Wired, Aglow and Ready For Class

(Photos courtesy of JanSport, and Lands' End)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The latest in wearable technology comes with built-in cellphone microphones and remote iPod controls. It is outfitted with electroluminescent piping, originally designed for military use. It might even have solar energy panels.

And it is invading a school hallway near you.

Backpacks, the quintessential back-to-school basic, are going high-tech. Retailers say the innovations are a reflection of students' increasingly digital lives: Textbooks are on CDs. Laptops are replacing dead-tree notebooks. Homework is stored in a flash drive. It was only a matter of time before the backpack got upgraded as well.

"It's sort of like the cellphone," said Leon Nicholas, a principal at Global Insight Inc. who focuses on consumer markets. "It used to be the cellphone was functional: You dialed. Now it's an accessory. It's something to reflect your style."

August is the peak of the back-to-school frenzy -- and prime backpack season. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association said retail backpack sales for all of last year were about $100 million. JanSport Inc., one of the largest backpack manufacturers, does roughly 65 percent of its business during the summer months.

"Back to school in some ways is our Christmas," said Todd Yates, spokesman for JanSport.

The National Retail Federation predicted that families would spend an average of about $86 this season on school supplies, including backpacks.

High-tech backpacks remain more of a novelty than a staple, however. Side-slung messenger bags and rolling backpacks are more established trends. And traditional backpacks are far from obsolete. JanSport sells more than 1.5 million each year of its most popular pack, the basic "SuperBreak," which comes in 30 colors and costs roughly $25. It has the familiar padded straps, one large main compartment and a front zip pocket. And that's about it.

Kyle Cormier, 16, of Dayton, Md., has carried the same basic cloth L.L. Bean backpack since fourth grade -- way before iPods were invented.

"You just wash it and it looks like new," he said.

But retailers are hoping the tech trend will catch on. JanSport launched its newest line of backpacks in May, dubbed LiveWire and designed to work with iPods. The company said that it was too early to discuss detailed sales information but that the line was doing well.

The basic model allows a wearer to connect the iPod's ear buds into one of the backpack's straps and store the digital music player in a separate pocket. Yates referred to it as a "cord management system" that prevents iPod wires from getting caught in zippers or tangled in binders.

"You're avoiding having things run up and through and around," he said.

The more advanced LiveWire models allow a wearer to control the iPod by pushing buttons on a strap or even answer a cellphone without fishing it out of the backpack or taking out the ear buds. Each pack design has an edgy name, such as Mullet, after the much-maligned haircut, and Maffia. They are available for about $70 online.

For the environmentally conscious student, a company called Voltaic Systems Inc. has designed a backpack with solar panels that can power small electronics such as MP3 players and cellphones. The energy is stored in a lithium ion battery in the bottom of the bag.

Creator Shayne McQuade said he has been surprised at the types of people using the bag, which retails for $239. Gadget lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, humanitarians working in impoverished countries and, yes, students have all purchased the backpack, he said. A nonprofit group is even using the bags in schools to teach kids about sustainable energy.

At Lands' End Inc., tubular pockets for passe items such as pens and pencils have been done away with. Instead, the pocket inside the front pouch of its backpacks is made to fit a CD. There's also a mesh pocket for students to carry other essential gear -- such as lip gloss, said Mary O'Flahrity, merchandise manager of kids' luggage for Lands' End.

Cord ports for MP3 players or CD players are now standard on all of the company's backpacks. This year, it debuted the Cool Blue pack, an update of its traditional but popular ClassMate backpack.

The company added electroluminescent strips across the back and on the shoulder straps of the Cool Blue packs. The light "is as bright as the blue on your cellphone," O'Flahrity said, and can be seen from up to 1,000 feet away.

She said that the lights were designed with safety in mind but that kids get a kick out of the high-tech glow, as well.

"The first day of school, they have to have the backpack," she said. "That's as important as the first-day-of-school outfit."

L.L. Bean Inc. launched its light-up backpacks last year using a technology called Illuminex. The lights, powered by a battery pack hidden in the front pocket, are visible through smoke and fog, said Pam Jones, senior product developer in the luggage division for L.L. Bean. Students turn on the lights with a button.

Jones said the same technology is used in police and rescue equipment and on military carrier decks. For younger students, L.L. Bean this year introduced rolling backpacks with LED lights that flash as kids wheel them to class.

L.L. Bean field-tested its Illuminex packs at a high school in Maine. Jones said the students could be brutally honest.

"If they . . . roll their eyes, you've got a quick message there," she said.

Take 15-year-old Ophelia Williams, wearing oversize shades and lounging outside the Mall in Columbia last week with her friend Asia Tennessee, 16. When asked if anyone at her school, Atholton High School, sported high-tech backpacks, her answer was quick and brief.

"Losers," she said. "Freshmen."

Ophelia doesn't carry a backpack. Instead, she keeps most of her books in her locker and stuffs whatever is left over in her cheerleading bag. The most important things about a school bag to her?

"How cute it is. And how big it is," she said. "Oh yeah -- and the cost."

Asia, on the other hand, bought three backpacks for the new school year: a shoulder bag in black denim, a camouflage messenger bag and a black Nike sling backpack. She plans to change them out according to her outfits. And even though the Nike bag has a special port for her iPod, she doesn't plan to use it. She'll carry it in her purse instead.

It's the same story at River Hill High School in Clarksville. Seventeen-year-olds Lauren Greenfield and Annie Chioccio said the only girls who carry backpacks are underclassmen.

"Because they think they have to carry everything to every class," said their friend Andrew Chase, 17.

"And then they get a locker, and they're like, 'Oh.' " Annie added.

She and Lauren carry their stuff in a tote bag. They couldn't remember the brand. They said they were over caring about backpacks. Some of the seniors don't carry anything at all, thanks to a light course load.

Lands' End is fighting back with a retro plain cotton canvas backpack. Call it the anti-tech pack.

"We realize there are different flavors of kids," Jones said.

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