Charmed.com was not your typical Silicon Valley start-up by any means. For a start its CEO was the 27-year-old Katrina Barillova, an ex-Czechoslovakian spy who’s cover had been to work as a fashion model. When Eastern Europe turned capitalist she left to become a bodyguard and security advisor to billionaires in the Middle East.
After leaving for the US, she teamed up with an ex-MIT graduate to form InfoCharms, a spin-off from the MIT Media Lab, to develop small Internet-connected devices masquerading as – wait for it – earrings and bracelets. At least that’s what it said in the press release. Looking at some of the products, one was often hard-pressed to tell the difference between Charmed’s vision for the future of sunglasses and something you might see on a Borg character in Star Trek.
Their idea was to market items like sunglasses with tiny monitors, and earrings that alerted the fashionable lady about town to incoming email (remember, SMS messaging remains a minority activity in the US). Charmed planned to be selling millions of devices by the end of 2000. Few people could work out whether any of its stuff would work or was even saleable, but no matter, mostly they just went to the fashion shows.
Fast forward two years and the latest wheeze to roll off the ‘future of technology’ conveyor belt is a mobile phone inside a plastic tooth. Like the baubles once paraded by a hopeful dotcom start-up in Los Angeles, this is a concept phone, designed by graduates for the Royal College of Art’s annual summer exhibition. The ‘tooth phone’ contains a radio wave receiver and a tiny vibrator, which would resonate your skull in order to produce sound. It really would mean voices inside your head.
Today we interact with our mobile phones and our computers through more conventional means. The difference between Charmed’s Californian accoutrements and the tooth phone is that the former was conceived in a time when the ‘personal area networking’ as afforded by the likes of Bluetooth wireless was still unrealised. It also proves that Bluetooth must, as The Economist put it recently, get ‘boring’ before it gets ‘sexy’, by simply replacing the trail of cables we carry around with us.
Charmed still exists, but it too has had to get boring to stay in business. It now markets small, wearable computers for industrial and commercial applications.
These days fashion is left to the likes of Nokia and Ericsson as mobiles have become fashion accessories in their own right and don’t need to be disguised as earrings.
First published: http://www.nma.co.uk/nmz/story.asp?id=235469