15 Offbeat Computer Designs

These creative prototypes take advantage of flexible, foldable screens, unusual designs, and materials that can mold themselves into new shapes.

PCs of the Future?

A PC to rival Mead's Trapper Keeper folder system. A wearable computer-bracelet to serve as your digital slave. A smart cutting board for the kitchen. And some entirely new concepts for the visually impaired. Meet some of the finalists in Microsofts Next-Gen PC Design Competition. We picked 15 we thought had a chance of making it. Because we like some more than others, we give you a reality check with our best guess on odds of them taking one of the awards. But who cares if these designs actually make it--this contest (which requires no working models) encourages designers to completely re-think the PC as we know it. And that is a good thing. Are any of these your next PC? Microsoft is now accepting your votes for the Public's Choice award. Or maybe you have a better idea. Sound out your big ideas in our community forum.

For the Modern Media Home

Odds: 5 to 1

Still waiting for the "converged" living room? Cinch Digital Home is a suite of components designed for families who use digital media every day. The system is composed of three primary components: the server, the display, and a handheld. The server manages in-home storage, processing, and organization; the display is the interface for accessing content; and the handheld offers mobile storage, processing, and display of the same content. The components are specifically designed to communicate and share media.

Junior High Deja Vu

Odds: 2 to 1

The T-Horizon is sort of like the Mead "Trapper Keeper" notebook you used to buy every fall for school--except that this is a fully functioning PC. You can either spread the PC horizontally on a table, or use the compact version while working on the road. The T-Horizon features a detachable processing unit, double-sided transparent, flexible display screens, multitouch screens with touch-evoked resizable keyboards, a 3D projection module, and a built-in Web camera. The "strap" that holds the notebook closed doubles as a detachable media player. The PC communicates with its wireless components using Bluetooth.

Braille Meets the Digital Age

Odds: 3 to 1

Get hands-on with Siafu, a PC designed to give sight-challenged people a more intuitive computing experience. It lays flat like a tablet and allows the user to interact with it by touch. The surface of Siafu utilizes a "conceptual material" called magneclay, which can morph upward into any shape. This means that Siafu can generate infinitely refreshable Braille and then display it in a book format. Siafu also has the ability to display images as a three-dimensional relief, allowing blind computer users to experience digital images and graphic layouts for the first time.

Poke Your PC

Odds: 4 to 1

Like the Siafu, the ZEN is specifically designed for the visually impaired. It is comprised of hardware called the "Sandbox PC" and a so-called ZEN edition operating system. The two work together to create a computing environment that can be used with your eyes closed. The Sandbox PC features Active Surface, an electronic surface that can take on different physical shapes and be manipulated by the user. You can read Braille text on it and make out windows, icons, and different textures. All input is made by touch--you can press into the surface, or scratch it with your fingers.

Wearable PC Travels Lightly

Odds: 6 to 1

No laptop bag needed--the Flux PC system consists of a wearable bracelet that interfaces wirelessly with a portable display. The bracelet holds your personal, digital information while the display gives you a larger viewing area and connects multimedia devices. The system can also interface wirelessly with a portable display or with other computers.

Help for Household Curmudgeons

Odds: 6 to 1

Do you grate your teeth when somebody leaves the lights on in the living room while no one's there? ProsperPC is a home system designed to monitor both rooms and utilities like lights and water throughout the home. It will alert you of any potentially dangerous activities and let you know when it's time to yell at someone for leaving the water running in the bathroom.

The PC Branches Out

Odds: Even

Extending an arm--er, branch--to artists, the Bloom PC sends a series of laser beams between its three upright poles, or "branches," to create 2D and 3D images in mid-air. The branches allow the displays to range from 15 to 24 inches. Users can choose from a variety of display sizes and viewing angles by repositioning the branches. The two "side branches" also house the PC's sound system. A user would employ a keyboard or a pen stylus to operate the PC and edit design images. Bloom's biometric scanner allows it to recognize returning users with a finger swipe and display all saved personal files and settings.

A Digital Sous Chef

Odds: 5 to 1

Need a hand in the kitchen? The Smartchef is designed to assist and entertain cooking enthusiasts. The PC provides recipes and cooking advice through its free-standing touch-controlled tablet. The tablet is also built to connect with other devices in the kitchen, the designers say, and entertain the cook with music and video. The other main piece of the PC is the "smart cutting board." Food placed on this surface can be weighed, analyzed for nutritional information, and screened for toxins or spoilage.

PC as Fashion Statement

Odds: 10 to 1

What to wear to your next meet-up? Harmonious, a traditional jade necklace design of ancient China which signifies "harmony," is designed for young people and is suited to blogging, chatting, and social networking. The device's mapping function shows the physical locations of the user's friends. If a friend is nearby, the color of the device changes to represent the personality of that friend. Harmonious is meant to be a fashion accessory with computing power.

Refill with the Morning News

Odds: 3 to 1

Unlimited refills takes on new meaning with the Yuno PC, a mug that doubles as a media PC. The mug holds your morning beverage on the inside--like any normal mug--but its outside is a touch-screen interface displaying your news, e-mail, and so on--but just the content you might want to see when your day begins. "Everyone has a morning routine which usually involves drinks like coffee, tea, and juice, also checking and watching for things like stocks, traffic, or an e-mail from your boss," the developers point out.

Lifeblogging Goes Backpacking

Odds: 3 to 1

What happens in Vegas should stay there. For all else, there's Backpacker's Diary, which mimics the traditional paper book, providing travel enthusiasts various tools and types of information on each "page," including media recording and maps. The device can be used to search all information for a trip in advance, such as route, weather, and hotels. A GPS unit keeps guiding travelers to their destination, and also updates information along the route. Other pages in the diary encourage travelers to keep a journal of their traveling experiences, and to share them with others.

A True Travel Buddy

Odds: Even

You can leave your trusty neck wallets at home with the TRVL. This single device provides mapping and navigation functions, as well location guides, ID/passport information, travel ticketing and scheduling information, a TV phone and e-mail application, and a camera with video capture. Perhaps the TRVL's most striking feature is its ability to display relevant data from around the real world.

Sharing Time, Kiddies

Odds: 4 to 1

Imagine a world where we all just got along. WITHUS aims for that, but bypasses this generation. It targets today's preschool children, aiming to shape values and relationships by encouraging them to play, compute, and learn with other kids. Kids are attracted to the game-like and highly visual aspects of this device, and are invited to enjoy the content with their friends by physically connecting multiple WITHUS PCs together. "Various firsthand experiences and collaborative activities using WITHUS help the kids grow as social beings by learning cooperation and compromise," explain the designers.

Modeling Nature

Odds: 2 to 1

Realism gets a shot in the arm with the Conceito PC, which is designed to be a kind of digital medium for artists: Its flexible LCD screen can be carried around outdoors, and the translucent display can be held up to an object or setting--whatever the artist wants to depict--to create the picture around and on top of the real thing. The screen display can be unrolled and fixed to the supporting stand using the pen as the lock. The base is an LED touch screen with a color palette, from which the pen stylus can obtain colors. The PC has a color sensing mechanism that gathers color from real objects.

Filter Media on the Fly

Odds: 5 to 1

End the information overload by sorting it as it comes in. INFO Live is aimed at organizing media and routing it to other devices (PCs, stereos, TVs) for playback as it arrives. The PC connects using a fast broadband network and is designed to communicate quickly with other portable and stationary devices. It understands dragging, scrolling, and tapping input commands. Incoming e-mail, documents, photos, and so on, are represented by a series of icons on the bracelet.

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