Brainless thingamajigs

About this time of year, retailers scramble to determine which piece of useless junk is poised to become the coming shopping season’s hottest seller. Meanwhile, shoppers leisurely scan the aisles, scoping out the potential on any number of gadgets, trinkets and toys.

One of the most surprising aspects of this year’s offerings is the extent to which high technology has been put to ever-lower uses. The case of Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing fish, and his cousins the singing fish skeleton, the singing trout and several other singing hunting trophies has already been made, and it amounts to this: What a waste of good motion-sensor technology, animatronics and electronic engineers’ time and energy. Cute, though.

So here are some of the other gizmos currently out there, available on the Web, at your local malls, or — if all else fails — through that ever-innovative compendium of wacky gadgets, the Sharper Image catalog. Add them to your collection now, before they become scarcer than fish teeth come mid-December. Um … right.

This year’s Furby

“Do you want to dance?” questions the ugly, black-coated piece of junk labeled “BuliNagi” (boo-lay-na-gee). Luckily, the word “new” appears on the lower corner of each package, so you know it must be the most recent silly consumer electronic trend. Gadget Universe (www.gadget, the exclusive mail-order distributor of these plastic pals, assures buyers that these plastic cretins are a worthwhile purchase: “Each one will develop differently, because they each have their own individual personality (the BuliNagis are a bit tougher and rambunctious),” rambles its catalog.

Apparently all 59 colorful designs of the miniature robots are bilingual as well, ranting key phrases such as “Feed Me!” and playing “Infrared Tag” in either English or Nagi.

Even so, demand is expected to skyrocket for these $60 toys come this year’s hyperactive holiday shopping season.

Beware those who enter

On top of catering to those that are simply too lazy to glance at a clock (“You don’t even have to open your eyes”), the $80 Talking Travel Companion is an attractive platinum-finished unit (also available in black) which detaches at its midsection, transforming into a hotel room motion sensor. In addition to announcing the time and weather in a pleasant voice, this device (proudly invented by the innovators at the Sharper Image) also protects you from any potential harm (excluding exotic illnesses) while traveling in foreign realms.

Considering there are few, if any, reported cases of midnight break-ins at Holiday Inns or at the even more expensive Hiltons, the only person tripping the invisible motion tracker would probably be you. Worried about the cleaning staff entering your room to fluff pillows, fold the bedspread and pilfer all that loose cash you leave lying around? Hang it on the door to scare the living shit out of hotel employees with a 110-decibel continuous audio blast. Added bonus: it also detects smoke.

Spin them right round

Perhaps you’ve been searching for a more convenient way to store your vast music collection. But you’ve decided that alphabetizing is a pointless task (even though it makes perfect sense) and that rummaging through random piles of CDs can sometimes get frustrating (especially while searching for the Dazed and Confused sound track). So, invest $159.95 for a Power Tower 100 Motorized CD Rack.

Especially neat is the monotonous speed at which the CDs advance. Simply insert up to 100 of your favorite discs (no doubles, please) and watch them whirl at the nauseatingly breakneck speed of less than 1 mph. It takes up more space than an average rack, costs much more than an alternative storage device (like, oh, a box), and makes an irritatingly vapid mechanical hum when making 360-degree rounds. Well, at least it’s illuminated.

That’s ionic, not ironic

At first glance, some airline passengers might appear as if they are listening to audio self-help cassettes. But look closer at the label on the deceptively streamlined apparatus around your seat-neighbor’s neck. Unfortunately, she’s not listening to an "Overcome Your Fear of Flying in Five Steps” tape at all; instead, she’s indulging in clean oxygen, courtesy of the Ionic Breeze Personal Air Purifier.

For $60, this humidifier/purifier hangs comfortably around your neck, not only exhibiting your distaste for society’s “dirty” stratosphere — but also making the wearer appear odd. Mistaking the device as an extremely large pendant may not be realistic (fat chance convincing your friends that you don’t have obsessive tendencies).

So maybe the alternative is locking yourself in a giant plastic bubble, where “you can enjoy a personal comfort zone” without leg cramps and bad in-flight movies. Hey, it does come in two colors.

Speak up

Once everyone had a Magic 8 Ball on their desk or in their bottom drawer, another fortunetelling beast had to be invented. And of course, it had to be electronic in order to really seem special. Here are two: The Original Q Ball Talking Fortune-Teller ($30) and the pocket-sized Q Ring ($20 or two for $35).

Each exasperating invention, in response to an earnest question, spews lines such as “Yeah, baby!” and “Did somebody order a pepperoni pizza?” Digital voice chip technology at its finest, right? Kids should be expelled just for thinking about buying one.

Some like it hot

Conan O’Brien embarrassed himself on national television when he wore an artificial “back mustache” last July. Yet he would probably have garnered more laughs by demonstrating the Personal Warm & Cool System Wearable Peltier Effect Climate Control from Sharper Image — at least from the late-night crowd (that is, if the product name alone doesn’t induce boredom).

This device is a $70, battery-powered necklace, designed to keep your most important body part — your neck — cool on hot summer days and toasty in below-zero temperatures.

How does it work, Mr. Wizard? Well, it’s simple. According to the product literature, it goes like this: “A thermoelectric principle whereby one direction of an electric current allows heat to be absorbed on one side of the aluminum neck plate (making it cold) as heat is rejected on the other side (making it warm).”

Basically, this invention brings humanity one step closer to portable, full-body air conditioners, automatic dressing machines and an 8-ounce washer/dryer. My deepest sympathies are expressed for the catalog model of this thingamajig.

A battery of sounds

As if miniature, radio-controlled helicopters weren’t cool enough, another Sharper Image exclusive is attempting to entice children (or their parents) with not much more than flashing lights.

In a nod to the adoption mania created by some other popular toys, the whole Wee-Bot family is available for adoption. But one look at this trio of round, horribly unattractive beetles-of-sorts may cause you to think twice about spending $90.

Amazingly, like many remote-controlled cars of the past decade, the Wee-Bots can move forward, backward, turn, spin and dance (essentially, five words that mean, “drives in circles”). They can zoom around the entire surface of the planet, ramming into feet and breaking expensive pottery, howling their explicitly annoying Wee-language and wasting useful battery juice. One grown-up and two babies are included in this package — “plus all batteries … $14 worth, free.” Buying the kids a thermonuclear science kit would probably be a less dangerous choice. Though, free batteries …

Spring to the phone

One last brilliant waste of space is provided by the tackiest piece of technology since the automatic bagel slicer. Writing a check for $25 will purchase this year’s most tasteless gadget: The Slinky Phone. Unfortunately, unlike its namesake, this fluorescent green, funky junkyard find can’t maneuver down a flight of stairs or entertain your empty palms on a boring summer day with its blissful, breezy, fluid motion. This phone is, simply put, a useless toy — or, more poetically affirmed, the epitome of uselessness. The mall-based Discovery Channel outlets seem to have enormous supplies of this utterly disappointing gift. I suspect that even a post-holiday 99-cent liquidation couldn’t entice this technology critic to take a giant slinky dialer home — unless a sledgehammer and a blowtorch were involved.

Jon M. Gibson writes about video games and other technological goodies for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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