Design: Small is beautiful...
... but potentially useless, says Ann Treneman, after trying out the latest tiny gadgets
Saturday 01 August 1998
Take Robert Tateossian. "My work is always being criticised by the Americans for being too simple, too feminine, too small," says the designer. But, I say, surely that is only because Americans are gigantic? "Exactly," he says.
We talk tiny. His smallest creations are a pair of stud earrings no bigger, he says, than a lentil. They are an understatement that will suit almost every earlobe. His latest "think small" idea is watches in cufflinks. "The idea goes back to my days in banking when I needed to keep track of two time zones, New York and London." But, when he became a designer, he soon found the idea was simply too small. "These watch movements did not exist," he says. It took years to find a Swiss firm to make them. The result? Well, he can now wear New York on one cuff and London on the other.
Then there is Sir Clive Sinclair. His new invention is the size of a 10p piece and, according to the advertisement, is a "breakthrough in electronic miniaturisation". The "astonishing X1 Button Radio" weighs half an ounce and has a "unique sure-grip ear design". This is worrying because my mother always insisted that you should never put anything smaller than an elbow in your ear. I not only believed this but have passed it on as an absolute truth to my children. I am relieved when the radio arrives by post and seems to be (just) bigger than an elbow. I pop it in: no medical care is required and reception is rather good. The only thing is that the curlicue aerial wire hangs down like some sort of Hassidic ear curl. Can this be the start of a trend, however modest?
So far, so beautiful for the world of small, but I have a reality moment when I decide to type this article on a small computer. The laptop was rejected as far too huge (what would Alice in Wonderland make of all this?); only a palmtop would do. Now Psions are all the rage among my male colleagues, although I've never figured out what they do on them. I was soon to find out. "Small is beautiful," I type. I look at the screen and it says: "Smqll is neutiful". This makes me type a sentence that appears like this on screen: "Or it wqould be if I coyould typwob on th9s thinbg." I ring up Psion to note that this may be a wonderfully small product but it is not a usable one for those of us who touch-type. It is now clear why you see all those men standing on train platforms, stabbing away at Psions with their pen-tops.
Steve Pang from Psion assures me that he has seen a rugby player use the keyboard. I'm not sure this is relevant but then he goes on to say that few buy them for such things. "The British are real hoarders and anything that makes collecting information easier they are very attracted to. People can carry thousands and thousands of names and telephone numbers and birthdays with them." I had no idea that most men had even 100 names in their address books, and there are more surprises when Mr Pang admits that, even in a Psion-sized world, there are limits. "Our latest product is a little bit bigger than a spectacle case," he says, "but if you make something too small, then it's useless."
Yes! Finally, someone who could see that things are on the brink of miniatured madness. Take, for example, the electronic Rolodex called Rex. It is as small as a large business card and allegedly organises your life. The only problem? Well, you have to enter the data using your PC and the instruction books are Ikea-esque in terms of the baffle factor.
The mobile phone is also about to become too small. Soon the only customer who will be able to use it with ease will be a Borrower. The latest ones by Motorola are so thin that I thought they were credit cards at first. Then I heard one ring and knew there had been another breakthrough in electronic miniaturisation. The people at Orange tell me that the hand- held mobile video-phone is on the way. I can only imagine this will be stored next to those wristwatches that doubled as miniature TVs but could only be watched by people with extremely bizarre eyesight.
I'm told the backlash has already begun - just look at the huge earphones everyone is wearing - but am not convinced that we will ever stop wanting things to be smaller. This desire begins as a practical thing. Small is more portable and we have become like tortoises in our desire to cart everything around with us at all times. But then it mutates into a fashion thing. "Doesn't that look sexy?" says a friend, pointing to a wafer-like walkie-talkie from the shop Spymaster. "It is! It's small, it's silver, it's sexy."
And this brings us into the realm of fantasy. We have all watched too many James Bond films. At Spymaster you can buy cameras no bigger than a 50p piece and a pen that turns out to also be a bugging device. Some of this stuff is so small it's almost invisible. And that, apparently, is the future. Voice recognition could mean that the computer could become extremely hard to see. Not so much a laptop as a matchbox-top. And that, I believe, is thinking very big indeed
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