Confessions of a technobiophiliac

I'll admit it: I love tech with natural elements like wood, and I don't think I'm alone.

moto x bamboo

Smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung and others have flirted with different materials to make their smartphones -- metal, plastic, even glass front and back with the iPhone 4 line.

So which of these is best? Wood!

When Google first marketed the Moto X smartphone, it showed a picture revealing a bamboo-backed version of the device (which was made by Motorola, which Google has since sold to Lenovo). Later, Google announced four "natural material" options: bamboo, ebony, teak and walnut. I already had a plastic-backed Moto X, but when the wood version came out I bought one. I had to have it because of the wood.

This desire to own consumer electronics made at least in part with natural materials is called technobiophilia. The word was coined by Sue Thomas for her 2013 book, Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace. It's, of course, a combination of tech and biophilia, which is the innate attraction to nature and living things.

A bit of bamboo or walnut on the back of a smartphone isn't nature, per se. But it symbolizes nature and can be more pleasant to touch than cold metal or cheap plastic. Plus, wood components done right give gadgets a high-quality feel and make each one unique, because the grain pattern of a piece of wood is different from the pattern on any other piece of wood.

It's easy to get it wrong when adding wood to electronics, which is another way of saying that it's hard to get it right.

OnePlus first marketed its OnePlus One phones with "SwapStyle covers" made from a range of interesting materials, including denim, Kevlar, silk, sandstone, bamboo and others. But in September, the company announced the cancellation of the SwapStyle options. Explaining its decision in an online forum, the company said the following:

"We could have designed the removal process of the back covers better; it’s tricky and makes frequent switches difficult. The swap can also leave the back cover slightly creaky or loose, and it risks damage to the battery which is exposed for a short time."

Despite the failure of OnePlus to deliver on its SwapStyle promises, the public response to the promise in the first place demonstrated a pent-up demand for wood and other natural materials on tech gadgets.

Despite its innate appeal, wood with electronics has a bad reputation.

When many people think about wood integrated into technology, they may think of after-market or third-party wooden keyboards, mice, tablet and phone cases, phone stands and other such products.

These can be less interesting because they're not created and designed by the consumer electronics manufacturer itself and often have an unsophisticated look -- like wood-shop projects or art-show crafts. There are exceptions, but many products that try to combine wood with tech fail to do it right.

But some win, and win big.

Turning up the volume on nature-oriented technology

Bang & Olufsen recently introduced a product called the BeoSound Moment, a unique tablet for controlling one of the Danish consumer electronics company's high-end home music systems. On one side of the tablet is a glass-and-metal interface with a touchscreen and control wheel for navigating your music collection, adjusting the volume, choosing tracks and so on.

bang olufsen beosound moment Bang & Olufsen

Bang & Olufsen's BeoSound Moment controller uses oak as the actual touch control interface.

But the other side of the tablet looks like a piece of wood about the size of a computer keyboard. In fact, it's oak. On the right side of this slab of oak is a circular indentation that is the industry's only "touch-sensitive wood interface," according to the company.

Swiping around the circle controls volume. Tapping in the center toggles the music on or off. Swiping horizontally advances the song selection to the next track. There's no screen, no letters or any other cues to the interface. Just a slab of wood that, inexplicably, responds to touch.

Even though the BeoSound Moment uses wood, it's in a special class of device that's distinct from wood-backed smartphones. The reason is that the wood itself, as a material, is part of the technology. It's not merely decorative -- Bang & Olufsen managed to create a touch interface made of oak.

Another example of this phenomenon is a multipurpose bedside device called the Wooden Qi Wireless Charger. It's a wooden box that functions as a wireless charger, a hands-free speakerphone and an alarm clock.

The charging part is like any other Qi charger, but the electromagnetic field passes right through the wood to charge the phone. The alarm clock isn't visible on some screen built into a wood housing, and the time and temperature are actually displayed on the wood. The light shines through the wood, making it a kind of computer display or monitor made out of wood.

With everyone bracing themselves for the coming Apple Watch, it's interesting to ponder the appeal of a less-than-smart watch made with wood from a company called Grovemade. (Grovemade is new to the watch business. Most of its products are wooden accessories for Apple products, such as iPhone stands and cases, or keyboard and iMac stands -- that sort of thing.)

woodwatch Grovemade

Grovemade's wood-faced watch required a lot of design innovation. The company had to re-invent the watch interface.

Rather than just replacing metal components like the strap or casing with wood, as other watch makers have done, Grovemade actually uses wood for the watch interface. It's not behind glass, either. When you touch the watch face, you're in direct contact with Oregon Claro Walnut or Eastern Hardrock Maple.

These are rare but appealing examples of tech products that satisfy technobiophilia.

The use of natural materials in tech is a sure way to excite a fan base, as we've seen with the Moto X and OnePlus One phones. It brings a level of warmth, humanity and beauty to consumer electronics, as well as an element of exclusivity and individuality.

The consumer electronics industry would be wise to revisit its habit of making everything out of plastic, metal and glass. There's a strong pent-up demand for natural materials like wood because the appeal of such materials is innate and universal.

Are you a technobiophiliac? If so, let me know about it in the comments below.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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