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Sharpened Up for a Bit of the Ol' Ultra-Useless

By Brendan I. Koerner

As a Geekish-American pre-teen, I kept two publications stashed beneath my boxspring: the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (especially the one with Elle McPherson in the Dominican Republic) and the latest Sharper Image catalogue. Man, how I loved peeping those seemingly fancy gadgets, and dreaming of the day when I'd have $395 to drop on a Laserx laser pointer. Yes, $395—it used a "helium neon gas plasma laser tube" with a range of 55 yards, so it was obviously worth every penny. And, like Elle in the swimsuit issue, the Laserx was backlit and airbrushed to inspire a Pavlovian response—my first taste of printed gadget porn.

Then my pops actually ponied up for the $129 "sound soother," and my Sharper Image worship ended right quick. Thing was a hunk of junk, and all of the "primal forest sounds" were reminiscent of walkie-talkie buzz.


As I've matured into a halfway respectable adult, I've now come to regard many Sharper Image gadgets as hilarious, or pathetic, or both. Especially those sold during the company's heyday, before anyone could stroll down to the local discount store and pick up an electronic toothbrush or nosehair trimmer.

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In the past two column, I appealed to you, dear readers, to pass along word of ludicrous, low-end Sharper Image gizmos of yore. Your submissions after the jump, as well as some items I discovered through my own research—including, yes, the Bug Vac (pictured above right). PLUS: Low End Theory is gently reminded that wattage output is logarithmic


This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.

First, a little history lesson. When it started up in the mid-70s as a vendor of executoys, the Sharper Image wasn't much of a gadget emporium. It was more about selling replica swords and the like, including (as one elephant-memoried reader mailed) a 9mm pistol knock-off that looked exactly like the real thing. (This was obviously before the laws turned against toy guns, forcing manufacturers to paint the barrels orange.)

The gadgets started coming in the mid-80s, right around the same time everyone got in a tizzy over the Heathkit HERO and other personal robots, not to mention the first Macintosh. And thus began the Sharper Image's long love affair with gizmos that, on one level, seemed ahead of their time, but on another level are unadulterated crap.

Let's start with the Vocalizer 1000, billed as "the world's first voice-controlled music synthesizer." You'd speak or sing into the mic, and it would turn your oh-so-lovely tenor into, say, a cowbell or the French horn. Not entirely unworthy of admiration, but everything ended up sounding sort of like the infamous sound soother—very white noise-y. Recently saw one on eBay for $8, so there's no question that the Vocalizer 1000 meets the Low End Theory criteria.

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.

The Bug Vac debuted on the Sharper Image in the late '80s, though now it is widely available. Gotta love the idea—we here at Gizmodo are staunchly against gnat, fruit flies, and other household pests—and the price was right at $20. But check this: the original unit's storage cartridge could only hold 40 bugs at any given moment. Um, excuse me? I run into more than 40 bugs each morning on my way from the bed to the shower. I'll just stick to squashing them with my size-12 sneaker.

For a dollar less in the same era, you could purchase the fake car-phone antenna, which isn't a gadget so much as a manipulative toy for tricking ladies into overestimating your net worth. It actually didn't sell very well for the Sharper Image, which gives me fresh hope in America's innate goodness.

I could go on and on about the various foot massagers and in-shower CD players that have graced the pages of the Sharper Image catalogue over the years. But gotta wrap up with the contest winner, submitted by a man whose name belongs in the pantheon of greatness: Douglas Bridges. This Gizmodo reader is to be lauded for directing us to the Truth Quest lie-detecting phone, which he spotted on eBay for $47. The phone allegedly analyzes the stress in a caller's voice, and signals the level of truthfulness with a series of LEDs: green for "he's telling the truth," red for "he's a bald-faced liar," and yellow for "your guess is as good as mine." Note, too, that the Truth Quest offers "sleek European-style phone features," not to mention a redial button. With that sort of advanced technology at your command, $47 is a steal indeed.

This image was lost some time after publication, but you can still view it here.

Don't interpret this column as an outright slam on the Sharper Image. I'm all for their massage chairs, especially the new iJoy ZipConnect. Just having a little fun at the expense of a company that's offered its fair share of outrageously useless duds. We're laughing with you, Sharper Image, not at you. Though given how touchy you've been over criticism of your air purifiers, maybe you're not enjoying the ribbing.

LOW END THEORY FALLS FOR IT: Thanks for the reader who pointed out the amateur mistake I made in last week's column: declaring one stereo system superior to another merely on the basis of wattage. Hyping wattage, of course, is an old stereo-salesman trick. Tim Denner wrote in to remind us that "wattage is logrithmic (sic); to double the sound, multiply your wattage by 10." So our whole riff on dollars-per-watt? Claptrap. We'd have been much better off comparing decibel sound pressure levels—if only Record Shack had that sort of info on its handwritten hype sheet. Thanks, Tim, and apologies for the dunderheadedness. Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appear every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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