The fairly useless gadget show

Do we really need laser-guided scissors and Wi-Fi detecting T-shirts? Simon Usborne tests out the gizmos the world's been waiting for...
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The Independent Tech

Scissors. Pretty useful, right? But surely they could be improved. Let's make them laser-guided, like a missile. Who wouldn't want a pair of those?

As you read this, brainstorming sessions like this one are raging on flip charts from Slough to Singapore. Never has the gadget market been so chock full of widgets that claim to make our lives easier or more fun. We're not talking iPods or TomToms (they're obviously useful), but the stuff you'd once have found in the cult catalogue, Innovations. Anyone for heated eyelash curlers?

Today, the gizmo market is thriving online and leading the invasion of our cluttered cupboards is Firebox. com, set up 10 years ago. The London firm employs more than 40 people and turned over £11m last year. Is there no limit to our appetite for the quirky and gloriously useless?

"I hope not," says co-founder Michael Smith. "We set up to find unusual products, but now the suppliers are coming to us." Products such as Smith's favourite, Tengu, which plugs in to your computer and changes its expression depending on what it hears. "It's pointless, but life is serious enough," Smith says. "It's nice to get things that are just a bit, well, silly."

In the interests of research, The Independent set out to find, and test, gadgets that none of us really needs. But could a cinema squeezed into glasses or a bubble wrap simulator improve our lives, or are they destined to collect dust with the SodaStream and electric nail file in the great cupboard in the sky?


Puchi Puchi bubble wrap keychain £7.95
The claim: "A one-pop shop for stressed-out desk jockeys."

The test: Aah, bubble wrap. Squeezing those little capsules of air until they burst is a peculiar pleasure but, trouble is, there's not always a sheet to hand. Cue the Japanese toy firm Bandai. It has thrown some batteries into the mix and made an electronic version.

The Puchi Puchi, named after the Japanese word for "pop", is a lump of white plastic from which eight rubber bubbles protrude. Once you start popping them, it becomes strangely difficult to stop. After 15 minutes I'm still at it, annoying my deskmates and nursing strained thumbs. The Puchi Puchi does a pretty good imitation of the real thing and, just in case it wasn't addictive enough, its canny inventors have programmed in random noises, including a door chime, a bark and a fart, to sound every 100th or so pop.

The verdict: Quirky and addictive – for an hour.


Nike+ SportBand £40
The claim: "The ultimate training partner, an entirely new way to run."

The test: Just you, the road and some shoes – running has always been the purest sport. Until now – the past couple of years have seen a race to "gadgetise" jogging. Leading the pack is Nike with its Nike+ range. The SportBand package includes a plastic chip that fits into the sole of your left (Nike) trainer. It communicates with a detachable USB pen that slides into a rubber wristband, recording how far you've gone and your speed. Simply stick the pen into your laptop and upload your runs to the Nike+ site, where fellow joggers can compare times and swap routes.

I hate running, so welcomed any distraction that would make it less of a chore to train for my first triathlon. And the SportBand did, for a while, make things more interesting by encouraging me to beat my last time. It's also an accurate measuring distance. But the uploading and logging in became the chore and I'm now back with my trusty Casio watch.

The verdict: Clever and looks great, but, for me, a gizmo too far.


Telescopic lens for a mobile phone £20
The claim: "Release your inner paparazzi."

The test: Mobile phone cameras have made paps (if not happy slappers) of us all. But while the pixel counts keep rising, few mobiles offer a decent zoom. Enter the mobile-phone telescope. You can only get them on obscure websites, but I'd be surprised if the folk at Firebox aren't on the case. It's a slightly Heath Robinson affair – a two-inch telescope fixed to a mount that clings to your mobile with elastic. Position the scope over your lens and voilà – you're packing a hefty 8x zoom.

I tested mine at my office window, papping colleagues in secret meetings outside. Would brown envelopes be exchanged, or briefcases switched? Well, no, but I did get some close-ups. The through-the-keyhole, slightly blurred finish to the photos give them a suitably spy-like quality – think Alison Jackson and her celebrity lookalike snaps. However, mobiles are mobile because they're small. A mobile with a telescope slapped on it is not small.

The verdict: You'll be pap-happy for a day, but no longer.


Laser-guided scissors £4
The claim: "Never cut a wobbly line again."

The test: This fine pair recently came second (behind the electric nail file) in a poll of the most pointless gadgets. Can they really be that bad? They look like the bastard child of a sniper rifle and, er, a pair of scissors. There's a crude switch next to the thumb hole and a compartment for batteries. When switched on, the scissors throw out a red laser beam that's aligned with the tip of the lower blade and projects across the paper. Sounds great, but isn't there a major flaw – we cut wobbly lines because we have wobbly hands – and no laser is going to fix that. The only benefit came when we marked the other end of the paper. By lining up the laser with the mark during every cut, I was left with a pretty straight line. But then the laser broke.

The verdict: Cool, but shoddily made. But at least you're left with a decent pair of scissors.


Wi-Fi-detecting T-shirt £20
The claim: "A travel essential for rov-ing surfers."

The test: Devices designed to locate wireless hotspots have become a must-have accessory for people who need the net on the move – it's no good booting up your laptop on an airport concourse only to find there's no network. We've now got watches, sat-navs and mobile phones that will do the job. And a T-shirt. This one sports bars on a chest panel that light up according to the strength of the signal. It's powered by a battery pack.

I took it on a tour of London's Canary Wharf in search of signals. The Independent's offices drew a blank, but outside I lit up like a Christmas tree. At least, I think I did – the strength bars are invisible in sunlight. Inside the shopping centre I got four bars, but the "Wi-Fi zone" signs told me I was in range.

The verdict: It works, but only those fluent in Klingon need apply.


Celluon laser projection keyboard £135
The claim: "A revolution in mobile input technology."

The test: The Laserkey projects an image of a keyboard on to any flat surface. A sensor detects where your fingers are tapping and sends the right letter, via Bluetooth or a USB cable to a PC, mobile phone or PDA. It is veeeeery slooooow. There's no reassuring tap-tap – just a dull drumming of the desk. It takes a while to train the fingers and early sentences look like the work of a drunken woodpecker. But accuracy improves and speed builds. Even so, it's no match for a proper keyboard.

The verdict: An alternative to a PDA's minute keyboard, but, for me, no more than a cool trick.


Myvu Crystal personal media viewer £200
The claim: "Privately view an amazingly vivid, full-size image."

The test: The Crystal promises to make titchy iPod screens and rubbish monitors on planes things of the past. The glasses plug into an iPod or other video player and incorporate screens the size of postage stamps for each eye. The brain sees the stereo view as one giant screen, while decent quality in-ear headphones supply sound. You can still keep an eye on fellow train passengers or the ironing and the glasses aren't too heavy on the nose. Apart from making you look like a low-rent Geordi La Forge from Star Trek, it's an impressive bit of kit. My only reservation – and it's a big one – is the VGA image resolution – which means films are perfectly watchable but by no means crystal clear.

The verdict: The technology's impressive but the resolution's not quite there. Watch this space.