Japan gadget wizards conjure hay-fever hoods, spy cam specs

Tokyo firm milks USB in offbeat novelties

By Tim Hornyak, IDG News Service |  

The store's shelves are overflowing with nearly 800 types of gizmo, while the online shop has 1,000, most for about ¥3,000 to ¥5,000 (US$30 to $50). The company is putting more emphasis on developing its own inventions but mainly imports products from China, where it has a manufacturing base.

The roughly 20 staff at Thanko are expected to come up with ideas every week. Not all concept have what it takes to make it to market. Yamamitsu, for instance, once invented a memo pad that had a keyboard. It proved too costly and impractical to commercialize.

"We take inspiration from everyday problems, things that stress you out," said Naohiko Shibasaki, who handles marketing at Thanko, pointing to the Cushion For Use When Lying Prone, an inclined floor pad that supports your chest and neck when you're using a laptop or reading. For total comfort while lounging, there's a pair of USB-powered heated slippers nearby.

"We want to find solutions for small hassles that can be annoying or painful," Shibasaki added. "We want to surprise you."

Thanko competes against Japanese computer accessories firms such as Sanwa Supply and Iosys but has tried to carve out its own niche with a steadily growing stream of original inventions. Its wacky thinking has paid off with a swelling fan base, and it's now aiming to increase annual revenue to ¥1 billion.

Yamamitsu isn't shy about taking the spotlight to hawk Thanko's gadgets in images and videos, happily sporting the Pollen Blocker and Vibration Helmet. He thinks Japanese businesses could use a little more unconventional thinking.

"Japanese were an agricultural people who respected conservatism and diligence," said Yamamitsu. "We still have that temperament, and are averse to risk and failure. That's why I think Japanese business is grounded in soil that makes it hard to grow innovative products and services."

So what's next for the gadget wizard? A USB wand?

"My dream product is a wearable computer that's controlled by brain waves or sight," he said.

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