If you buckle up, they will watch

Nothing says "look at me" like playing video clips on a palm-size player that doubles as a belt buckle. Photos: Video belt buckle

3 min read
These are discouraging times for the "kill your television" crowd, which has long feared that video entertainment will zombify the masses.

Miniature screens blaring movies and games are more prevalent than ever, especially in the hands of urbanites; sidewalks brim with pedestrians more interested in watching "Underworld" on their Sony PlayStation Portables than in making eye contact.

Though a keen aficionado of electronic gadgets, Shaw Kaake sympathizes with the technophobes in one respect: He thinks people entranced by handheld screens tend to ignore the world around them, to the detriment of civil society. Kaake's response to this trend is the Egokast, a palm-size video player that doubles as a belt buckle.

Video belt buckle

"This is the first media device that you don't watch, but everybody else does," said Kaake, an American industrial designer who has lived in Shanghai for seven years. "Instead of staring into your BlackBerry or your PSP, you're looking at the reactions of people to the content."

In addition to serving as a wry commentary on the effects of video addiction, the Egokast is meant to enrich the clubgoing experience. Kaake was initially inspired by buckles with LED screens, which can be programmed to broadcast scrolling text messages. The idea of replacing text with images occurred to Kaake on one of his frequent visits to the nightclubs of Ibiza, Spain, where booming music is synchronized with hypnotic video loops.

On returning to Shanghai late last year, Kaake disassembled a PSP, hanging the liberated screen on a belt. The crude prototype worked, but it was too expensive a design to replicate repeatedly: The device sells for upward of $180. Shanghai's electronics shops are awash in much cheaper video players, so Kaake found an affordable alternative. Rather than take the player apart, he merely hung it on his belt with plastic loops, loaded it with abstract video clips and hit Shanghai's clubs for a round of market research.

The patrons were entranced, especially when the Egokast's video appeared to be working in concert with the club's music. Their one complaint was that the player looked too bulky hanging off a belt, giving its wearer a somewhat nerdy cast on the dance floor. So Kaake slimmed down the design, creating a metal case for the player that adds only a few millimeters of thickness. (The case latches onto a belt with small metal hooks, which extend from the sides rather than protruding from the back.) The player slides out of the case with a simple tug, so it can be carried in a pocket as easily as on a belt buckle--though doing so obviously runs contrary to the spirit in which the Egokast was created.

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Kaake also negotiated with a manufacturer in Shenzhen, a capital of China's electronics industry, to supply video players that were not only appropriately thin, but also jarringly bright--the better to grab the attention of passersby. The Egokast's player was tweaked to feature 10 levels of brightness, rather than the three levels that were in the off-the-shelf model.

The Egokast, priced at $289, has been available at Egokast.com since June. The device includes a memory card and a disc filled with hundreds of prefabricated video loops; users can also make their own content.

Imagine the oddity of a belt buckle playing, say, the climactic shootout scene from "Scarface." It would be likely to attract comments, and perhaps even foster conversation with strangers--precisely the sort of socially lubricating effect Kaake was aiming for. But he cautioned that the Egokast might not be right for wallflowers.

"Some people might be a little uncomfortable with everyone looking at their belt," he said. "It's sort of an unusual place for people to be staring at."

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