Whenever an amazing new technology debuts, entrepreneurs start producing accessories or applications that can be used to enhance the end user’s experience. These add-ons can range from sophisticated phone apps to elegant docking units to tiny loudspeakers to colorful carrying cases. But they also include such super-low-tech items as those cheap plastic strips that protect the screens on smart phones from scratches and nicks. This benevolently parasitic arrangement is one of the things that make America great: If you can’t have a great idea yourself, design something that can piggyback on a great idea. North Dakota, for example.
Now, however, the emphasis has shifted from devising products that can be added on to a smart phone, MP3 player or tablet computer to integrating these exciting new technologies into products where their presence would previously have seemed inconceivable. One of the most interesting of these innovations is the running shoe MP3 player. Runners often exercise while carrying MP3 players pinned to the waistband of their shorts, but because of vulnerability to criminals and speeding vehicles, this is not especially safe—especially at night—and often does damage to the music player. Also, the whole procedure is also kind of clunky. Until now. A new line of running shoes designed by the Chinese firm Beijing Karma are kitted out with MP3 players mounted in the heel of the shoe, with tiny speakers mounted in the eyelets of the shoelaces. This allows runners to stay alert for the trucks and SUVs that may be whizzing dangerously close to them on busy suburban roads, while enjoying a first-rate musical experience. Serious music buffs can even have a compact subwoofer inserted in the arch of the shoe, though initial testing reveals that this adds about 3.7 ounces to the weight of the shoe, more than most serious runners would deem acceptable. The running shoes, which retail for $169, were the hit of the recent high-tech show in Las Vegas. They are now the single most stolen item in stores based in Beijing Karma’s test market of Seattle.
The Thai-Pad is an even more intriguing device. This is a tablet computer that doubles as a plate; it gets its name because the inventor was dining in a Thai restaurant when the idea came to him. As the Pad Thai and red curry—or pizza or leg of lamb—are gradually scraped away from the surface of the plate, the holographic tablet computer underneath comes into view. The computer can only be seen when stared at directly from above at a distance of less than one foot. This allows diners to surreptitiously watch videos, sporting events, read magazines or check their stock portfolios while they are enjoying meals with clients or boring colleagues, without deliberately insulting the other guests by whipping out their own tablet computers. The Thai-pad can easily be substituted for the official plates at corporate functions or banquets or weddings; it is especially useful for people doomed to spend long hours at fundraisers or Chamber of Commerce lunches. Similar units are already available in birthday cakes, guacamole dips, popcorn buckets and beer mugs.
Webcam in an Antacid is perhaps the most exciting new product of all. It is a disposable home diagnostic device that targets anyone who has a stressful job— policemen, physicians, salesmen, teachers—as well as frat boys. Mimicking the technology used in colonoscopies, a tiny webcam lodged inside an antacid tablet is ingested into the body and then transmits messages from inside the stomach, warning about ulcers or inflammation, or, conversely, reporting when irritation has subsided to the point that the user can safely resume partying. Webcam in an Antacid has a number of sister products: Webcam in an Antihistamine, High Cholesterol Webcam, Total ACL Webcam and Plantar Fasciitis Webcam, where the webcam is lodged inside a heel cushion. Needless to say, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based company has already designed a phone app that allows users of Webcam in an Antacid to share videos in real time. This is social networking at its most euphorically visceral.