Devious designs

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Published: April 7, 2015 12:41:30 AM

Behind even the weirdest of designs can be efforts to hide a technological challenge

It is starting to seem like too much of a coincidence, but it is a fact that in the past month or so I have seen two personal technology devices that owe their design to the watch industry. Such is the precision the top-end watchmakers bring to their design that now technology companies are being influenced by them more than ever before.

The first is the new HTC One M9 flagship smartphone, which should be coming to the Indian market any time soon. There is no doubt that the M9, like the rest of the HTC One family, is the most stylish smartphone in the market at the moment. It has a unibody metal chassis. But the unique dual-metal finish is inspired by watch design and it will take just one glance to figure out what that means. The phone feels like it has been manufactured by Bertling or Tag Heuer. We are lucky that the phone is not priced in the same range, even though about 95% of the raw material with which the 200-plus step manufacturing process starts is lost by the time the chassis is finally carved out.

The second watch-inspired design is on the new Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro. This high-end ultra-portable multi-mode PC has a hinge that has never been used before on computers. It is very similar to the strap on top-end watches. In fact, it is almost the same thing. Dilip Bhatia, vice-president, Worldwide Marketing and Design, PC Group, Lenovo, says the “very stylish watch-type hinge” has resulted in a “very positive feedback”. “It allowed the product to be thinner and fold 180-degree flat when needed,” he said in a telephone interaction.

The two devices also prove that at times companies are willing to push the boundaries of design, even when they might not be ideal from a product perspective. In fact, the Yoga 3 Pro is intended for the “fashion trendsetter.” Bhatia says Lenovo has other products for the “tech trendsetters” who might be looking for features like extreme processing power and battery life.

While design is such an integral part of any product—it is often the first thing that captures the consumer’s imagination—it can and does get sacrificed for the other features. A typical example is a slim smartphone. Slim phone designs are incapable of housing a large battery and a large camera sensor. This is why in the new Samsung Galaxy S6, for instance, you see the lens jutting out a bit. This means the perfect lens-to-sensor ratio could not be achieved within the chassis of the phone. On the other hand, all phones that sport a battery larger than 3,000 mAh are big and thick.

This is where companies often have to decide what is better for the device—design or practicality?

But can the quest for practicality defy every known design principle? I am tempted to say yes, because I have seen and read about the Nautilus from Bowers & Wilkins. At first, the Nautilus looks like a work of art, but a bit abstract. But it is actually a speaker and some call it the perfect speaker. The design, as weird as it might look, is actually inspired by nature and is in perfect sync with technology. After years of research the company learnt that tapering tubes offer absolute treble and midrange purity. But there was no way a three-metre tube would fit into a conventional speaker box. So, the designers finally narrowed down on a natural spiral to save space without compromising on performance. The speaker still has three tapering tubes that work to dissolve the sound created by each driver. So, the Nautilus offers the purest form of sound up at the front and has no output at the back. The design here is in perfect sync with functionality.

We are often quick to dismiss differently looking devices as being too radical. But those out-of-the-box designs could hide a bid to overcome a serious technological challenge. However, as in the case of the Nautilus, this could end up being the biggest selling point of the device as well.

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