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Once upon a time, during the stone age era known as the 1970s, a product completely devoid of usefulness was created: the pet rock. This thing enjoyed a burst of commercial success that engenders acute embarrassment. Its inventor proved that the alchemists were right, you can make gold out of completely valueless minerals. Now, whether an intrepid pair of researchers originally hailing from Keio University have crafted today’s high-tech version of the pet rock, in either its irredeemable lack of utility or ridiculous success, only the heavens know. But in the Pileus, an Internet umbrella, they are giving it the old college try. The umbrella created a publicity splash some time ago as an umbrella that was wired to display photos on its underside, via the Flickr Internet photo service, a must for all rainy days. The digital marvel has since evolved from its first-generation version through two subsequent efforts to the latest incarnation that supports both Flickr and Google Earth, packs a built-in camera, a motion sensor, GPS and a digital compass. Its two main functions are the sharing of photos on the walk and navigation. Using the umbrella’s camera a user can take a picture and upload it to Flicker via a wireless Internet connection. Just to complete the distraction, beyond viewing still images on the umbrella, an advanced prototype allows the user to stream video from YouTube. Using Google Earth, a 3D bird’s-eye view of the area around the user can be displayed. These may all be useful ideas but I fear for the longevity of any pedestrian packing such a device, they will need a car navigation service to help them avoid the traffic and other obstacles they won’t be looking out for. The device formerly used for keeping off the rain is not yet at the commercial production stage but fear not, even pet rocks were just once lowly stones on the ground.

Charge me up: The Chargepod is not a made in Japan product, but its U.S. origins do not lessen its usefulness. In essence it is a six-way recharging device, looking rather like a six-armed octopus, that you can use to juice up your cell phone, digital music player and other gadgets. It runs off an included AC adapter and you can add a USB adapter, for $29.95, to the mix. There is no denying the virtue of having one device to do the job of six but at $49.95 the price of convenience is a tad high. Online orders can be made from Callpod at www.callpod.com/products/

Sun worshippers: Versatility is also one of the selling points for the Solar-fine 1350 recharger from local outfit Links International. Adapters are included for charging up a range of devices, including almost all Japanese cell phones, hand-held game consoles, including the PSP and Nintendo’s DS, and, naturally, the iPod clan. True to its name the device’s second claim to your patronage is that the charger runs off solar power. The single glaring drawback is the need to find enough sunshine for 10 hours of recharging, although Links includes the option to subcontract the charging via AC or USB. The recharger costs 7,980 yen with more information available at http://www.links.co.jp/

Penguin power: Rather than building a better recharger, Panasonic aims to help people use their electricity better with its Lifinity ECO. A kind of energy monitor/thermostat hybrid, it looks like one of the small screens that gas water heaters sport so you can control your bath temperature. But the Lifinity’s screen is populated with cartoon penguins that keep tabs on your heating and air conditioning settings and other electricity-consumers running around your home. The manga madness will lecture or praise you depending on your green credentials on the day. At a cost of 350,000 yen, you had better listen. The system is slated for an October release.

Extension cubes: Extension cords are a necessary evil, and the homes of gadget freaks have to support more demons than most. Exorcising the visual blight is the mission of design company ideadco and its “tapbox.” These are seemingly simple but in fact cleverly designed 10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm cubes, coming in stylish red and silver color schemes. On the bottom side of the cubes are four extra power plugs to feed your gadgets, with arches along the bottom sides of the cubes to allow power cords to slip unobtrusively within. A simple silver switch on top of the cubes gives away their purpose but keeps the aesthetic touch. More information of the tapbox, and other products, is available in both English and Japanese at www.ideaco-web.com/

Big Brother printing: Brother Japan has come up with a printer for the specialists. The 150,000 yen, palm-size machine can print passive RFID tags. Available in September, the RL-700S uses 9,500 yen rolls of plastic tape that contain IC chips, each with their own antenna, that can be programmed with the desired information, printed with whatever human-readable information is necessary and then laminated. Each roll is good for up to 30 tags. Software for making both the content of the tags and the data held thereon is included, as is an RFID reader/writer terminal, which is stuck on one side of the printer. PC connection is by USB 1.1, but the software is only compatible with Windows. The RL-700S can be networked with a print server, making it a cheap and simple affair for the various sections of a company to issue RFID access cards to new staff when needed.

Mobile nags: Some view mobile phones as the key that unlocks the door to freedom. Others deem them to be a long leash that keeps us tied to work/home and can be yanked on at will. Those of the latter persuasion are unlikely to dash off and type in www.bqwireless.com/ in their Web browser. BQ Wireless has come up with the MBW-100 vibrating wristband. When your phone receives a call, the wristband vibrates to alert you, provided the band is within nine meters of the phone and your mobile is Bluetooth enabled. It can be recharged via USB off your computer or from an electric outlet. The gadget for tightening that leash hits the shelves in July with a price tag of $39.95.

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