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USB Gadgets: The Newest (Computer) Fashion Accessory

Humping Dogs.jpg

The USB Humping Dog has quickly become one of the biggest crazes on the Internet. Word of the toy spread through YouTube and message boards. Consumers have used this gadget and others like it to personalize and liven up their workplace. (Provided by ThinkGeek.com)

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The USB Missile Launcher is another popular USB gadget sold on the Internet. Word of toys like this one spread through YouTube and message boards. Consumers have used this gadget and others like it to personalize and liven up their workplace. (Provided by ThinkGeek.com)

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These heated slippers are an example of a useful product sold on the Internet. They plug into a computer's USB port and use the computer's power to warm the user's feet in a chilly work place. (Provided by USBGeek.com)

An unlikely video on YouTube has become an Internet sensation, logging in over 2 million hits and counting. Type “USB Humping Dog” into the search function and up comes a video of a small plastic toy dog whose hips, when plugged into the Universal Serial Bus (or USB) port on a computer, begin gyrating, humping the computer to his little heart’s content.

Word of this new USB gadget spread rapidly over YouTube and message boards as e-mail forwards flew across the Internet. Computer users around the world clamored to purchase the libidinous canine.

“It has a cult following,” Ron Lewis, one of the toy’s U.S. distributors, said. “I’ve shipped it to over 30 countries and to many military bases around the world.” Lewis imports the toys from a business partner in China and sells it on his Web site, usbgaggifts.com. In November and December 2007, Lewis sold over 2,000 of the dogs. He is just one of several vendors in the U.S.

“One grandmother,” Lewis, 41, said. “was giving it to every one of her friends over the holidays.”

The humping dog is part of a new wave of USB gadgets and toys now sold on the Internet. Ranging from functional devices like heated gloves, coffee warmers, Coke coolers, ashtrays, and, of course, memory drives; to the outright goofy like a hamster wheel, humping dog, leaping frog, foam rocket launcher; to the erotic, like a lingerie-clad pole dancer or male stripper, companies around the world are producing cheap toys that are powered solely by a computer’s USB drive.

Demand remains in step with innovation. Consumers are ordering the gadgets from several Web sites, using them to play pranks on their friends and coworkers and to accessorize their work areas. The gadgets help them stand out in the sea of black, gray and white of most corporate cubes and provide a momentary break from the monotony of the workday.

“Gadgets like the humping dog are definitely a way for people to express themselves in their workplace,” Heather Dale, 26, associate editor of GeekChic.com, said. “They become conversation starters and you can totally pimp your workplace with so many different USB gadgets. It is definitely an expression of style. You shake your head at it but at the same time people are becoming so techy it kind of lightens things up a little bit.”

The Universal Serial Bus port was introduced in November 1995, according to IBM’s Web site. The following year over 300 companies, including Microsoft, Philips, US Robotics and IBM, formed the Universal Serial Bus International Forum and launched USB 1.0 into the mainstream. The port was designed to rid personal computers of the forest of different ports the cables of various printers, scanners, copiers and other external components required. In May 1998, Apple Computers introduced its first iMac personal computer, which utilized USB ports to connect to the mouse and the keyboard.

But there were still problems with the port. Only certain USB devices worked with specific operating systems, keeping the USB from becoming truly universal. In 2002, the same group of manufacturers introduced USB 2.0, which increased the popularity of the USB port tremendously. The new version allowed for faster data transfer, encouraging manufacturers to produce more and more products for the USB port.

“Lately, people have been using the USB as a power supply,” said John Frazier of ThinkGeek.com, an online store of geek-related paraphernalia. ThinkGeek.com carries a vast array of USB products, from the useful to the silly. “USB provides just enough power to power little things,” Frazier said. “Because these gadgets are on your desktop, they can amuse you at work.”

At first, ThinkGeek.com was reluctant to sell the USB humping dog. “We didn’t want to debase ourselves,” Frazier, 38, said. “But eventually we just said that people are asking for it, so we better sell it.” ThinkGeek.com now sells over 125 humping dogs per week for $9.99 each. A new version of the toy with a built-in memory drive to will hit ThinkGeek.com soon, Frazier said. When a user transfers a file onto it, the dog humps.

Aside from manufacturers utilizing the USB port in new and creative ways, the humping dog also represents the next wave of practical jokes. Many of his customers, Lewis said, send the toy to family and friends as a light-hearted gag. “Technology is always the trailblazer for gags,” Joey Skaggs, the New York-based prankster, said. Skaggs has been performing practical jokes and hoaxes for 42 years. He is a satirist and performance artist, has hoaxed the likes of Geraldo Rivera, currently edits Pranks.com and, “of course,” he said, “I’m working on a myriad of top secret projects.”

“The human psyche seems to have a need to personalize new technologies,” Skaggs said. “I think it’s a way to deal with things we don’t fully understand. Practical jokes and humor seem to be one of the primary ways we do this. It’s how we humanize technology and bring it into a zone where we can interpret it and interact with it.”

In the workplace, these gadgets have additional psychological benefit. “Giving someone a laugh is totally necessary to break out the total monotony of what you’re doing,” Skaggs said.

Psychologists who study stress agree. The two major causes of stress in the workplace are overload and boredom, said Dr. Peter Bullard, a psychologist from Portland, Ore.. “For people that are bored, toys like the humping dog introduce a novelty,” Bullard said. “That wakes up the brain and introduces serotonin, a chemical that elevates mood and helps you think better.”

For the overworked, the toys can provide a distraction or a “mental health break,” Bullard said. “It’s a way to refocus from the seriousness of the day and onto something frivolous, which is important.”

The toys can also help coworkers bond. “These toys do something to increase the cohesiveness in the work group,” Dr. Thomas Britt, a psychologist at Clemson University, said. “They give employees a sense of control of the work place and they can come together to play with them.”

Ultimately, gadgets like the humping dog provide an additional flourish that livens up what may be a dull atmosphere. “People are going crazy nowadays with decals for their laptop or getting a color laptop or a sleek looking camera,” Dale, the GeekSugar.com editor, said. “People are sick of the plain black, boring gadgets and they just want to spice it up and have fun with it. I mean really, Why not?”

E-mail: jpj2110@columbia.edu