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High-tech luggage

By Sarah Gilbert, Forbes
Last updated on: May 12, 2007 18:13 IST
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A luggage cart that transforms into a rudimentary bicycle. An attache case that delivers an 80,000-volt electric shock to would-be thieves. A Dalmatian-spotted valise that follows its owner around like an obedient dog.

Brian Lam, editor at the techie gadget blog, reviews lots of luggage innovations and is skeptical of most.

"A lot of those are concepts," he says. "They're really interesting but I don't think anyone entertains the idea that they're something people would buy. You need to look at the bigger picture, not just anything that has batteries."

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Simply put, there's no point to gadgetry without utility.

"It has to be genuinely useful on the road to make it worth complicating the suitcase," argued Lam. Take, for instance, a new GPS-enabled suitcase: "It would be expensive, and it would probably take up the space you need for a toothbrush. Also, do you really want to attract attention - or thieves - to your luggage?"

In a post-9/11 environment, most established luggage manufacturers are understandably wary of integrating gratuitous gadgetry in their products.

"Some wires and gadgetry can inconvenience the traveler," said Quentin Mackay, Global Creative Director of Samsonite, noting that airlines are increasingly restrictive of excessive circuitry. "There's a fair amount of paranoia out there - which is justified, unfortunately."

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But technology still has a role to play - mostly in the development of harder, lighter polymers. "Material science is really important," said Lam. "And material characteristics are the most practical way to integrate technology and luggage."

Lam, who carries a bright orange Samsonite Oyster himself, says the top of the line in innovative luggage is the Dutch-designed Henk suitcase.

"It's engineered really well. It has oversize wheels and its center of gravity is perfectly balanced - it can roll up curbs, and it's lighter than any other suitcase its size," he said. It better be perfect: it costs $20,000.

Samsonite claims its X'Lite range is the lightest and strongest luggage it has ever created. "It's very strong, it's flexible and it's very light," said Mackay.

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The importance of style is paramount. Japanese designer Hideo Wakamatsu makes a boutique range of handbags, attaches and suitcases that combines a timeless Japanese aesthetic with leading material technology. "As a designer, one of my most important principles is to assimilate new technology with Japanese tradition," said Wakamatsu. "Recent materials are not just functional but also are very advanced in texture and appearance. This allows us to produce stylish products that are easy to use."

Wakamatsu uses a hollow-threaded nylon in a number of his products - it's strong and light, but also has appealing textural features. Some of his other creations include customizable hard-plastic carry-ons that feature internal picture frames, and a transparent attache framed in anodyzed aluminium, dubbed "The Skeleton."

The final component is security: A bag has to be safe enough to ward off potential thieves, but still easily accessed by airport security personnel. The Transportation Security Administration has developed combination and key locks that can be opened only by their officers and the key or combination holder. They're now used in most Samsonite lines, and the individual locks are available from most large luggage stores.

Read on to see 10 examples of recent innovations in luggage technology - some of them worthwhile (a bag that can weigh itself, eliminating panic at the check-in counter), and some more questionable (witness the Fido bag).

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Sarah Gilbert, Forbes