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Making a Case For Water Music

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, July 8, 2007

People tend to look at you funny when you jump into the pool with your iPod strapped to your arm and a pair of waterproof headphones stuck in your ears.

Having access to music and podcasts while knocking through a few laps at the gym cuts down on the monotony of this type of exercise -- but it's probably not for self-conscious folks who mind getting a few double takes. Mixing electronics with water is generally discouraged, after all.

Yes, Apple's digital-music revolution has extended to the swimming pool, thanks to devices like this waterproof contraption, called an OtterBox, I've been trying out this summer. The iPod's volume and music output remain at your control under a thin plastic membrane that fits precisely over the scroll wheel. The setup is a little bulky, particularly if you're using a 30-gigabyte video iPod like mine.

Sure, you technophobes ask: Does anybody really need to listen to TV on the Radio (which is the name of a band, not a place on the dial) while swimming laps? Well, no. I mean, I guess not.

But it's summertime, people! And there are already some pretty goofy iPod accessories, such as the iPod-friendly toilet paper dispenser or the iPod-compatible boxers (two words: special pockets). There's room in the pool for more, I figure.

To my regret, I did not try watching any video while splashing around in the pool, as the latest season of "Battlestar Galactica" has ended -- and I'm not that good a swimmer anyway.

At least it's less potentially catastrophic to use your iPod in the pool than to mess around with it on the Long Island Expressway, as one driver did last month, causing a major accident.

Research firm NPD says the iPod accessory market was worth $1.3 billion in 2006.

Colorado-based OtterBox isn't the only company taking aim at people who want to bring their iPods to the beach. An outfit called H2O Audio has a similar line of products, ranging from $40 to $80 and aimed at scuba divers and surfers. SkyMall, that catalogue purveyor of goods to the bored flier, offers not one, but two waterproof iPod kits. One has built-in speakers that float on the water's surface.

OtterBox started out selling waterproof laptop and cigar cases, but more than half its $6 million in sales last year was for iPod covers like the one I've been using. Video iPod cases cost $50, and the waterproof headsets -- how they work exactly, I don't know, but they do -- are $40.

And, of course, there's an iPhone case in the works from both H2O Audio and OtterBox, so people will be able to do the same trick with their $600 Apple smartphones.

For a person-on-the-street reaction to the waterproof iPod, I called up Ellen Yui, a Takoma Park mom. Yui had some strong, if mixed, feelings about the iPod after Santa Claus brought everybody in her family one for Christmas last year.

They tended to put an end to family discussions because everyone stayed stuck in his own musical world all the time, she said. But "this isn't necessarily a bad thing when you have teenagers and it's their entire job to argue," she joked a few months back. She even busted her husband once or twice for driving with the familiar white earbuds lodged in his ears.

Yui, who says her next phone will be an iPhone, says the waterproof case appeals to her.

"I can only exercise with music," she said. "Something like that might actually get me in the pool."

One Olympic swimmer, Peter Vanderkaay, uses the waterproof case to keep pumped up, listening to classic rock like Led Zeppelin between laps while training. Vanderkaay said he doesn't wear the thing while swimming because his pool has underwater speakers and because the case and iPod combo is a little too heavy.

"Considering how much MP3 players cost and how easily they can get ruined, it's especially good for someone like me who is around the water all the time," he said. "I should have bought this thing a while ago."

The best story about how to apply waterproofed gadgets to your life didn't come from a swimmer, though.

It comes from a baseball fanatic named Larry Ellison -- no, not the Oracle chief executive guy -- who uses the case on a Tablet PC to watch Giants games streamed via WiFi to his kayak as he paddles San Francisco's McCovey Cove.

Ellison spends most home games on the water, watching the screen while hoping to retrieve Barry Bonds's home run balls; he's already caught two of them this way.

Ellison has given back the balls he's been able to retrieve. But if he's lucky enough to catch number 756 -- the homer that would push Bonds past Hank Aaron's record -- he said he'd keep it.

Ellison, a computer industry executive, says he is anticipating lots of press calls and e-mails if he does catch 756. To be properly prepared, he says he is about to place another order to OtterBox, this time for the company's waterproof BlackBerry case.

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