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IBM looks to jewelry, fashion for design cues

Forget those clunky, hands-free cell phone kits. Imagine hearing the voice at the other end through an earring.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Forget those clunky, hands-free cell phone kits. Imagine hearing the voice at the other end through an earring.

Caller ID could take the form of a ring that pulses a pattern of colors so you could tell whether the call was important before you bothered to answer the phone.

IBM today showed off a line of prototypes for what could be a new blend of technology and fashion. To create the gems, Big Blue teamed scientists at its Almaden Research Center here with Denise Chan, a Stanford graduate student studying to be a jeweler.

"They're simple," Chan said of her initial creations, crafted in about four weeks from both her own designs and off-the-shelf models. "There's design to it, but it's not overwhelming."

The jewelry demonstration was part of the research center's New Paradigms for Using Computers event, an annual gathering of designers, scientists and academics devoted to making technology a more seamless part of everyday life. The show began nearly a decade ago as a forum to discuss ways of making better computer interfaces and has evolved into a wide-ranging discussion on how computers and humans should interact.

Noted futurist Paul Saffo kicked off the speeches, telling the crowd that the advent of cheap sensors will allow technology to bury itself deep within our everyday life this decade. But Saffo warned that the merging of the physical world with the virtual world of the Internet might not be pleasant.

"My nightmare is that we are (headed) to a world of cyburbia," Saffo said, "that the vast blandness of suburbia is going to be replaced by the vastly blander cyburbia."

In part, that was what led IBM to play around with jewelry.

Cameron Miner, who oversees the design lab within IBM's user experience group, said that as more people embrace technology, fashion is becoming more important.

Miner said he got the idea for the jewelry from his boss, Robert Morris, who heads the Almaden facility. The rather conventional Morris said he would pierce his ears if it meant he could talk to his secretary while walking down the halls and avoid using a clunky earpiece.

The comment sparked quite a number of jokes around Almaden, but it also got Miner thinking. Too often, tech companies think of fashion as having models hold their products for ads, Miner said.

"That's like putting lipstick on a bulldog," he said.

So Miner went looking for someone who could design artistic products that could hold IBM's tiniest technologies--miniature speakers and microphones as well as the red TrackPoint pointing device pioneered at Almaden.

Miner found Chan, who happened upon an IBM job fair on Stanford's campus. Chan said she knew next to nothing about computers when she started her internship earlier this summer. But she said she has since picked up a transistor kit from RadioShack to get a better sense of what all the scientists around her work on.

Miner hopes Chan's sense of aesthetics will be transferred as easily to the science center, which is working on a host of portable technologies, including a wearable computer.

"If people are going to wear these things, it's really important what they look like," Miner said.

Chan and Miner's collaborative designs aren't headed to store shelves anytime soon, Miner said.

"We've got a couple of years to do it," he said. "But we've got to start thinking about it."