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Christmas Gift Guide
MP3 Players

It's a bit of an animal: The anthropomorphic MP3 player

MP3 players used to be bland, featureless objects. But something's afoot. It seems the animals have taken over the zoo, and MP3 players are going all feral

MP3 players used to have prosaic buttons and dials, but nowadays they're just as likely to have a face, legs, arms and, in some cases, a mouth that sings your music to you. As a race, we've always been partial to ascribing human characteristics to inanimate objects, but what explains the recent rise of the anthropomorphic MP3 player?

It's easy to dismiss anthropomorphism as a quirk of human perception with no real significance. Yet mysteriously, there's actually a medical condition called anthropomorphobia in which the sufferer fears anything mechanical that is given human characteristics. This suggests that when we see faces in objects there's something deeper going on than mere playfulness. You have to wonder what an anthropomorphobic might make of the Fusby MP3 player bear, whose tagline is, "Download any song into my refreshable memory, I can sing it to you any time."

Fusby's lips move in time with the words of the MP3 track, creating the illusion that he himself is singing it. What the long-term psychological effects of watching a small furry bear sing pop classics to you is anyone's guess.

The trend doesn't stop there. Earlier in the year, Toshiba began to bundle a little dolphin-shaped MP3 player with its range of Dynabook laptops. Realising there was demand for the dolphin by itself, last week Toshiba released the Dolphin as a stand-alone MP3 player.

Not unknown for their eccentric range of products, Sanrio, owners of the Hello Kitty brand, launched the second iteration of the Hello Kitty MP3 player late last year. While the original Hello Kitty player only had a head, the new player has a body and legs as well.

On this new player, Kitty's legs do something rather special -- they let you skip through tracks and control MP3 playback. Ostensibly aimed at children, the ironic bragging rights of owning such a player has attracted adult MP3 player fans. Indeed, the dexterity required to operate the small Hello Kitty MP3 player belies its apparent audience of children. You wonder how many salarymen have these tucked away in their briefcases, playing Britney Spears to them as they jostle about on the Tokyo Metro like cattle.

In a world where email and instant messaging diminish personal contact, it seems likely that the socially disenfranchised seek emotional refuge in these MP3 animals. Do their cute faces, perennial smiles and high-quality audio playback sate a hunger for unconditional companionship that even a weekend spent revamping your MySpace profile could never nourish? Do we all harbour a secret desire to see our faces reflected in the technology we use? And if so, how long will it be before the iPod gains an extra Clickwheel to mimic the eyes of a large, friendly, surrogate mother, singing a lullaby to guide you safely through the mean city streets? -CS