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Does your skateboard pick up Channel 13?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Does your skateboard pick up Channel 13?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1993, The Syracuse Newspapers

In some areas of the country—New York, for one—it's illegal to drive a car while wearing headphones. The idea is to discourage people from tooling along to the beat of their Walkman-type tape players.

Have I got news for the folks who make the laws. This year, the electronics geniuses have come up with something even scarier—a color TV you can watch while jogging, biking or driving your car.

The first model on the market is called Virtual Vision. It's a new company. But the regulars in the electronics business, the ones who make the name-brand products that sell in the millions, have already geared up production of their own versions of this drive-into-a-wall device.

They'll all work like the one from Virtual Vision. You wear what looks like a cross between Star Trek sunglasses and a motorcycle face mask and strap a Walkman-size TV tuner around your waist. A long wire connects the TV tuner to a tiny picture display that sits right in front of your eyes.

The Virtual Vision design has one TV screen, in front of your right eye. That means you can still see out of your left eye. But other models have given up this pretense of partial vision altogether; they have two screens, one for each eye.

The picture quality is as expected for TV you're watching while you should be doing something else—small, not very sharp, and extremely distracting.

In an ad aimed at potential dealers, Virtual Vision describes its device as something you can wear while working out at the gym.

Not at my gym, thank you. I want the aerobics nut next to me to be paying a little more attention to what's going on. It might be me and not Vanna White standing there in the way of a jumping jack.

Virtual Vision also says you can "watch the morning news during your commute on the bus." And what happens when you reach your stop? Do you switch channels, find a boring station and step off the bus?

My private research—well, a couple of quick observations made during a lunch break—have shown that people who wear Walkman players do not take their headphones off when they want to talk to you. This is disconcerting, to say the least. You don't know whether to talk louder, to hum a few bars of "Runaround Sue" or to tap your feet to some sort of inaudible beat.

Imagine what is going to happen when these stick-it-in-your-eye TVs reach the streets.

"Hey, uh, y'know, um, how can I find the, um, like, Federal Building?" "Take a right past Dan Rather and turn left at `Cheers.' "'

In some ways, of course, this is just the latest chapter of the Tales from the Funny Farm. I can think of a dozen sensible uses for a wearable, no-hands TV. I could use one to monitor my camcorder's images while taping the family reunion, and I could wear one while lounging in my L.L. Bean hammock on a breezy summer afternoon.

But you know, and I know, that 99.7 percent of all the folks who buy this sort of thing aren't thinking of camcorders or hammocks. They'll be streaking down the pavement on their 18-speed mountain bikes or jogging along the trails at the county park with one-half of one eye on the ground.

As my friend Murphy once said: If something stupid can be done, it will be. He could have added: If something even more stupid can be sold, it will find lots of willing buyers.

And in this case, caveat emptor isn't the point. It's the rest of us who have to beware.

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