longer exists, we become
more dependent on the interface to take on characteristic
material qualities that let us interact.

Whether it's the remote control, mouse and keyboard, or
onscreen menu, the interface is the only part of the
system that we actually handle on a regular basis, and
therefore it's the place where good design becomes most
critical. In addition to the physical interface, the
onscreen menu is becoming a more important part of many
appliances. Take DVD, for example: just getting to the
"play the movie" function sometimes requires choosing an
onscreen option. Some secondary or occasional functions
such as changing the clock on a VCR or adjusting the
color balance on a display screen are best served through
an onscreen menu: the ability to control them is
essential, yet they don't necessarily need to take up the
valuable real estate of an actual button on the remote.

While we're starting to see a lot of innovation in the
area of interface design, there's still much to be
desired. Onscreen menus, while valuable, are usually
cryptic and flat (each option looks like the next). Many
remote controls are still calculator-like in layout and
don't communicate a hierarchy of functions. The
opportunity for designers lies in focusing on presenting
functions intuitively (through tactile clues like color,
shape, size, and texture), letting natural human gestures
inform the actions needed to push buttons and turn dials,
and creating logical links between the 2D world of the
onscreen menu and the 3D world of the physical handheld
device.

Please feel free to post your comments in Your Two Cents,
a folder on our Message Board.

# # #

Appliances Get Smarter

Anticipating the evolution of computing

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, June 3, 1998 -- Regardless of whether [Image]
the Internet keeps finding its way onto TVs or
video displays onto computers, the world is spending
loads of time in front of display screens.

The flickering TV has always had a mysterious allure,
hypnotically stealing the attention of anyone entering
the room where it's turned on. Some researchers, such as
Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program in
Culture and Technology, say that our response is a
physiological reaction, an almost involuntary defense
mechanism for staying alert to changes in our
environment. [Thank heaven. I always thought it was just
because I'm an idiot. -- Ed.]

Now, at the crossroads of emerging and converging
technologies, product designers have a chance to respond
to new behaviors with regard to how we use
information/entertainment displays. It's questionable
that interactive technology demanding input from the user
can have the same allure as technology where we're simply
passive viewers. On the other hand, children being
brought up today will certainly process information
differently, being more likely to scan information by
grasping the whole image at once rather then reading it
piece by piece. They'll grow up more accustomed to
interactivity and thus, perhaps, more drawn to it.

Already, the idea of the PC as one all-encompassing
information device is being challenged, and one hopes its
outgrowth will go beyond the TV screen. I agree with
experts like Donald Norman, cognitive scientist
(currently working for HP) and author of the book "The
Design of Everyday Things." He's reported in this month's
"Wired" as foreseeing a future of "information
appliances" -- in other words, not one all-purpose
device, but separate task-specific objects, such as a
writing tablet, a time/weather clock, and smart phones
adept at delivering traffic updates. The Philips
Corporation's "Vision of the Future" project predicts a
similar destiny where a virtual doctor helps diagnose
your kid's sore throat and a virtual chef helps out in
the kitchen.

These scenarios seem to be the most humane ways to
integrate computing functions into everyday life. This
way, people aren't slaves to the computer -- they're not
forced to learn procedures to perform tasks. Instead, the
technology can be embedded in familiar objects so that
the tools we have are enhanced, and the technology is so
intuitive it's "invisible."

So maybe our TVs with their mind-numbing allure can
remain as entertaining they are now, without having to
act as computers. It's our computers that need to start
branching out to put brains into other objects.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Giving PCs A New Voice

Devices that assist the sight-impaired

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, September 24, 1997 -- [Image]
In the Netherlands, an extensive series of paved
bikeways run alongside the highways that link one city to
another. They are equipped with their own traffic lights
(which glow to reveal a red or green bicycle graphic),
destination signs like "Hoogeveen 20 Km," and easily
accessible on and off ramps. The terrain is flat, and
bikes can be rented cheaply at any train station offering
those without the ability to own or operate a motor
vehicle an easy means of independent travel. [If only
America were that civilized. -- Ed.] Seen from the
perspective of a bike rider, the wider highways alongside
the bike paths seem a wasteful extravagance. For the
visually impaired, computing technology has often been as
useless as a four lane highway is to the non-driver, but
some recent innovations have provided new opportunities
for electronic tools and cyber travel.

Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers coupled with
speech synthesizers tell you where you are, "speaking"
your position out loud, without need for a map or
compass. While I'd hate to see a good German Shepherd
lose a job (technology's flipside: brutal theft of job
opportunities for the labor force), this invention is a
monumental step towards giving the blind greater
independence outdoors.

Speech synthesizers alone have been a huge breakthrough
that's turned the computer into a useful tool for the
visually impaired. Through the use of screen-reading
software, words that appear on a monitor can be
transformed into synthesized speech and the user can hear
each letter that's typed onto the screen, allowing new
forays into the wide world of interactivity.

In some ways, the internet has threatened to be a
divisive force by creating a network of services
available only to those able to use a computer or other
surfing apparatus. The evolution of devices for the
disabled helps turn that obstacle into an advantage. A
blind person with tech savvy and access to the right
equipment can now enjoy the anonymity of the net. A blind
woman I know in New York is responsible for maintaining a
fetishistic Star Trek forum, and participants can share
her lust without knowing that she's never actually laid
eyes on those pointy ears or skin-tight duds.

With speech synthesizers readily available, blind people
can add a scanner to the mix and have hard copy read out
loud on demand. It may not offer the human touch that a
live reader would have, but I've seen "La Lectrice" --
the French film by Miou-Miou Vvor about a young woman who
gets into all kinds of trouble when she takes a job
reading books out loud -- and a mechanized virtual reader
can be much less politically involved than a live human.

Just as the Dutch bikeways don't offer the same speed as
the motor highways that run beside them, some elements of
today's interactive technology will continue to be
inaccessible to many (the wonderfully graphic elements of
the web, for example, cannot be verbally communicated).
Despite the limitations, good design for the disabled has
the power to offer new job opportunities, global
communication ability and greater self sufficiency.

More information on devices for the sight-impaired can be
found through the Alliance for Technology Access and the
National Foundation of the Blind.

# # #

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Cellular Phone Fetish

Roaming is something Italians do right

by Carla Diana

ROME, March 13, 1997 -- Maybe I've been hanging [Image]
around with the wrong crowd, but back in the
States, I don't have any friends who carry around cell
phones.

Here in Italy they're so common that the sound of the
phone ringing sends entire crowds of people reaching into
their purses and breast pockets en masse, as if in some
kind of Pavlovian ritual.

Much as I appreciate a fascination with consumer
electronics, this trend left me puzzled. Back at home I
saw two main groups of people who constantly carried cell
phones: There were the security-conscious, who wanted to
be able to call for help during an emergency, and the
neurotic workaholics so pathetically enslaved by their
jobs that they needed one to maintain constant contact
with the office.

The Romans are obsessed with cell phones. Grandmothers,
businessmen and hipsters alike can be seen chatting away
as they stroll down the street, sit in caffes, or ride on
their motorscooters. Mama's boys can be heard on the
train calling home to see when the pasta will be ready.
Many people I've seen whose cultural counterparts in the
States would never think of spending the exorbitant fees
for cell phone service can be found with phone to ear at
all hours.

Why, I wondered, in a country where people live to linger
in caffes, savor subtle cheeses and imbibe fine wines,
would such a disruptive contraption become so embraced?

For one thing, the Italians have a completely different
attitude toward the cell phone. For many Americans the
only phone calls important enough to warrant cell phone
use are business calls. I've often seen cellular or
beeper numbers exchanged when people want to keep a safe
distance from each other by not revealing home phone
numbers. Here, for the most part, it's the opposite. When
someone gives you her cell phone number, it's a social
coup: she considers you a close enough friend that she's
willing to be disturbed by you at any time of day. She
wouldn't dream of giving the number to some pasty
business colleague who's going to interrupt her evening
cocktails to discuss the latest fiscal report.

Communication is an integral part of the culture, and
being able to reach out and touch someone at any time, in
any place, has great value here. With this device
becoming such a personal and social item, it's elevated
to the level of a status symbol. Rather than being a
cumbersome add-on, it's a sleek accessory, worn as
comfortably as a new pair of shoes from Prada or a
Tag-Hueur watch. It's flipped open with flair, and spoken
into with pride and nonchalance, making the whole
exchange look pretty cool. And we all know how Italians
like to look cool.

But mere looks and convenience still don't provide the
entire answer for this social phenomenon. In a country of
recently united city-states, the most striking aspect of
the cellular phone is the empowering feeling of
independence it provides. Not only are there no cords or
physical restrictions, but there's no bureaucracy to deal
with, either. Whereas getting a phone for your home
requires proving your residence and dealing with the
government-run monopoly Telecom Italia, cell phones can
be set up immediately with a credit card and signature.
It's the perfect accessory for this culture of
free-spirited individuals.

If Roman Holiday were filmed today, Marcello Mastroianni
would be carrying a cell phone during every scene.

# # #

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Anticipating the Videophone

Just how intrusive will a video-call be?

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, July 8, 1998 -- When the telephone [Image]
first came onto the consumer scene, people
gradually made room in their lives for the new addition.
Space was cleared on tables and walls, and socially
accepted protocol for having a conversation, i.e. "phone
etiquette," developed.

How will videophones sneak into our lives if they turn
into full-fledged, acceptable-quality consumer products?

Clearly, the video-call creates a much more intimate
situation than an ordinary telephone conversation
(imagine those edgy post-first-date "still getting to
know you" chats if both parties could be seen as well as
heard). The videophone could change the way we live, what
we leave sitting on our coffeetables, even what we wear.
If we know that we should be prepared to be eyed at any
moment when a call comes in, we won't be so comfortable
lounging around in our undies. Whereas videophones may
first find themselves where PCs or TVs are, they beg to
be placed in the room where one would typically entertain
guests. We may even rearrange our space around the
videophone to be conscious of which objects callers are
seeing, which views of the room are most flattering, and
which locations are less likely to have traffic running
in front of the camera.

What will the ideal interface look like? We're tempted to
think of it as a telephone, but there's a completely
different interaction involved. If anything, it's more
like having a friend drop by and hang out for a while,
except that he's hanging out in one fixed location in
your home, and in two dimensions, of course. While the
social dynamic of saying "Hey, how're ya doing?" is as
ancient as can be, the equipment that enables it -- and
how intrusive this equipment is -- remains to be seen.
What kind of buttons will we press? How will we signal
that the conversation is over -- a wave goodbye, or a
digitally inspired variation on the handshake? How will
we screen calls? [Perhaps Caller ID goes from luxury to
necessity. -- Ed.]

A design colleague of mine had an interesting solution.
His videophone was essentially a door in front of a
screen. Look through a virtual peephole and you can find
out who's there before opening the door and accepting the
call. The geometry of a life-sized, full-length screen as
opposed to the horizontal configuration of a TV or
monitor lets you see the entire person, rather than just
a talking head. The real beauty in this concept for me is
the way it deals with the psychologically uncomfortable
aspect of having someone viewing you in your private
space. The physical barrier of the door that requires
being opened before you can be seen provides a measure of
comfort and familiarity that may be overlooked in many
possible videophone configurations.

Once we get over the new sensation of having virtual
guests in our homes, I hope that videophones will provide
some successful approximation of eye contact. Right now,
many makeshift videophones involve positioning a camera
somewhere on the periphery of the viewing screen.
Ideally, the camera will be positioned behind a clear
screen (allowing the camera to alternate between a frame
grab and a screen "refresh" at an imperceptible rate).
Otherwise, I fear that too much time spent having weird
"I'm talking to you but looking over there" conversations
will have a negative impact on people's ability to
interact with one another in the real world.

Logistical challenges aside, the potential of videophones
to enhance our social lives is a provocative one, letting
us "reach out and touch" others in a fantastic, albeit
sometimes intrusive, new way.

# # #

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Batteries Not Included

Alternatives to America's power struggle

by Carla Diana

December 26, 1996 -- In the afterglow of holiday [Image]
hysteria your lives may be filled with more
portable playthings than ever: a new Discman perhaps, a
pager, a personal stereo for your kids, a cellular phone
or a universal remote control. Amidst the glory of giving
and consuming someone has to fork over the bucks for the
most mundane of accessories: the battery.

Buying a couple of AAs here and there is relatively
painless, but when just one appliance asks for six
batteries or more (like the VideoGuide unit that my
boyfriend and I are hopelessly addicted to), your power
requirements may start costing as much as the appliance
itself. Ouch! If this weren't enough, there's the
indignity of fiddling with plastic trap doors and
overanxious springs that send your batteries ricocheting
back towards you.

Aside from the money you'll have to spend, shopping for
batteries can bring some confusion. Name brand or
generic? Rechargeable or disposable? You've got to be
careful -- cheaper "heavy duty" and "general purpose"
batteries look just like alkalines, but they offer
one-half and one-fourth of the power, respectively. And
what about all these green claims that battery-makers are
bandying about? Most alkalines have reduced mercury
content to make their disposal easier on the environment,
but the best way to reduce the threat is to use fewer
batteries.

One way to save some cash and do the right thing for the
eco-system is to go with rechargeables, which last
through hundreds of uses and can be recycled if returned
to the manufacturer. You'll eliminate the problem of
throwing mercury into the landfills, but the cadmium used
in rechargeable NiCds (nickel-cadmium batteries) may pose
an even greater threat if used cells are conveniently
thrown in the trash. Rayovac rechargeable alkalines are a
good way to go green, but they last through only 25 to 50
charges, so they'll wind up costing more in the end.
[Another alternative is Toshiba's rechargeable
nickel-metal-hydride or NiMH battery, now available in
the AA size. NiMH batteries are also prominent in laptop
computers. -- Ed.]

Many manufacturers have tried to ease the battery-picking
dilemma through built-in batteries and chargers, like the
laptop computers that need only be plugged in to a wall
outlet to get juiced up. These succeed in offering
convenience at first, and well thought-out products have
indicator lights that make battery life less of a mystery
than it is with loose batteries. The benefits, however,
end there. With more and more portables like cellular and
cordless phones being introduced into our lives, we're
running out of space on the wall outlets and power strips
to accommodate all our nomadic accessories. If your
portable appliance doesn't come with a spare battery (or
the battery isn't removable) you'll have to be vigilant
about returning it to its docking station on a regular
basis if you want to make sure it's always working. Good
rechargeable appliances will last a few years, but when
that battery finally does keel over, finding a
replacement for your particular model may be no small
chore.

In one attempt to make everyone happy some cellular
phones come with an adapter that allows you to use
standard AA batteries if you can't get to an outlet in
time to recharge when you need it. This is a great,
convenient alternative, but it's really just a patch kit
for a battery problem which is crying out for a better
solution.

As a designer, I generally oppose standardization since
it can stifle the creativity needed to develop innovative
products. Where power is concerned, however, a standard
rechargeable battery system for portables might make life
a little easier, especially if you need to keep a few
spares on hand. Duracell began making batteries to fit
laptops, but only a few manufacturers have designed
around them. Black & Decker recently introduced its
VersaPak line of portable products with one central
charging station for batteries that fit in a variety of
products from flashlights to power sanders. This is great
for Black & Decker and not so great for you, since the
next time you get a portable hand drill, you're forced to
buy Black & Decker's if you want to make the most of its
VersaPak system.

Some day our portables may not require such heavy duty
maintenance. Wouldn't it be great if the things
spontaneously recharged themselves through some wireless
connection to a central electrical supply? In the fantasy
of my dream home there'd be a solar charger on the roof,
constantly storing energy from the sun's rays. Walkman
out of power? No problem, just point it at the charging
station, press the "recharge" button and you're back in
business.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

Breaking the Walkman Habit

Lending my ears to the Romans

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

ROME, February 27, 1997 -- "What do those people [Image]
have against us?" the grocery store owners on the
Piazza Santa Apollonia wanted to know when the exchange
students from Brooklyn started frequenting their store a
few years ago. It seems that the Canadian students who
were on the same block were able to be friendly despite
the language difference, but the Americans walked in
stone-faced, picked items off the shelves and handed over
the amount of lire that appeared on the cash register,
avoiding eye contact at all costs. Our program director
reassured the Signora that the students' zombie-like
demeanor had nothing to do with her, but was merely a
defense mechanism that New Yorkers carried with them
everywhere, especially in unknown territories.

My friends and I listened carefully to the anecdote and
have made an extra effort to greet the locals with warm
smiles and friendly small talk, but there's one habit
that'll be tough to break: the Walkman.

I'm sure Italians own personal stereos, but you wouldn't
know it from looking around the streets of Rome. Outdoor
social life is clearly an important part of the culture,
evidenced all day long in the markets, in front of
doorways, in the cafes and open squares. Residents have
told me that the Italians love their electronic gadgets,
but cell phones are much more common than headphones.
Clearly they'd rather be in touch than absorbed in a
personal musical trance.

In our attempt to absorb as much of the local culture as
possible, my housemates and I have begun leaving home
without our personal stereos. It's a noble attempt, but
there's no saying how long it will last. Personally, I'm
already jonesin' for escape -- to replace the noise and
distactions of the city streets with the soothing sounds
of my favorite tunes. (I've made a personal note to avoid
the Sex Pistols since I don't know how well the
carabinieri will react to that sideways nodding thing I
like to do with my head.)

What is it about headphones that makes them essential
artillery in New York? Music can make the urban jungle
seem a little tamer, and the ability to choose specific
aural sensations gives one a greater sense of control.
Since the sprawling metropolis requires lots of foot
travel, tuning out helps the miles go by more easily.
There are lots of plusses, but possibly the best
explanantion for this New York habit is that it gives
people to ability to be in public without "being" in
public. Shutting out noise means that your environment
becomes a detached backdrop for your own personal music
video. You can watch the world go by to a dramatic
Beethoven soundtrack without having to respond to others.
Voices can be ignored, and strangers can see that
approaching you for a response will be difficult, if not
impossible, to do without accosting you.

Despite my cravings, I've decided to hold out and use my
personal stereo while indoors, and only at times when I
really need the isolation to get through a boring chore
or concentrate on a difficult drawing. In the meantime
I'll do like the Romans and enjoy the storekeepers'
shouts, the church chimes, and even the drone of the
constant stream of Vespas racing down the cobblestone
streets.

# # #

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Solutions that Bridge the Gap

Thank heavens for temporary solutions

by Carla Diana

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, MICHIGAN, September 30, 1998 -- [Image]
Sure, I know, shopping is supposed to be fun. But
in a world where Moore's Law (which predicted that
microprocessor performance doubles every 18 months) is
proven true, buying consumer electronics becomes a
nerve-wracking exercise in risk-assessment.

Despite the hype of the new-and-improved
product/format/operating systems, most of us still have
to exercise control over our technolust. Often it pays to
resist investing in the latest technology for budgetary
reasons, lack of space, or a healthy skepticism that
tells you the latest gizmo might not really be all that.
After all, if you can get last year's digital camera for
half its original price, it makes sense to try to hold
out even longer to see if the deal gets better.

Amid the flurry of top-of-the line products, there are
still some humble gadgets created to bridge the gap
between an established technology and an emerging one.
The audio cassette/CD player adapter that plugs into a
standard car stereo is a perfect example of thoughtful
design for forward-compatibility -- it lets us use a
newer format without having to toss away existing,
installed hardware. Many of us already own portable CD
players and have abandoned cassettes for those shiny,
sturdy discs, but if you need only a CD player in the car
for the occasional road trip, it's much less painful to
use the adapter than it is to have an additional unit
installed in your car.

While WebTV hasn't proven to be the best format for
web-browsing (most sites are designed for viewing on a
computer monitor as opposed to a TV and are geared toward
more common browsers like Netscape) it's a brilliant
solution for those who want to get on the Web without
taking the plunge into buying a computer system. There's
a glut of exiting, new computing products appearing on
store shelves every day -- yet the whole scene is still
in flux. The traditional box-and-keyboard PC may soon
become obsolete as friendlier "information appliances"
are introduced. In the meantime, set-top boxes like WebTV
take advantage of an existing object in the home and
offer a the ability to surf the net at a fraction of the
cost of a computer system.

Perhaps being stingy or indecisive doesn't seem like a
respectable reason to resist adopting a new format, but
simply liking your existing hardware so much that you
don't want to change is certainly understandable. Take
SLR camera users: they drool over the mechanical beauty
of finger-controlled mechanisms for things like exposure
and shutter speed. Once you've fallen in love like this,
abandoning your trusty device for a new-fangled digital
one can be heartbreaking -- but a company called Imagek
claims to have the answer. It's developing a small
cartridge that you'll be able to drop into any standard
35mm camera to transform it into a digital camera.
According to Imagek, its EFS-1 cartridge will be capable
of storing 30 full-resolution pictures and will have the
ability to be reused 100,000 times. An adapter that comes
with the cartridge (for PC or Mac) will allow instant
download for viewing, printing, electronic storage and
e-mailing. It's scheduled to be on the market next fall
and will retail for less than $1000.

Forward-compatibility may seem like a quick fix as
opposed to the more long-term investment in a
state-of-the art piece of equipment, but in some cases it
perfectly fills the need of the user who isn't ready for
a big purchase. And if it ain't broke....

Colors of Rome: Color in Italian Design

Bright toys evoke a rich tradition of spectral surprises

by Carla Diana

ROME, May 30, 1997 -- Rust-colored walls with [Image]
streaks of mustard yellow. Glistening slate blue
cobblestones. Mellow green patinas on copper domes.
Chocolate brown shutters closing on eggshell tinted
windowframes. And a canopy of burnt sienna rooftops
draped along the horizon. This explosion of colors
surprises you every time you emerge from a doorway in
Rome. They're so intense that even the transient visitor
can't help being affected by them.

The colors that exist here today aren't a wash over
surfaces or a splash of paint here and there -- they come
from a rich tradition, applied layer over layer and
infused into the entire environment. The image of the
Roman empire as a collection of pallid white structures
is misleading: Caesar and Augustus surrounded themselves
with polychrome marble and intricate mosaics. The
aesthetic continued, leading to majestic frescos, ornate
murals and glowing stained glass windows. The average
building facade isn't grey: it's a blushing peach or a
spunky orange or perhaps powder blue. Even mother nature
plays the game by offering a climate where bright palm
trees and dark evergreens grow side-by-side in city
parks.

With all this vibrance happening outdoors it's no wonder
that the insides of homes tend to display a healthy
palette of colors as well. People here are willing to
show off colorful products that don't always find their
way to markets in other countries.

Swatch has taken advantage of its cult status in Italy by
offering a quirky upright cordless that is prominently
displayed in almost every Roman electronics store. It
comes in colors like electric blue and bright
yellow-orange with a matte finish. Other offerings
include red and blue Bang & Olufsen phones, a scarlet
Sony Discman, Motorola cellular phones in forest green
and maroon, and navy Aiwa speakers. The colors of
cleaning products are even bolder than the electronics,
and the chore of vacuumming can be a little less dreary
when you get to tote a hose attached to a fire-engine red
canister across the carpet. So far I've seen vacuum
cleaners that come in red, orange, sunflower yellow, U.S-
mailbox blue and turquoise, and clothes irons in similar
shades.

Inside the home, colors emerge at their brightest in the
kitchen, a result of the Italian passion for culinary
delghts. It starts with the Roman's choice in foods: deep
red cured meats, rich green artichokes, golden olive oil,
and gelato in a range of pastels. The Italian designer
Alessi has found his expression in kitchen tools. His
humorous corkscrews, bottle openers and stove lighters
(gas ranges aren't automatic ignition here -- they need
to be lit with a match or lighter) are this society's
pricey objects of desire, and bright colors are an
intrinsic part of their character. The non-designer name
stuff can be found in all colors of the spectrum as well,
and thoughtful designs in high quality materials
emphasize just how important cheese graters, nutcrackers,
hand mixers, blenders, and coffee grinders are in this
culture. Despite the risk of investing in a huge imprint
of color as a fixture in the room, refrigerators and
ranges in offbeat hues are more common here than they are
in the States, coming in colors like navy blue, cyan and
yellow-orange.

While providing a bombardment of sensations, the colors
have a wonderfully soothing effect, as if they were an
antidote to the city's choas. Amid the Italian train
strikes, the stores closing at odd hours and the mail
that takes a month to get here, colors provide the
unexpected details that always make a smile creep onto my
face.

# # #

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Cutting the Cord: Portable Telephony

"Hello?" [Image]

"Hi, Bob. Good thing I got a hold of you --
hisspfthssstth -- hello? Hello? Are you there?"

"I'm here. I think that -- ssspfthh -- noise was me. I'm
on the -- crackffthsss -- cordless."

"Me -- thsssthss -- too."

"Hang on a sec. I'll change channels."

"Good. That helped. So anyway, I --├┐sssthfthpsssth├┐--
hello?!"

"It's happening again."

"Do you think it's you -- thsssfthsssss -- or me this
time?"

"Lemme try -- sssthpfthss -- going into the living room."

"Hel -- sssthh -- lo?"

"Ssthhhpfth -- hello?"

"That -- sthhhfpth -- didn't help. Think it's a battery
problem?"

"Maybe, but why don't you -- sssthpfthss -- change
channels, too -- sssthsffthpth -- just in case?"

"Yeah. OK I think that's better. Now what was I saying?
Was it about the office? Maybe it was.... No, no, that's
not it. Dammit!"

"What?"

"I forgot."

Free to roam, not free of static

Before our society became so advanced, this conversation
rarely happened. The primitive nature of our tools meant
that we each stayed tethered to our respective phone
stations without questioning the performance of our
utility-provided devices. Now we're free to roam as we
telecommunicate, sampling the backyard's fresh air,
watering the plants throughout the house and (grrrr)
dealing with interference that's just a little less
irritating than nails on the blackboard. It seems that
the sin of losing the co rd has left us in that peculiar
circle of hell that involves being interrupted by static
just when we're about to tell the punchline.

If interference weren't bad enough, there's also the fact
that with an ordinary 46-49 MHz model -- the standard
cordless phone frequency -- your conversations (and
credit card numbers, catalog buffs) are essentially
broadcast to your surrounding few block s. You're
thinking, "Yeah, yeah, we've heard all the warnings
before." I used to take this lightly too, until I did my
first few phone tests and saw how easy it was to get a
scanner and dial into a cordless frequency. I got an
unfortunate earful of the c onversations being held
around 57th Street, but I've also gained a deeper
understanding of how those 900 numbers actually make so
much money.

"Surely not all phones are that bad," you say. You're
right. Some standard 46-49 MHz phones are equipped with
voice scrambling features for privacy, and recent
upgrades to a not-too-shabby 25 channels make it a little
easier to deal with interference. But if you'd like a new
phone that really cuts through the airwaves, a 900 MHz
digital spread spectrum phone is your best bet. Although
it'll lighten your wallet (expect to spend about $200 for
a good one), and eat through batteries more quickly, it
will bra ve some pretty harsh interference conditions and
stand up to eavesdroppers by sending the signal in
unrecognizable pieces through 100 or more frequencies.
Plus, it can almost triple your range so you can bring it
across the street without having your conn ection
interrupted. So while the old phones will be around to
give us headaches until the next millennium, we now know
there's hope.

But let's take a step back for a minute. Aside from our
pet peeves about performance, there's one huge problem
with the majority of cordless phones on the market: they
have the same overall shape as corded phones, give or
take a few updated curves. If we' re no longer stuck
sitting by the phone base, why should we still be
burdened with having to hold a receiver in one hand --
or, worse, pinched between shoulder and neck leaving us
walking around like Quasimodo? (This, by the way, is not
a cute look, desp ite what Disney will have us believe.
And it can cause serious problems in the neck and spine
by compressing the discs that separate vertabrae.)

A copy editor once said to me, "Y'know Carla, I just
can't understand why anyone would want a cordless. " I
stared at her blankly for a good sixty seconds, all the
while thinking to myself, "My God, woman, are you
completely blind to the opportunity for s imultaneous
activity that this invention has opened up?" I know we
New Yorkers are a little bit uptight about how we spend
our time, but don't we all like to fold the laundry while
talking to not-so-terse Aunt Tilly? Doesn't everyone want
to type away wh ile talking to Mark about her new edit --
oops, sorry, that's just me. [Harrumph. -- Ed.] We home
office workers really do need to sift through files,
consult reference books and wrestle that report out of
the dog's mouth while talking on the phone. Being
cordless has given us the freedom of peripatetic gabbing,
but now that we're in the other room, we really need both
hands free to clean up the mess we forgot we left there.

Introducing the cordless headset

Manufacturers may be a little wary of changing the basic
concept of a household staple like the telephone, but
now's the time. Going cordless has been great, but it's
also changed the way we use the telephone. Heretical as
it sounds, hands-free cordless p hones are really the
only thing that makes sense. Dorky headsets exist for
office workers [harrumph -- Ed.], but cordless ones are
relatively rare. Panasonic and Plantronics are among the
few companies offering them. See the etown.com Library
for details a bout the Panasonic SX-TC905W.

Cordless headsets are a minor miracle. It's tough to get
all those parts, antenna and all, into a light, sleek
wearable receiver, but heck, if we can play video games
with our minds as the makers of MindDrive, the new PC
game controller, have claimed, th en something like this
should be a breeze. Imagine hearing the phone ring,
slipping the receiver over your ear and getting dinner
ready as you catch up on the latest news from your best
friend.

Just how ridiculous will our lives be when we each tote a
headset/cordless phone around the house? It's too soon to
know. Until then, don't even think of putting your Mom
through the humiliation of speakerphone while you clean
the litterbox. Trust me, she 'll never forgive you.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.