This Sunday

John Heckathorn

Sunday, August 24, 2003

One invention away
from a life of ease

In November, a Japanese firm will roll out a new invention, a cat translator called the Meowlingual. This pink, cat-shaped device is supposed to analyze your cat's meows and turn them into any of 200 phrases displayed on an LCD screen.

In case your cat isn't speaking to you, the Meowlingual also will analyze its body language, track its emotional changes over time and tell your cat's daily fortune.

The Meowlingual will cost Y8,800, about $75.

In case you're tempted, let me save you $75. From my long experience, if a cat is outside meowing, it wants in. If it's inside, it wants out. If it's standing next to its bowl in the kitchen, it wants food. And, if it's Sunday morning, I can tell you its fortune. If it doesn't stop that yowling and let me sleep, it's going to spend the morning in the garage.

Meowlingual follows on the heels of the Bowlingual. Which, you guessed it, is a dog translator. The manufacturer, Takara, has sold 300,000 Bowlinguals in Japan and Korea. A Bowlingual costs $100, because it includes a microphone for your dog's collar, something no self-respecting cat would put up with. It's coming to America this month.

Woof. If you had a Bowlingual, you'd know that means, "You're kidding, right?"

People are constantly inventing things we never even knew we needed. It's not unusual to hear people grumble that we are drowning in stuff. But one person's useless invention is another person's gotta have it. If someone is willing to spend $100 to talk with their dog -- or at least think they're talking with their dog -- it's fine with me. In the same way, if someone feels they need a $4,000 plasma screen TV to fully appreciate "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," who would deny them the pleasure?

Still, we're now ending up with more gadgets than a superhero's utility belt. Look at people trying to get to work. They're encumbered with cell phones, PDAs, sunglasses, car-key clickers, laptops, insulated lunch carriers, gym bags, watches, iPods, on and on. They've got bags, cases, stuff hanging off their belts.

Despite all this stuff, most of us never have what we need when we need it. I have a perfectly fine umbrella, which is always locked in my car trunk when it starts to rain. When it's bright, my sunglasses ... well, who knows where my sunglasses are? Somewhere dark.

Inventors need to think about making our lives less cluttered, not more. Remember Henry David Thoreau's injunction: "Simplify, simplify." Wouldn't it be great if some genius invented a way we could travel light, yet still have what we need?

We need One Thing. That's the idea. Just one thing that we could slip into our pockets in the morning, and would be car keys when we needed them, or an umbrella, sunglasses, flashlight, bank card, cell phone, pen, parking pass, corkscrew, whatever.

It would be like a Swiss Army knife, minus the useless features. But it wouldn't be clunky, nor would it get confiscated at airport security. Couldn't some nanotech wizard invent a device that would simply turn into to what you needed and then go back to some nice ergonomic shape that you could play with, like worry stones?

This would be the intersection of human inventiveness and good sense. I have no idea how to create this device, but as my contribution, I have a name. We could call it a Schmoo.

The original Schmoos were invented by Al Capp for a hugely popular old comic strip called Li'l Abner. Schmoos were sort of teardrop shaped, happy, lovable creatures. They reproduced quickly, laid eggs, gave milk and loved to be eaten so much that they died if someone so much as looked at them with hunger. They tasted like chicken if fried, steak if grilled. You could make anything out of Schmoo. From lumber to leather to buttons.

Somehow the Schmoos were so good they were bad, in the sense that they subverted society because no one had to work. (That was bad?) So they disappeared, except when Capp brought them back for an encore to help move a whole line of Schmoo collectibles.

My new Schmoo device would have none of those problems. It would promote work, because it would no doubt cost a lot. And it would be a tool, not a food item.

It would adapt to circumstance, be an umbrella at the first drop of rain, a can opener when confronted with tuna, perhaps a mini-microwave when your coffee got cold. But it wouldn't be alive. Except in one case. If you lost it, it would come find you and hop back into your pocket.

The perfect device.

John Heckathorn is the editor of Honolulu Magazine. He is one of four columnists who take turns writing "This Sunday."


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