The Future of Fun

Toasters that forecast the weather, necklaces that fence in wandering children, cell phones that practically sing and dance. A glimpse at the fanciful, freaky gadgets popping up in Hong Kong today that you wish you could find at a local Best Buy.

The consumer fetishism of the Internet boom may be fizzling on U.S. shores, but not even torrential summer rains — much less an economic slowdown — can dampen the capitalist fervor of Hong Kong. I recently spent six days in the former British colony (now Special Administrative Region, or SAR, of China) and discovered that much has changed since my last visit, in 1999 — a new flag, a more crowded skyline, and a few landmarks reduced to rubble — but the culture of business and money is very much alive and well in this island society.

Hong Kong has always been something of a contradiction. The high-tech design of most skyscrapers stands at odds with the bamboo scaffolding used to repair and clean them. The sophistication of the international banking community contrasts with the tacky, gold-colored Far East Finance building, a longtime fixture on the Hong Kong skyline. The city that boasts more than five and a half million mobile phones for a population of more than six million (a frightening penetration rate suggesting either multiple phones per adult or mobile phone usage right down to the youngest children ... or both) is the same city that hires gray-haired women to haul rocks and dirt from construction sites in heavy baskets carried across their shoulders. If you point out such paradoxes to Hong Kong natives, they will likely shrug and say, "But it works." And it turns a profit.

So while Americans fumble with clunky cell-phone interfaces and grapple with the concept of a wireless Web, Hong Kong already boasts an entire subway system and many cross-harbor tunnels networked for mobile phone use. Most phones there measure half the size of their American counterparts — and feel half as heavy! And never mind figuring out how to send awkward instant messages in English shorthand — these phones send and receive text messages in Chinese. (The Hong Kong Mass Transit Rail is one of only a handful of profitable subway systems in the world. The MTR makes millions of American dollars administering online auctions for high-tech toys, airline tickets, and other items from its Web site, which went public last year.)

Similarly, while San Franciscans and Bostonians are only beginning to learn the joys of high-tech transponder systems for paying road and bridge tolls electronically, Hong Kong residents have had transponders in their cars since the mid-1980s. And now people carry credit card-sized transponders in their wallets to handle various daily tasks.

Called Octopus Cards for the company that produces them, these stored-value transponders emit an electronic signal that communicates with any compatible device. Users in Hong Kong add money to an account associated with the Octopus Card and then use it to ride the bus or buy a latte at Starbucks. Children even use them in vending machines at school. The Octopus killer app? There's no need to flip open your wallet to flash the card at an attendant or insert it in a machine — simply wave your bag over the electronic reader, and your account is debited. As a result of the Octopus, human traffic jams at MTR turnstiles are minimal, and lines at Starbucks cashiers are all but nonexistent.

High-tech devices like these infiltrate daily life in Hong Kong, making the city a veritable Fantasy Island for gadget freaks and wireless fanatics. In fact, sniffing out bizarre tech toys in the SAR often yields more innovative gizmos than a trip to the better-known hunting grounds of downtown Tokyo or Taiwan. The reason is simple: If you want to know who invents the crazy stuff, go to Japan. If you want to know who makes the crazy stuff, go to Taiwan or Korea. But if you want to know who buys the crazy stuff, go to Hong Kong.

Perhaps the coolest — and strangest — gadget hiding in Hong Kong is the Toasty, an Internet-enabled toaster created by British industrial-design student Robin Southgate. The device has an Internet connection that retrieves weather data each time a slice of bread is inserted. A cartoon picture of the forecast (sunny, partly cloudy, rainy) is then toasted into the breakfast staple. While the Toasty is not yet available for sale, I can only imagine the hordes of Hong Kong consumers who will snatch it from store shelves this holiday season.

The WaveFinder is a must-have product for any household with multiple mobile phones, computers, and random electronic devices. Produced by a company called Bilora, this stapler-sized plastic gadget measures the amount of microwave radiation a device emits. A sensor on the tip of the WaveFinder analyzes the radiation information and translates it into a reading on a scale of 1 to 9. At the highest end of the scale — a red 9 rating — a continuous beeping sound warns that you've entered the radiation danger zone. The WaveFinder retails in Hong Kong for about $33.

For shoppers with rambunctious children who tend to wander off at every turn, there's the Child Guard electronic sensor and alarm system. With advertising slogans like "Always keep an eye on your baby" and "You won't say sorry to your children any more," the Child Guard features a plastic cartoon-creature necklace and a separate transponder device that attaches to a key chain. Anxious parents can set the sensor between 2 and 10 meters, and when the child wearing the transponder necklace wanders farther than the prescribed distance, the key-chain alarm sounds. The Child Guard is available for about $23.

And for outdoor adventurists who hate the feel of sticky insect repellents or the smell of citronella candles, the Hong Kong marketplace offers the chemical-free Mosquito Control Mosquito Repeller, by PestContro. The device can be worn either wrist-watch style or clipped to a belt buckle or lapel, and it claims to repel biting female mosquitoes by mimicking the sounds of dragonflies and male mosquitoes. (Dragonflies are natural predators of mosquitoes, and male mosquitoes are, um, repugnant to their female counterparts.) While the jury's still out on whether this gadget actually repels summer pests, for about $8, it'll make one hell of a conversation piece on my next camping trip.

Alison Overholt (aoverholt@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company staff writer.

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