Conversation Pieces
April 12, 2012

Conversation Pieces

When you see someone’s touch screen shattered into a fine spiderweb, it is hard not to say something.  You offer a sympathetic “Ouch!” or “Oh no, what happened?” What follows is typically a heartbreaking story of premature phone loss.
But smartphones need not end up as expensive conversation pieces, according to UK designer Russell Beard. Beard is director of his own packaging and design consultancy, called Square Banana, as well as Okoqu (pronounced “oh-koh-koo"), a company that sells one of his more recent designs, called the NUT.

The NUT encases an iPhone in a durable plastic shell. In contrast to phone covers you get at AT&T accessory stores that guard against tiny scrapes and dings, the Okoqu NUT offers up serious protection.
Beard came up with the idea when his friend, Steve Jones, wanted to capture video of his mountain biking trek. Jones realized that his mobile phone took as good, if not better, video than the new handlebar-mounted cams he was considering. The two talked about a way to armor smartphones against life’s bigger bumps. 

“We were thinking, as these mobile devices are becoming more powerful, wouldn’t it be great that there was something that you could put around your phone that would allow you to do all the activities you would do if the device wasn’t so fragile?” says Beard. “The result was a product that is very overtly rugged for sports, but it is actually useful for people walking to work in the rain.”

Weatherproof and shock-resistant, the NUT still allows users to manipulate touch screen options and other controls, like the menu button.  

Beard says other covers on the market either sacrifice true protection for style, or the other way around—hiding the appealing aesthetics of the phone in clunky boxes. “The challenge was to have the NUT design itself be desirable, so one would want to keep it on for everyday use.”

Pictures that speak louder

To get closer to this vision, Beard relied on raytracing technology. His rendering program, Luxion KeyShot, fills in his schematic engineering model with realistic clear plastic and soft, rubber materials, allowing him to see the play of light reflects on surfaces and refine the forms further.

But as many in product development are discovering, rendering isn’t just for designers anymore. Photorealistic previews are now playing a much broader role that extends beyond the engineering process. As Beard found out, the visuals are also good at communicating business potential.

“Very early on, we needed to get a measure from the biggest distributors and central retailers whether or not we should continue to develop a product to manufacture,” Beard explains. “I rendered the model in KeyShot to produce some really powerful visuals.  Because of these renderings, the product concept received traction with people before it became a reality.”

The rendering technology gives the designer/entrepreneur the advantage of product photography well before the item is manufactured. Much of the instant output from high-speed rendering applications comes out with the same studio lighting consumers are used to seeing in magazine ads and catalogs. Pictures speak louder to merchandisers in the larger arena of business development. 

Beard says the imagery did triple duty for his venture. Beard could show his intent to manufacturing engineers, make a pitch to investors and distributors, and even connect directly with potential customers.

“We are still using the visuals that we created early in the process on our Web site and product demos,” he says.  “That’s how powerful the software has been to this project.  The way the technology has sped up communication on the business end has been phenomenal,” Beard says.  “For the NUT, it just helped massively.”  

High-speed rendering makes a different kind of conversation piece – one which can be a lot more productive than how you dropped your phone.