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Confessions of a technobiophiliac

Mike Elgan | March 2, 2015
I'll admit it: I love tech with natural elements like wood, and I don't think I'm alone.

moto x bamboo
The use of wood-backed phones in Motorola's Moto X advertising set the brand apart from the very start.Credit: Motorola

Smartphone makers like Apple, Samsung and others have flirted with different materials to make their smartphones -- metal, plastic, even glass front and back with the iPhone 4 line.

So which of these is best? Wood!

When Google first marketed the Moto X smartphone, it showed a picture revealing a bamboo-backed version of the device (which was made by Motorola, which Google has since sold to Lenovo). Later, Google announced four "natural material" options: bamboo, ebony, teak and walnut. I already had a plastic-backed Moto X, but when the wood version came out I bought one. I had to have it because of the wood.

This desire to own consumer electronics made at least in part with natural materials is called technobiophilia. The word was coined by Sue Thomas for her 2013 book, Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace. It's, of course, a combination of tech and biophilia, which is the innate attraction to nature and living things.

A bit of bamboo or walnut on the back of a smartphone isn't nature, per se. But it symbolizes nature and can be more pleasant to touch than cold metal or cheap plastic. Plus, wood components done right give gadgets a high-quality feel and make each one unique, because the grain pattern of a piece of wood is different from the pattern on any other piece of wood.

It's easy to get it wrong when adding wood to electronics, which is another way of saying that it's hard to get it right.

OnePlus first marketed its OnePlus One phones with "SwapStyle covers" made from a range of interesting materials, including denim, Kevlar, silk, sandstone, bamboo and others. But in September, the company announced the cancellation of the SwapStyle options. Explaining its decision in an online forum, the company said the following:

"We could have designed the removal process of the back covers better; it's tricky and makes frequent switches difficult. The swap can also leave the back cover slightly creaky or loose, and it risks damage to the battery which is exposed for a short time."

Despite the failure of OnePlus to deliver on its SwapStyle promises, the public response to the promise in the first place demonstrated a pent-up demand for wood and other natural materials on tech gadgets.

Despite its innate appeal, wood with electronics has a bad reputation.

When many people think about wood integrated into technology, they may think of after-market or third-party wooden keyboards, mice, tablet and phone cases, phone stands and other such products.


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