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When it comes to electronics, enjoy the view

Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — but let's face it — some gadgets are downright ugly. But happily, manufacturers are lately paying better attention to design. Paul Hochman explores this trend toward beauty.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

For those who love their tech and gadgets, the following news will offer welcome relief. For those who don’t know the difference between DVR and VOD (which is most of us), the same news will also offer welcome relief.

So what single new trend in consumer electronics could possibly make both geeks and novices happy? What novel development could bring together the opposing needs of calculator-worshipping types and and overworked parents alike?

In a word, “beauty.” We all appreciate it. We all smile in its presence. Whether it’s a Van Gogh or a Frank Gehry or a Heidi Klum or a George Clooney, beauty has been a source of fascination since there have been human beings to ogle it. A little late to the party, the consumer electronics manufacturers have realized we normal people like beauty, too.

So, for the first time in gadget history, the TV, MP3, digital camera, home theater and electronics accessories manufacturers have all agreed with Apple that technology must (drumroll, please) look nice. Seriously. The crusty, dusty era of gray boxes as far as the eye can see may, thankfully, be over. You might not have noticed yet, but in addition to Apple’s already-legendary devotion to the beauty of the box its technology works in, brands like Sony, HP, LG, Nikon, even Dell (yes, Dell!) have agreed that things have changed.

Consider Sony’s Bravia line of televisions, which came out recently with this interesting option: replaceable frames. Yes, while Sony’s TV technology is cutting-edge and its picture is unsurpassed, Sony decided to give buyers an option to change how their TV looks. The concept: optional, replaceable frames that can be dropped in around the screen. You can get the “Rose Metallic” bezel, the “Arctic White” metallic bezel, the “Pacific Blue Metallic” bezel,” and so on.

Before I even mention other manufacturers’ efforts to make attractive products, I can already hear the snickers — “A sure sign that the Apocalypse is upon us,” you laugh, “when TV manufacturers start trying to sell you optional picture frames.” Maybe. But think about it: A new 52-inch flat-screen television takes up a solid 12 square feet of your wall (4 feet by 3 feet). If it’s ugly, that’s a lot of ugly. Would you voluntarily buy 12 square feet of ugly art and hang it on your wall?

Of course it’s not just Sony (LG and Samsung now offer a new “Scarlet” and “Piano Black” series, respectively), and it’s not just televisions. Consider the lowly desktop computer. Long considered a box so ugly and so aesthetically orphaned it didn’t even justify placement on your desktop (people usually hide them under the desk), consider the HP Blackbird 002 Gaming Desktop. Built in cast aluminum and wrapped with big cooling fins not unlike those you’d see on a high-end audio amplifier or a power substation, the Blackbird is even named after something cool and beautiful — a spy plane.

Granted, appeal to some of us is the fact that HP simply canned the ugly old gray box design, but still — with pretty, renovated kitchens decked out in stainless steel and other metals these days, isn’t it nice to think that there’s a computer that can sit in the kitchen and actually look good?

And the list goes on — camera manufacturers were among the first to embrace the idea that people wanted their technology to be attractive (consider the hugely popular Olympus Stylus series of point-and-shoots, which come in a range of colors), and after TV makers followed suit, so did MP3 makers and even home theater manufacturers.

How did this happen? First, and as usual, women were the ones to drag men out of the aesthetic desert. Last year, for example, and for the first time in tech history, Best Buy reported that more than 50 percent of all TV sales were either directly made or directly influenced by women. And as electronics have become a more central part of an average home (where women make many of the final aesthetic decisions, according to the Consumer Electronics Association), manufacturers took note.

But another influence was, and is, the ingenuity of the manufacturers themselves. In the case of the Olympus Stylus, it wasn’t easy to fit electronics into such an odd, curved shape. So the engineers actually had to figure out how to produce a contoured (and still functional) circuit board to fit under the contoured skin of the camera.

But as with any big trend, there has to be a leading, bleeding edge, and this is it: Called SteamPunk, it’s a new subculture of devoted tech-heads who not only long for beauty, they long for the simplicity of an earlier time. So they’re beginning to create old-fashioned veneers, skins and surfaces for their brand-new electronics. Imagine a computer keyboard covered in keys from a Royal typewriter, circa 1949. Or a flat-screen computer monitor, framed in Victorian brass fittings, circa 1895.

Is it your style? Maybe, maybe not. But frankly, it doesn’t matter. Because this much is true: At least it has some. When it comes to electronics, this is not something I thought I’d ever say: “Enjoy the view.”

Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: