Unplug that printer, and put down that mouse: Use your precious USB ports to connect one of these weird and wonderful peripherals.
When the USB format was introduced just over 11 years ago, the creators envisioned it as a way to liberate computer users by making it easy for them to attach devices to PCs without opening the case, fiddling with arcane settings, or dealing with a multitude of specialized ports. By simplifying things for product developers and users, the format gave creative designers the means to come up with any kind of device they pleased.
So they did.
An increasing number of oddball peripherals have appeared in recent years, and nearly all tend to be designed for the widely used USB standard. Many hail from Japan; the Japanese gadget company Thanko.com, in particular, could be considered the king of offbeat USB products.
Here we present to you a sampling of 15 of the most absurd USB devices we could find. Let's start with a collection of fully functional flash drives that look a little kooky--and, in one case, downright scary.
Just Plain Goofy
Hey, are you gonna eat that? A rule must exist that if you traditionally eat something with chopsticks, you should be able to store data on it, because no other explanation springs to mind for these USB drives masquerading as sushi, takoyaki, dim sum, and tempura shrimp.
Bring a little bit of the outdoors into the office with these wooden flash drives designed by artist Karin van Lieshout. The use of natural wood pretty much guarantees that your drive won't look like anyone else's, but be prepared to do a little whittling if you usually carry your portable memory in your pocket.
If a prize were awarded for the grisliest flash drive design ever, the winner would be this one, which looks just like half of a human thumb. I'm sure there's a hitchhiking joke in this somewhere, but most people would likely be too busy gagging to think of it.
The USB Kitty stands (okay, crouches) about 4 inches high, bobbing its head as it demands attention, much like a real feline prima donna. Using a handful of sensors, the device also meows ingratiatingly when you make kitty-stroking motions near its chin. The Kitty is just like a real pet, only with a timer, an alarm, and a repertoire of cat-language birthday songs. At least you don't have to clean a litter box.
Computing in a Winter Wonderland
Is your home office stuck in the coldest room in the house? Thanko's USB Warmer Slippers will keep your tootsies toasty during the winter months. Each slipper comes with its own USB cable, on/off switch, and temperature control. Just be careful when you get up for your coffee break: If you keep the slippers on, either you or the computer will end up on the floor.
Meanwhile, your hands are shivering...unless you consider a pair of open-fingered USB Heating Gloves (for men; check out the USB G-Gloves for women). As with the Warmer Slippers, each glove has its own cable, power switch, and temperature control. You can pull the mitten tops over for all-around comfort, though your typing may resemble 'qo#$@ovga;klf'.
No carrot noses or coal eyes here: The menacing USB Snowbot's most distinctive feature is a scanning light that reminds me of Battlestar Galactica's Cylons--and not the slinky, well-dressed ones. Switch the scanning light to blue or red depending on whose side you're on.
Want proof of your awe-inspiring productivity? The USB Hamster Wheel provides a dramatic demonstration. The faster you type, the faster the toy rodent runs, and the faster the wheel spins. Of course, a person could take the metaphor of a hamster running but never getting anywhere in a negative way, so this might not make the best gift.
If you'd rather find new and creative ways to slack off, consider this USB update to an old favorite. When your boss walks by, hit the StealthSwitch to instantly hide that Sudoku Web site and display an important-looking spreadsheet. You can customize the software to switch to any application you want.
Do you regularly have to dodge paperclips and rubber bands launched by your cubicle neighbors? Escalate your inter-desk warfare with this USB Laser-Guided Missile Launcher, which tilts and pivots remotely via the included software. A laser sight helps to ensure accuracy for strategic attacks, or you can connect as many launchers as you have USB ports for some serious shock and awe. (Ambitious coders can also create their own missile-launching applications with the freely downloadable API.)
No matter how much you love your PC, at some point you may want to clobber it into a thousand tiny pieces. Save yourself the expense (and the cleanup) by investing in the ScreenSmasher, a foam axe that comes with a USB sensor. Whack the screen, and your Windows desktop will display an image of shattered glass, along with a crash sound effect. Therapy never came so cheap.
It's deadline-crunch time at the office and you've been living in your cubicle for three days, finding creative ways to make five-course meals from the vending machine offerings. At least you can look sharp: Keep this rechargeable shaver plugged into your USB port while you're sleeping under your desk, and you can zap that five o'clock shadow before the boss rolls in.
When you get into the gaming/coding/on-the-job-YouTubing zone, it's easy to forget about your nice cold drink. Stop forcing yourself to drink tepid Red Bull, and keep your beverages at the right temperature: Just plug in the USB Beverage Chiller, a cold-plate that drops the drink's temperature to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you're more of a hot-coffee type, you can go with a cup warmer instead. Impress your friends and coworkers with your impeccable taste by opting for the fancy T-Light, which is made of bone china, and also glows while it's in use.
Here's a different take on convergence: This USB Mug Warmer and Hub not only keeps your drink at 176 degrees F, it also comes with a four-port USB hub built into its base. The USB 1.1 ports manage only a poky 12 megabits per second--but no one said convenience comes without a price. That had better be some excellent coffee.