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 delicatethumb and drew blood. She immediately declared it a "guy thing."

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

The teen reported, however, that her backpackwas an instant boy magnet. Male strangers beggedher for product information, sometimes in entire groups.The bag's well-padded, lightweight and big enough for a horde oftextbooks, so if one doesn't mind dropping wellover 200 bucks, it'll make a statement any highschoolerwill envy.

Everyone who sees this item immediately wants toknow if it will charge a laptop. Alas, it will not. There is notenough solar real estate on the human back to chargelaptops. Furthermore, urban life offers few opportunitiesto stroll through bright, uninterrupted sunlight. Wallplugs 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 tobriskly 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, andgo about your business as a walking power reservoir.

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

The bag displays its electrical activity by lightingone small, discreet LED. That's a missed opportunity;LEDs are dead cheap and require a mere traceof 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 recognizesthe bag's the appeal. It ought to be redesigned primarily tooffer public wattage to friends and acquaintances.Most everybody is anxious over battery charges thesedays; we're all little blackouts and disconnects in the making.A Voltaic bag owner should be a walking publicpower center, a boon for voltage-starved colleagues.The wide variety of plugs and ports ought tobe worked in as decorative elements, showing theowner's ecumenical tastes and generous, providential,nonjudgmental attitudes.

After a month's use here at the Art Center Collegeof Design in sunny, voltaic Pasadena, mypack is showing some wear. The ripstop nylon islightly scuffed, there's some alkali desert dirt hereand there, but that only adds character.The belly shock buckle dangled uselessly, andit therefore got slammed in the door of myHonda Civic hybrid electric, where it immediatelycracked into brittle plastic fragments. I never missedthat belt because I never used it.

The solar panels and embedded wiring arethe sturdiest parts of this bag. They havebeen radically overengineered for anti-litigationprotection, so they are basically indestructible.I wouldn't advise diving into a creek with the packfully charged, but otherwise its electrical contentsnever caused me a qualm.

The zippers are sleek, but they dohave trouble following the bag's rounded contours.The bag has two major pockets: a big one for cargo, anda smaller one that houses the electronics. They'reeasy to mistake. Userswill end up dumping books and hardwareinto the charging equipment. I suggest color-codingon the zipper tags.

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

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

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

Another review by Joel Johnson at ::Gizmodo.

TreeHugger's initial post is here.

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