RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Want to launch a rocket from your USB port?

June 11, 2007

I'm as much of a capitalist as anybody, but even I'm amazed sometimes at what a free market can come up with. Thanks to one little tiny addition to modern computers, a whole industry has opened up.

That addition is the USB port, a little slot on the case of almost all present-day computers. Most now have two or more, in fact. "USB" stands for "universal serial bus," and it's replaced the older D-shaped serial ports, round PS2 mouse and keyboard ports, and even the huge parallel printer ports.

The USB standard was created in a rare fit of engineering sociability by Hewlett-Packard, Apple, NEC, Microsoft, Intel and others. It needed both hardware- and software-makers, because USB has to work in both worlds. When you buy a mouse and plug it into the USB port on your computer, the software has to recognize it and put it to work immediately. It's actually a form of network in itself, capable (at least theoretically) of having 128 different devices plugged in at the same time.

One of the first great ideas for USB was the thumb drive, also known as the flash drive, which was small enough to hide in a gum package, yet held as much memory as the biggest portable disks of the day. I normally view new gadgetry the same way I look at a used-car salesman with a grin and a hand extended, but when I spied my first thumb drive, I knew I had to have one. I still have it. With good care, it's lasted four years now. It holds 128 megabytes, which is still more than I really need.

Today's drives are several times bigger, and much cheaper. Amazon offers one 512-megabyte model for just under $8. A used one can be had for about a buck and a half. Four-gigabyte models are only $50 or so.

The drives soon appeared in novelty forms. An article from 2006 on Ping Mag (www.pingmag.jp) listed USB thumb drives in the shapes of popular Asian foods and flexible bracelets. There are even some in the shape of actual thumbs. They've gotten more technically sophisticated, too. Some have "capacity meters" in them, so you can tell at a glance how much storage room is left. Others have security measures built in, and if you carry sensitive data around, I'd suggest you look into one. Lexar offers one with thumbprint recognition (www.lexar.com).

Soon, though, lots of other devices hit the USB market, many also from Asia. The USB port supplies electricity from the computer's power supply, and novelty items quickly appeared to make use of it. There are fans that plug into USB ports. The site Think Geek has one (www.thinkgeek.com). The same site offers other USB wonders, too. There's a turntable (for vinyl records, if you remember those), a battery charger, a flexible task light, mug warmer, Swiss army knife and beverage chiller. Personal grooming doesn't get any better than a $25 personal shaver that's USB-powered.

Those engaging in cubicle warfare can pick from several USB weapons for reasonable prices. A rocket launcher is available for about $40 that can cover up to 18 feet. Another launcher can go only 8 feet or so, but it promises wonderful sound effects from the PC. A $50 guided missile launcher uses a laser for pinpoint accuracy. The ultimate threat, though, is a "doomsday" hub, complete with red "blow up the island" button.

Many USB gadgets dress up the work space. There's a blue holiday tree for $8, a lava lamp for $10, a $20 aquarium, and a "snowbot" for $13. USB Gear (www.usbgear.com) has a wide selection of USB speakers and other sound devices. USB Geek (www.usbgeek.com) has a tiny one-can USB refrigerator, an aircleaning ashtray, an aromatic diffuser, a humidifier, a piggy alarm clock and a piggy FM radio. A scrolling "marquee" style name tag is available, and there are heating gloves and socks, too.

If you're the scientifically curious type, you can get microscopes and other investigatory devices. Think Geek offers two, one for $200, and another for only $100. Curious about what the temperature is? Vernier (www.vernier.com) has temperature sensors that plug into a USB port.

Some USB goodies are just excuses for doing real work. USB Geek has a USB paper shredder, a pencil sharpener and a vacuum cleaner. Others are just excuses to spend money creatively. Everything USB (www.everythingusb.com) has a Japanese USB noodle strainer and a USB light that's powered by typing.

Think Geek has also indulged in some April Fools' horseplay by offering a USB George Foreman grill, a desktop tanning center and a fondue set. But it wouldn't surprise me if the enterprising Japanese actually had those items out for Christmas. I'd buy the fondue set.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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