The latest gadget must-have: Wood

Black, white and silver have all had their day as the cool colour for gadgets but now designers are rooting for something different – wood. Sophie Morris reports on why technology is branching out
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The Independent Tech

Technophiles can be decidedly fickle. As soon as they've installed cutting edge software on their new netbook and downloaded the latest iPhone app, they'll move on to the next development in the fast-moving technology market.

During the 80s, gadgets came in any colour you wanted – as long as it was black. Then the rise of Apple taught us that aesthetics spar for importance with functionality when it comes to gadgets. First everything had to be white, then tastes took a turn back to black. Chrome and gold have each had their day, but for this season the money is on retro wooden styling.

Wood and bamboo are popping up in the most unlikely of places, including speakers, mobile phones, laptops, earphones, a mouse and even a wooden controller for Guitar Hero.

The Audioengine 5 MP3 speakers in bamboo are being marketed, at £289, for their "sustainability and sound". Fast-growing bamboo is a decent green alternative to endangered hardwoods, and Audioengine's founder, David Evans, claims its intrinsic strength lends the material excellent acoustic properties.

Skullcandy recently unveiled some neat-looking wood and aluminium headphones which, at £62.99 from iheadphones (from £79.99) should be a quality product. "Wooden earphones make perfect hi-fi sense," according to Michael Brook, the editor of technology magazine T3. "Speakers are by and large wooden, and earphones are speakers in your ears."

The acoustic qualities of wood do not extend to all stereo gizmos however. A few years ago, the appearance of a £345 wooden volume knob to fit Silver Rock stereo equipment, which purported to channel "good vibes" through your favourite tunes, was greeted with mirth by canny analysts.

Brook attended the annual Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in January. Despite seeing the logic in wooden earphones, he is yet to be convinced about wood as an emerging trend across the technology sector. "Wooden gadgets are at odds with everything else about technology such as hi-tech construction, carbon fibre and titanium," he says.

He did notice that all the major manufacturers at the CES were making a considerable effort to promote their green credentials. Wooden or wood-effect gadgets are not green per se, but the use of sustainable wood in parts of the manufacturing process could mean that less plastic is used, which can be tricky to dispose of.

Jonathan Bell, architecture editor and technology writer for design magazine Wallpaper*, concurs that the emergence of wooden styling within the technology sector follows the green movement. "It is not hard to see the sudden reappearance of wood on hi-fis and other domestic electronics as a sop to environmentalism and sustainability," he says. "Even though wood was a very popular finish for electronics throughout the 60s and 70s, there aren't any obvious functional or cost advantages." Brook says certain wooden products have and always will have a retro appeal, such as the "beautiful" DAB radios.

New products need to pay equal attention to form and function. Take the Bamboo Optical Computer Mouse, £11.97 from SourcingMap. "Where wood makes a lot of sense is in places like mice and handles and controllers, where you have to touch the surface a great deal," says Bell.

Arguably the most desirable of current bamboo gadgets is the Bamboo Asus laptop, the latest version of the popular Asus netbook encased in bamboo, making it lighter. The wood even absorbs some of the heat that the hard-working machines generate.

This laptop is currently the ne plus ultra in eco computers, but Bell thinks we can push much further when making casings and structuring products out of wood. "There is a genuine case for looking at ways of making casings and structural elements out of wood - even growing it to fit," he says. "In the long term, big manufacturers will be exploring 'growing' wooden components."

Indeed, in the past year several concept cars based around wood were unveiled. "The flipside is the idea of using wood as a kind of bespoke, hand-crafted cabinet," continues Bell, "containing electronics that can be swapped out and upgraded while the device itself develops a patina and ages nicely."

This sounds like the most sensible and truly green option, but Bell points out that technology is sold and promoted through regularly upgraded surface designs and materials, so it is unlikely this would work at the moment.

As far as mobile phones go, Siemens brought out a limited edition SK65 phone several years ago fashioned from the unusual thuya tree, a Moroccan conifer that they said was sustainable, but the idea never caught on. It is unlikely a new concept phone made from maple by Korean designers Hyun Jin Yoon and Eun Hak Lee will either, though it is very attractively designed. "I don't think anyone wants a wooden phone or MP3 player – or anything portable – made out of wood," says Brook. "But for something at home, wood seems to make a lot of sense."

If you step out from under the eco-umbrella, you can treat yourself to the ultimate boys' toy in wooden accessories. Both Logitech (£115.99 from The Irons Den) and Starpex (£146.80 from Amazon) have created a Guitar Hero controller that has the look and feel of a real guitar, with the gaming controls hidden inside. Logically, this is the next step for wannabe living room rock stars, and these guitars bring to life exactly the sort of credible wooden styling product designers appear to be struggling to bring to other gadgets.

Consumers will currently have to pay a premium for high-performance products that cut back on plastic such as the Bamboo Asus. It is a sleek, special product costing £1,349.

Manufacturers no doubt think that pushing through a few wooden products will feed a general desire among consumers for eco-credentials, but if the function doesn't fit the form, only the particularly design-savvy will be biting.

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