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Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006


AU's Neon phone, Monacca's wooden calculator, Fumie Shibata designs for Omron, Sayonara QRIO

Special to The Japan Times

In this highly complex world of perpetual technical innovations, there are plenty of products loaded down with innumerable features and dubious functions. Simplicity often gets lost in the equation, and therein lies the problem of so many new gadgets. We therefore embrace those designers who manage to get rid of the excesses, or at the very least hide them in a manner that makes for a less intrusive, and more enjoyable product.

Hidden features

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Following DoCoMo's recent launch of sleek new FOMA handsets, leave it to AU (and more specifically the AU Design Project) to quickly one-up them with a lineup of new phones, including one by Naoto Fukasawa, who designed the company's hugely popular Infobar. The Neon, which is being billed as a "music phone," features a music-player interface, 50MB of inboard memory, a miniSD slot and an FM radio tuner. But even those who aren't ready to replace their iPod just yet will find something to like here. As is often the case with Fukasawa's product design work (see everything from his Plusminuszero line), simplicity is its core feature. A smooth rectangular outer shell distinguishes itself even more by the use of a hidden LED display, where incoming calls or music-track info is projected on the phone's surface. Other features are pretty much par for the course (2.4 inch QVGA display, 1.3 megapixel camera), and the unit sports remote control capabilities so you can use it with your TV or video/DVD player. The Neon is available in three colors: white, black and light blue.

Neon AU Design Project KDDI Corp.: www.au.kddi.com/au_design_project/seihin/neon/

Going with the grain

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Monacca, a company that prides itself on promoting Japan's tradition of wood craftsmanship through contemporary accessories, tempts us yet again with a new addition to their growing line of products that boast wood exteriors on items that you wouldn't normally expect to see presented that way. The latest is a calculator, and the initially surreal moment of coming to terms with this odd marriage of electronics and wood quickly turns into a feeling of "why didn't anyone think of this combo sooner?" It is sure to turn into a fine talking point for anyone checking out your desk. Their rather busy stall at last November's Tokyo edition of 100% Design has certainly convinced us that -- knock on wood -- great things lie ahead for Monacca.

Monacca: www.monacca.com

Gettin' hot in here

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OK, there's a time for sexy gizmos and a time for practicalities -- like the humble Omron electronic thermometer. This medical supply company has tried something a bit different by tapping a name designer, Fumie Shibata of AU's Sweets mobile phone and the Muji soft-fit sofa, to turn something that you just "need" into something that you just "gotta have." The Good Design committee likes Shibata's thermometers too, handing accolades to successive iterations (the MC-170 and the MC-670) of the Omron thermometer. All the different models (each with its own functions, from different time settings to varied, ahem, "insertion points") share one casing, which was part of Shibata's design strategy: to create something that would be immediately recognizable as an Omron thermometer. She has succeeded in her goal, and produced one hot item for the flu season.

Omron Corporation: www.omron.co.jp

Farewell Mr. Roboto

It's with great sadness that we note the passing of Sony's little robot that could -- and the first big casualty of the cyber humanoid race -- the QRIO (Quest for cuRIOsity). Sony recently announced that they would end research and development of the QRIO, due to corporate restructuring; that's how big business justifies the merciless killing of an innocent cyber employee. It will certainly be missed -- those dark eyes, that glowing blue "belly button," and the moves, oh yeah, the moves. Not content to simply samba its way through TV commercials, it even achieved mass pop-culture relevance with its inclusion, along with three other "brothers," in Beck's music videos for "Hell Yes". Unlike the lethargic robots of old, QRIO could even run, getting a mention in last year's edition of the Guinness Book of Records as the "fastest running humanoid robot" (it could cruise along at a speed of 23 cm/second). Yes, it will be missed, along with its cousin, the Aibo, which has suffered the same fate -- though Sony has promised for the latter another seven years of technical (life) support.

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