Services made flesh: 10 weird – and not so weird – "avatar" gadgets

The dawn of the 21st century brought us a problem: we had lots of data, but no real way to bring that data into the real world. We could feasibly lug laptops and phones around, but did they ever do exactly what we needed them to do? Don’t answer that.

Manufacturers, in their wisdom, decided to do something about it and so devices like the Peek – for email – and the CueCat – for nothing – were born. Here’s a look at ten ‘avatar’ gadgets, gadgets that brought a web service into the real world, for better or worse.

Twitterpeek – We should be nicer to the Twitterpeek. This standalone device, designed specifically for Twittering, mirroring our own obsession with the microblogging service and, if anything, we willed it into existence with our collective desires for always-on Twitter. Does it work? Eh. Is it a good idea? Eh. Is it for us? Probably not, but what do I know?

Peek Pronto – Now this makes a little more sense. The Peek Pronto is an email-only device. It’s great for business owners who want to give on-the-go email access to their employees without spending hundreds on monthly cellphone charges. The company, in fact, is reaching profitability so all our bellyaching isn’t hurting the company’s bottom line. The Peek Pronto costs $299 for unlimited email, a pretty good deal.

Kindle – The one real success story in this list. Kindles bring Amazon’s electronic book store to a hand-held device. It’s so popular, in fact, that everyone and their dog is getting in on the act. It’s an avatar device simply because it enables offline access to Amazon content.

Nook – This is supposed to be the Kindle on steroids. This is odd because B&N isn’t quite the name synonymous with online book-selling so what they’ve done is a double-reverse Lutz avatarization of their product. They created a device to showcase their web offerings and are now tooling up web offerings for the device.

Zipit – I popped over to the Zipit website and discovered that they’re actually still making these things! Zipit is basically an IM/SMS-only device that costs $49 and lets you send IMs, listen to music, and look at pictures over Wi-Fi. It’s for kids, obviously, and after the initial purchase it costs $29 a year for unlimited text messages and IM messaging. Kind of a good idea if you want to keep your wee ones from dumping a few grand on SMS messages.
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IMfree – Now this is a blast from the past: the IMFree. It’s basically like the Zipit, but primitive. It is probably one of the first avatar devices out there with an actual useful purpose.

Augmented Reality Toys – Augmented reality creates ‘holograms’ on your PC screen when your webcam sees a special bar code. This is sort of a reverse-avatar situation where the physical device unlocks on-screen content. Expect to see more of these but Avatar seems to be going whole-hog on these.

ASellerTool and other bar code scanners – Devices like this abomination promise to allow offline pricing of various items like wine, books, and media. Useful for flea markets and the obsessive.

Wikireader – Dream: Hey! Why don’t we stuff an ever-changing information source on a device! Let’s call it the Wikireader! We’ll be rich!
Reality: This thing is a waste of plastic.

Cuecat – The winner of the dumbest avatar device is the Cuecat, a silly bar code reader that was supposed to bring online content to magazines. You’d plug in your Cuecat and scan magazines as you read them. Sadly, even back in 1999, reading your magazines by your PC was a bit silly. The company went belly up and now the Cuecat is remembered as one of the most ridiculous examples of dot-com hubris ever.