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When the computer helps brush your teeth
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-08-21 11:36

MUNICH: "Who would need that?" That is the question that many, if not most, PC users would ask upon seeing their first electric toothbrush with a USB connection.

The answer is obvious: Nobody needs a USB toothbrush. Yet for that very reason it has become a cult object for PC fans who see their computer as more than just a grey box underneath the desk. Computers are truly multifunctional devices nowadays, and that knowledge has prodded inventors and PC tinkerers to come up with the most curious of ideas.

Why shouldn't the little masterminds be able to keep a cup of coffee warm, for example, or massage their masters' fingers when they are aching from typing? With the right accessories and a little fantasy, one can make a PC do things that no one would have ever imagined. The fantasies range from homemade video surveillance systems to digitally controlled aroma sprayers.

"There is hardly anything today that the computer cannot be used for. The limit is really the inventors' sense of fantasy," says Bernhard Neumayer, a patent checker for the German patent office.

Almost 1,700 new patent registrations for data processing were received by his department in 2003.

Since the PC has long since moved beyond being a simple typewriter replacement, it often leads to novel inventions.

Neumayer points out as an example a registered design for a coffee mug warmer with a USB connection. If someone is interrupted during a coffee break, the PC keeps the coffee warm.

USB devices in particular offer numerous outlandish functions that can nevertheless be quickly and simply connected to a standard PC through its USB port.

Alongside decorative accessories like a quacking USB duck with flashing eyes, users can also find a lot of accessories that are at least as comical as they are practical, such as a USB fan for the summer and a USB heating pad for the winter.

Even more odd is a product from the firm TalVaro, which developed a PC-controlled perfume sprayer with a USB connection to pamper the PC user's nose.

Just as odd is the USB massage ball from the firm Hama. The inexpensive device is intended to relax the fingers after a typing session.

"It is naturally aimed at real PC freaks," says Hama's Susanne Uhlschmidt.

As with so-called "modding," where PCs are spruced up with all types of special accessories, extravagant USB accessories are widely viewed as gag gifts for PC lovers.

But they do serve a practical purpose: Those who spend a lot of time at the keyboard can set up a comfortable workspace.

Hama, for example, has a made-to-fit solution for smokers: a cigarette lighter built into the front of the computer casing. The same plug can be used for any device with a 12 volt plug, like a cooler.

"This kind of thing is particularly helpful at LAN parties," Uhlschmidt says. Such parties often involve PC gamers spending the whole night in front of their computers, and the USB toys can help keep them fresh.

PC gamers can also use the Internet to buy a USB ashtray that automatically sucks in cigarette smoke, so that the smoke does not bother the other players.

Those in search of even cleaner air can turn to a USB dust filter from Unicopie. The air cleaner is purported to remove illness-causing bacteria, mold, and allergens from the PC.

"Most of it is pure gimmickry; why should I use a USB device when I can just plug it into the wall?" asks PC expert Michael Nickles, who runs a website for PC tinkerers. His site offers instructions on how to build a miniature PC in a beer crate.

Nickles sees more use in the idea of a PC as a surveillance centre. With a webcam and the accompanying software, the computer can be used to record any unexpected movement around the house and then alarm the user by e-mail.

A computer could also be effectively put to work running a model train or a disco light show. With wireless sensors it could also collect climate data and serve as a weather station.

Perhaps it will someday be a normal thing to brush your teeth with the help of your PC, patent checker Neumayer feels. After all, computer firms are already promising that the household of the future will feature a PC to control the washing machine, refrigerator, and garage door.

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