If it is close to the end of the year and you may be at your wits end regarding what special gift to get for your tech savvy friends, for that client you want to impress with your technical know-how while still reminding them that you are thinking of them, for that nerdy cousin, or for the boss. On the other hand, you may just be so pooped out from buying gifts for other people that you want to think of something to get for yourself.
Hold that thought for a moment for a bit of explanation about USB. Originally designed to replace the venerable serial port for device communication, it is now used for a variety of work-a-day applications. Of course, USB has also become the gateway for the almost ubiquitous thumb drive that has all but replaced the floppy and Zip drives as a means of saving files on a portable media and transferring them to another computer via "sneaker net." These days it isn't uncommon to see high tech workers with enough USB drives hanging from the lanyard with their ID/access card that they seem like they are carrying a jailer's load of cell keys.
As part of the USB format, its designers cleverly included something that old-fashioned serial ports didn't have: a five-volt power connection that could be used to power the device being connected. That is what enables the same cable connection that syncs to your BlackBerry or iPod to charge it at the same time. Clever travelers have long known about this, and use USB to charge a variety of devices including their cell phones and portable navigation device (PND) without having to carry a briefcase full of different chargers.
The convergence of USB and holiday gifts of interest to those involved with audio/video/data systems comes into play when you remember that there is no requirement to include anything having to do with data or computers when a USB connector is attached to a product. Around the world (though particularly in Japan) clever designers have taken advantage of the ubiquity of USB connections in the desktop and portable computing world as an easy means to power a wide variety of products that operate on the five VDC, ~2.5 amp current that can be drawn from a USB port. Some are a genuine productivity aide. Some may actually solve an on-the-job problem. Some help give you, and probably everyone around you a laugh at times when you need one. And, admittedly, some are just a bit goofy-but then again who in this industry isn't a bit silly at times?
Starting with some USB items that are actually practical, the iTTUSB turntable from Ion may be something that some of you may have heard of already. It is a standard turntable/tone arm/cartridge package whose output, rather than the conventional left/right low level analog signals is an MP3 stream that connects to your computer through, you guessed it, a USB connector. If you or a client has a collection of those black twelve-inch vinyl discs that need preservation to a hard drive or optical disc, or if they need a specific track of production music from an old disc for use in a presentation or show, this is an easy way to do that.
If the source is not a record, but rather a guitar or instrument with a quarter-inch phone plug, or a standard dynamic microphone with an XLR connector that needs to be input directly to a computer, the folks at LightSnake have the answer. Why? Because there is a USB connector on the other end. Plug one end into the mic or instrument and the other into a computer and you have an easy way to create a podcast or lay down a track directly into a mixing program.
The folks at LavaWorld International have a variety of USB powered lava lamps, most widely available under $10 as stocking stuffers. If things get too hot, they even have blue or pink blob lamps with a fan on top. We never had things like that back in the sixties!
USB ports have been used to power heating and cooling devices, and the list is now longer than ever. The CoolIT Chiller from CoolIT Systems looks for all the world like a conventional coffee mug warmer that you plug into the wall, but connect the USB plug at the end of this baby into an open port on your computer and the cold plate will keep a can of your beverage du jour chilled to 45 degrees F. Thanks to the Peltier Effect this device has no moving parts or fluids, let's just say that it's "magic."
While we're on the subject of hot and cold, a search of the web will bring you to a USB-powered device that tells you what the room temperature is, while at the same time including a digital clock with alarm function and a negative ion air purifier. Is the temperature OK, but the room's odor a bit off? Not to worry, Thanko comes to the rescue again with a USB powered "Aroma Diffuser." Candles are a no-no in most system control environments, and AC outlets are probably out of the way for those plug-in fresheners you buy at the supermarket, so the USB Aroma Diffuser spreads the benefits of your favorite aroma oil (not included) without your having to worry about the heat used in conventional oil-based dispensers.
A long day at work, at the computer, or musical instrument keyboard, or in a planning session with the client is bound to get your body's system out of joint. Combine that with the likelihood that either someone has fooled around with the thermostat in the conference room or the fine folks in building services have locked it down and you have a recipe for being too hot or too cold. Too cold? USB warmer gloves are available to keep your hands from freezing while leaving the finger-tips open so that there aren't any typing errors or covered when the AC is on "meat locker" setting. We'd be remiss not to mention that there are also USB powered "fuzzy slippers" with built-in heaters, but in all honesty we can't recommend them due to the possibility that you'll forget that you are tethered to your computer and run off somewhere, dragging that pricey new laptop off the desk and crashing to the floor once you start to move!
A note on finding these items, as some of the prime manufacturers do not sell direct to end users. Your best bet for these gadgets is to do a web-search and shop for the best price. Many items are available from a wide range of merchants, though some are exclusive to one company such as ThinkGeek. In the course of that type of search you'll come across many of the other fascinating USB-related items we didn't have room for, including the USB vacuum cleaners, sushi, and other odd forms of USB memory drives.
Finally, it is important to step out of that character to thank all our readers for their support during the past year, and to send our hope to you all for a happy, healthy, prosperous and, above all, peaceful, New Year.