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  • Geek Chic

    Ever since Jonathan Ive and the original iMac design team at Apple Computer showed the world that computer products did not have to be beige, bland and boring back in 1998, technology has gotten a lot cooler looking. Some stuff is even cool enough to be seen in public, especially when it comes to those little widgets known as flash-memory USB hard drives. Around your neck, on your arm, or even in your pocket, you can now pack half a gigabyte of your favorite files in a tiny device resembling something out of the shimmering world of “The Matrix” and not look like a total goober. Geek Chic is in, baby.

    Industrial designers at tech-driven companies like Sony, Iomega and Memorex have been hard at work making the world safe for data-nerds, making sure you get more “Wow!” than “Ow!” when you whip out a USB drive in public.

    Technology on the inside has helped with this part. Far from the chunky, clunky traditional hard disk drives full of motors and cables, today’s flash-memory drives are made from tiny solid-state memory chips with no moving parts. They’re the same chips used on the inside of many portable MP3 players.

    If you’ve got a file or files, say a bunch of InDesign layouts and a folder of scans that are too big to e-mail and not worth burning to a CD to transfer from one computer to another, a flash memory drive is a great pocket-sized way to copy the files from Computer A to Computer B without breaking a sweat. You just plug the drive into the computer’s USB port, wait for it to show up on the desktop as an external drive, copy your files onto it, unplug it and go.

    The thing is, though, that these drives are getting so tiny, you worry about losing them—especially since they can cost up to a few hundred bucks. Somebody a few years ago noticed that the USB drives were smaller than some souvenir key fobs, (you know, like the rubber ones you can find up in the Poconos emblazoned with your name and a picture of an enormous trout). So the keychain became an obvious choice for double-duty with your data, and you could still keep it hidden in case you thought your co-workers would make fun of you if you let your geek flag fly.

    But then the USB drives became even more stylized. In 2001, Sony put out its first Micro Vault (Fig. 1) USB drive, which resembled a large silver Tylenol with a colored stripe running down the middle. It looked like sort of futuristic prop that CIA superspy Sydney Bristow might be running around with on the latest episode of “Alias.” The design helped get people’s attention to A.) Whatever it was, this was a cool-looking thing and B.) Flash memory drives can be incredibly useful, especially when you had to bring in that eight-megabyte PowerPoint presentation you were slaving over all weekend and didn’t have a CD burner at home. The latest version designed by Sony is now 35-percent smaller than the original Micro Vault and even more graceful-looking to behold.

    The young people of today (those kids who cut their teeth on Reader Rabbit CD-ROMs, download their music off the Internet and demand Video on Demand), are eager adopters of Geek Chic.

    Sensing this potential, Iomega announced its Micro Mini USB Drive (Fig. 2) last year, which resembles a thick, oval-shaped dog tag and comes with its own neck chain and snap-on covers in three fashionable colors (black, blue and orange). You can now dangle 128 megabytes of computer files around your neck in an object far lighter than a swingin’ gold medallion.

    Memorex also jumped on the Wearable Technology bandwagon, offering a product called the Thumb Drive (Fig. 3) that features a smiling young woman wearing the drive around her wrist like an bulky bangle bracelet on the packaging. Due to the size and nervousness of many teenage girls about seeming too weird, this approach may not be as successful with the young folk, (at least until Memorex comes out with a “Hello Kitty” version), but time will tell. The drive’s wide-bodied design gives it an air of practicality, more for those who are less about style but just want to be able to find the dang thing in their purses before the sales meeting.

    Given the American obsession with size extremes—we either really want really, really big or incredibly small—USB drives seemed destined get even tinier and more elegant as the technology on the inside improves. This is great news because it means new opportunities for designers to craft even more inventive shells to house the chips, as well as the hopeful retirement of that old nerd standard: Is that a portable hard drive in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?

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