Johnny AppleLEED: Bruce Sterling's Review of the Voltaic Solar Backpack

TreeHugger connected Lord Sterling and TreeHugger pal Shayne McQuade such that Bruce could give the Voltaic Solar Backpack a test drive...Take it away Bruce!

I got my hands on the Voltaic Systems backpack. I have treated it with complete disrespect. This backpack is a high-tech, solar-powered wonder, specifically designed for moneyed electronics geeks. So my first product-testing step was to loan it to a female teenager.Its clumsy plastic shock buckle snapped closed on her delicate
thumb and drew blood. She immediately declared it a "guy thing."

She was right. The pack's taut, narrow chest strap is
unsuited to female chests. The belly belt is actively hazardous to the fingers.
The bag is also blacker than a Gothic ninja, with but two
small strips of reflective orange safety striping.

The teen reported, however, that her backpack
was an instant boy magnet. Male strangers begged
her for product information, sometimes in entire groups.
The bag's well-padded, lightweight and big enough for a horde of
textbooks, so if one doesn't mind dropping well
over 200 bucks, it'll make a statement any highschooler
will envy.

Everyone who sees this item immediately wants to
know if it will charge a laptop. Alas, it will not. There is not
enough solar real estate on the human back to charge
laptops. Furthermore, urban life offers few opportunities
to stroll through bright, uninterrupted sunlight. Wall
plugs are much handier.

Cleverly, the Voltaic has a hefty lithium-ion battery on board.
Over hours, this lithium depot will soak up enough solar juice to
briskly charge the sub-batteries of various gizmos.
So it's entirely practical to ignore the sun,
power up the onboard battery from a wall plug, and
go about your business as a walking power reservoir.

The Voltaic comes with a highly confusing
host of vendor-specific cellphone plugs. To
see this mess is to instantly grasp the raw hatred
for standards that grips the cellphone industry.

The bag displays its electrical activity by lighting
one small, discreet LED. That's a missed opportunity;
LEDs are dead cheap and require a mere trace
of wattage, so the bag ought to twinkle all over.
This bag is aimed at a rather odd consumer:
a lonely, well-to-do, off-the-grid geek with a cellphone.
I hope that a future version is more sociable and recognizes
the bag's the appeal. It ought to be redesigned primarily to
offer public wattage to friends and acquaintances.
Most everybody is anxious over battery charges these
days; we're all little blackouts and disconnects in the making.
A Voltaic bag owner should be a walking public
power center, a boon for voltage-starved colleagues.
The wide variety of plugs and ports ought to
be worked in as decorative elements, showing the
owner's ecumenical tastes and generous, providential,
nonjudgmental attitudes.

After a month's use here at the Art Center College
of Design in sunny, voltaic Pasadena, my
pack is showing some wear. The ripstop nylon is
lightly scuffed, there's some alkali desert dirt here
and there, but that only adds character.
The belly shock buckle dangled uselessly, and
it therefore got slammed in the door of my
Honda Civic hybrid electric, where it immediately
cracked into brittle plastic fragments. I never missed
that belt because I never used it.

The solar panels and embedded wiring are
the sturdiest parts of this bag. They have
been radically overengineered for anti-litigation
protection, so they are basically indestructible.
I wouldn't advise diving into a creek with the pack
fully charged, but otherwise its electrical contents
never caused me a qualm.

The zippers are sleek, but they do
have trouble following the bag's rounded contours.
The bag has two major pockets: a big one for cargo, and
a smaller one that houses the electronics. They're
easy to mistake. Users
will end up dumping books and hardware
into the charging equipment. I suggest color-coding
on the zipper tags.

The velcro pocket on the shoulder strap
is surprisingly handy. Few of
us make a lot of cellphone calls in off-the-grid wilderness,
but it's ideal for digital cameras. I took it up a minor
mountain in Joshua Tree National Park, ripping and clicking
desert vistas every hundred steps or so. To be
charged up off-grid felt a bit Robinson Crusoe, frankly --
at the top of a desert mountain "I am monarch of
all I survey," sure, but "Solitude, where are your
charms?" There's nobody there to impress!

Given that I have a solar-powered dynamo now, how about
a backup server. too? If I had two or three petabytes of
flash memory in a bag, I could backpack data storage
for anybody who plugged in -- I'd be the Johnny Appleseed
of voltage and memory. I'd carry a community on my
back rather than trudging a dusty way to splendid isolation.
And can't I glitter and glam a little when I've got a politically correct
power source? Sometimes you just can't beat pretty!

by Bruce Sterling of ::The Viridian Design Movement
Find out more at ::Voltaic Systems

Another review by Joel Johnson at ::Gizmodo.

TreeHugger's initial post is here.

And...please read/comment below as we want to know what you think.


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