Cuddletech 

Snuggle up. It's time to get cozy. Curl up to your new computer, car and kitchen gadgets and feel the happiness wrap around you like a warm, fuzzy blanket.

Cuddletech is here.

Forget about the streamlined, hard-edged look that all the old science-fiction movies styled as the look of the millennium. Now that we're almost there, and technical advances have made even the most basic consumer products more efficient, powerful and varied than ever before, there's also been a corresponding change in the way those products look.

Signs of cuddletech have been popping up for the past several years -- a rounded corner here, an unexpectedly bright color there. Perhaps it was a rounded bumper on your new car. Or a beeper or cell phone made of plastic that resembles raspberry sorbet.

But now, the soft, squishy look is everywhere. From our cars to our computers to our cultural icons, it's clear that some small revolution in industrial design has mandated that consumer goods should be -- not just functional, not just fun -- but irresistibly adorable.

The result? High-tech products that are so visually appealing, so gosh-darned cute, you just want to pinch their cheeks.

Take, for example, the new Volkswagen Beetle. One of the first things people said when the new Bug was introduced earlier this year was that it was "cute." Never mind gas mileage, never mind price, people just wanted to pick it up and hug it.

What other car can claim that?

When Macintosh introduced its new iMac this fall, the same buzz was in the air. Sure, this sleek little package could be set up and surfing in a fast 30 minutes, even for the technologically challenged.

But its technical capabilities literally paled in comparison with its translucent plastic "Bondi blue" and "ice" case -- a sleek, rounded and eminently huggable revisiting of the old Mac Classic, complete with a perfectly round mouse that looks for all the world like a yo-yo.

If the new Bug and the iMac are two of the most prominent examples of cuddletech, they're also indicators of this growing move toward cuter design.

Their unique forms and translucent materials make for soft, friendly references, says Clyde Foles, chair of industrial design at Detroit's Center for Creative Studies.

"Both companies lost touch with their original impact," notes Foles, adding that the new designs seem to be an attempt to regain lost market share for both Volkswagen and Macintosh. "The designers are basically trying to reach out and find new niches."

In the case of the new Beetle, it's a way to recall the Bug's past popularity while attracting new customers. "The basic shape of it is pleasing. It's crisp, and has lots of personality."

The same is true for the iMac, which Foles describes as very approachable. "I like the materials on the iMac," he adds. "They're like guppies, little fish -- you can see their structure because they're translucent."

It's as though the friendly little machine has nothing to hide. "It's happy, and has a complete look to it," Foles notes. "It isn't intimidating, and has some personality to it."

But these likably rounded lines and unusual colors are just as much a result of new technology as they are a package for it.

"I think some of this comes from designing these things on computer," says Foles, explaining that with current design software, it's easier than ever before to make curved lines and unusual shapes.

Such cuddle-creating software would be right at home on the huggable hard drive of the zippy-looking ExtremeZ GL1, a desktop computer from Intergraph which brings to mind a snowboard more than a computer.

Meant to appeal to computer-using graphic design professionals, its indigo and purple tower case is just the thing to add a creative signature to an otherwise sterile office. Its sleek, slightly flanged lines mark it as a whole other species of desktop computer, and its cheerful color paints it as a friendly package for fast, high-tech new computer applications.

Clearly, the soft look has spread through much other product design, partly due to a drive to make the appliances we use daily a little more friendly to our bodies.

Some kitchen utensils have rounded their designs for ergonomic reasons, notes Foles. For example, the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen gadgets features big, soft padded rubber handles which were first designed to make peeling potatoes, opening wine bottles and scrubbing dishes easier for people who couldn't hold smaller gadgets. But, as Foles points out, "People are always looking for a better wine bottle opener."

Another cuddly, ergonomically designed item is the Orbit, a computer trackball from Kensington Microware that looks like R2-D2 in a snowsuit. Intended to combine the best of mouse and trackball worlds (comfort, pinpoint accuracy), it also looks downright marshmallowy. Ideal for carpal-tunneled hands to sink into after a long day of surfing.

And if you need to leave the computer screen to actually jot something down on paper, the soft touch extends to a line of writing implements: Sensa pens are built with a chubby, squishy grip that's meant to reduce the stress of writing by hand. Filled with a patented goop called "Plasmium," these pens are cuddly for your fingers.

And if you want cuddly faces to go with your products, there's a line of mundane home items -- dish brushes, brooms, vegetable peelers -- made by Koviol and available in bright blue, green and red plastic. Equipped with little rounded feet, smiling faces and even waving hands, they do more than clean the house -- they make housework itself a little brighter. Anything we hesitate to do, be it surf the Internet or scrub last night's dishes, seems easier and more appealing with cuddletech on our sides. Or at least, that's what we tell ourselves when we spend $8 on a vegetable peeler.

"Product type forms are always evolving," says Foles, adding that things as prosaic as refrigerators and televisions continue to change along with current fashions.

Could the padded television be far behind? Apparently not. Case in point: BBC's Teletubbies, which are the ultimate embodiment of cuddletech icons. These television characters are the natural result of a cross between a teddy bear and a television set. By watching the show, kids learn early to -- literally -- embrace electronic culture with the help of these giggling, babbling, ultimately cute icons.

But just as clothing fashions come and go, so do fashions in products. Over the next few years, Foles predicts, cars will move away from the rounded look in order to go back to a more hard-edged design. Other items are sure to follow -- and then, perhaps, the future will look more like science fiction after all. Cuddle your computer while you can.

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