The Lowly USB Port: Unsung Hero of Interactive Technology

Years ago, I was leafing through the world-famous Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue and came upon a most unusual gadget: a down-filled, cold weather parka, complete with a USB jack on the inside lining. This USB-powered coat was the first of its kind, and because USB technology was still relatively new, the conflation of apparel and technology seemed especially discordant. Unable to escape an unfortunate pun, I was seeing the emergence of a dangerous homonym: software versus softwear.

From Parkas To iPods: A USB Connection for Every Need

Truth be told, the USB-powered parka was a harbinger of a new technology trend that is now more than just a fad: USB connectivity has become the hallmark of interactive products, whether they are overly electronic or not. As I sit at my desk and take stock of some of the new spoils of this year’s Christmas holiday, I see strewn about the family room several unrelated items that all feature a USB jack: a plush toy that plugs into my laptop via USB to customise the songs it plays for my 18 month-old Daughter, a hand-held educational game system for my son that interfaces with a computer app, which lets my wife and I track his progress, a new Canon Elf digital camera, two new Blackberries, and a Christmas tree ball that you can load digital photos onto.

For my favorite hobby – playing music – I have a DAW (digital audio workstation) that also plugs in to any computer, thus opening up professional audio options that were completely impossible 15 years ago. Accompanying DAWS are pro-quality USB-connected studio microphones, USB-powered effects pedals, as well as USB-connected guitars, basses, keyboards, and even drums! Even more amazing are the now commonplace USB mini hard drives, which hold more memory than my old 386 in high school.

Whatever your own passion or hobby might be, I’m sure you can quickly conjure up a similar list of items that now feature that funky, flat jack we call a USB.

The Quiet Rise of the Household USB Craze

It’s funny – while the world has remained transfixed on the glitzy gadgets of the 21st century – iPhones and iPods, .mp3 players, laptops and netbooks, and various other flashy devices, the USB has steadily and stealthily crept into nearly every facet of our lives. Though we now have spare USB cables all over the house, it is this connection that truly enables us to have the unprecedented mobile electronic experience on a daily basis. You don’t often think about, but your iPod Nano wouldn’t be chock full of songs and video without its inexpensive little USB-connected dock or cable. The USB not only allows all of our electronics to synch together in a practical, interactive harmony, but it also allows us to gain more customized, personalised control over household items, unlocking new levels of interaction.

Children’s toys are an obvious choice for the USB revolution, since, by definition, all children’s toys are highly interactive. Every toy, no matter how simple, has a multitude of different interactive possibilities, all of which get explored in varying degrees by children. In the past, only specialised behavioural psychologists, empowered by large government grants and lots of free time, would study the behaviours associated with children’s interaction with toys. Now, however, a USB connection allows parents to process this kind of data on their own, which gives them better insight into the personal progress of their own kids. Moreover, a USB connection allows parents to customise toys to fit the likes and dislikes of their own child. Case in point: my daughter’s new plush toy now calls her by her own name and sings about her favourite animal (a llama) and her favourite food (sweet potatoes).

Not only is the USB an information conduit, but it has also become a next generation power outlet as well. Numerous devices, such as battery chargers, can now be powered via USB connections with laptop computers, allowing people to recharge NiCad and NiMH rechargeable batteries for other devices when they are away from home. Given the fact that a USB plug can serve as both a power coupling as well as an information exchanger, it isn’t impossible to imagine that a next generation USB connector could replace electrical plus and outlets in the near future, giving people unprecedented control over everything electrical in their household.

The Lifecycle of the USB Generation

While the ingenuity of the USB cable has been largely unlooked and take for granted by the world of technology, it isn’t too soon to imagine the death of USB technology in the years to come. While the development of the USB connection as a viable replacement to the standard power cable for electrical devices is a possibility, it is even more likely that USB cables will go the way of the do-do long before they find a new adaptation or purpose. New pioneering concepts, such as the technology behind the Sixth Sense Device, seem to suggest that interacting with objects around us will become a much more fluid and graceful process than the USB can offer. In the meantime, the next time you dock your iPhone, charge your batteries, or optimize your favourite parka using a USB connection, take a moment to remember the days when all a jacket could do is zip up.

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