washingtonpost.com
Need to Text In the Rain? They've Got It Covered

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

April showers could continue clear through May, and your Burberry and your BlackBerry are already waterlogged.

Perhaps you need . . . a Nubrella.

Priced at $59.94 and looking like a leftover set piece from "Bubble Boy," the hands-free umbrella is marketed as the ultimate tool for the modern rained-upon. Folded up, it's the size and shape of an Olympic regulation archery bow. Then you pop it . . . right . . . er, wait, how does this thing -- ah well, you can always log onto http://www.nubrella.com for a tutorial, and get that baby open in five simple steps.

Five? But my current umbrella opens in --

But is your current umbrella the ultimate tool for the modern rained-upon? "Hands-free changes the whole game," says Nubrella inventor Alan Kaufman, who was running Cingular outlets in Manhattan when watching his wired and wet customers struggle provided inspiration.

Think of the 21st-century possibilities. No more one-handed texting. No more rummaging for the ringing PDA while trying to keep the groceries off of wet pavement. Chatting, waving, toting, umbrella-holding: four tasks that were never before simultaneously possible.

The Nubrella is worn with a harness, and closes around its user like a clear, private cocoon, guaranteed never to turn inside out. It feels secure and oddly soundproof. Someone is going to try to go over Niagara Falls in this thing, and they might succeed.

Progress!

Or is it?

The sleek umbrella has been around since Babylon and ancient Egypt -- as seen in hieroglyphics! -- its ingenious engineering essentially unchanged, although man is a tinkerer.

You have your collapsible canopy, you have your central supporting stick. (You have umbrella hats, but those are more gags than ultimate tools, sold on a Web page next to a pirate hat and a pimp hat.)

The "brolly" hit England in the 18th century. The Brits took a while to warm up: An 1871 history reads, "Only a few years back those who carried Umbrellas were held to be legitimate butts."

Public opinion improved, and centuries' worth of carrying such a device has informed the current etiquette of rain, one in which small groups of wet people form impromptu communities, clinging together around a slim telescopic pole.

The communal behaviors of Homo Umbrellicus are evidenced by the workers of an M Street NW office building, who are experiencing a fire alarm in the middle of a downpour.

An earth mother type, protected by a garden motif-y umbrella, ushers three co-workers under her canopy, where everyone is too polite to point out that this is ridiculous, they are still getting hit.

A man in a business suit, who is much more important than everyone else, stands alone under a golf umbrella made for four, oblivious to the passersby who must step in the street to avoid the giant metal prongs.

Those without umbrellas find excuses to talk to those with them, and when two umbrella carriers get too close, they briefly bump nylon before boinging off of each other like repellent magnets.

For centuries people have been trying to build a better umbrella. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Crystal City has 97 applications on file from 2007 alone, 487 from 2002 on.

"Mostly, people want to improve opening and closing mechanisms," says Robert Canfield, one of five patent examiners who work with classification 135. Classification 135 is the USPTO division that deals with tents, canopies, umbrellas and canes.

Canfield has been examining umbrella applications for about 20 years and has seen just about every umbrella under the sun, ranging from patent 6871616, Pet Umbrella, to patent 598687, Multi-component Electric Stunning Umbrella.

Even the search for a hands-free umbrella is not new; the office has several applications on file going back to 1978.

Kaufman is not concerned, because he thinks that previous products have totally missed the point of an umbrella.

"There's a very precise pitch on this product," he says. It is: Way back when the Egyptians invented the parasol, it was meant to protect from sun, not rain, and no umbrella in history has ever achieved perfection.

He believes so strongly in the Nubrella that he invested $400,000 of his own -- and various family members' -- money in the product.

So far he's sold about 500.

But to look on the bright side, at least two buyers are extremely satisfied.

"I saw it and I thought, now that is right on the money," says Scott Novosel, who works for a golf instruction company in Kansas and encountered the Nubrella on display at a tournament.

Novosel lived in Tokyo for six years and is something of an umbrella connoisseur: "The umbrella market is insane in Tokyo." (Kaufman says Japan is one of his biggest markets.) Novosel likes that he can talk, text, e-mail, do it all, under his Nubrella, in the rain.

Skye Grapentine of Youngstown, Ohio, bought the Nubrella for her birthday after stumbling across it online. She likes walking, and she likes catching up on reading the newspaper when she walks -- a pleasure that is not possible with an umbrella.

"With an umbrella, you're busy gripping it," says Grapentine. Hands-free is great because "the less you have to worry about, the more you can get done."

Getting something done. Not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of walking in the rain. Getting somewhere quick, maybe -- or, for the more poetically minded, enjoying a stroll through the hazy tears of Mother Nature.

Hands-free umbrellas might have been knocking around the patent office for 30 years, but they are an invention meant for now, for a society obsessed with multitasking, for a society in which everyone is connected but everyone is isolated, in their own world, in their own bubble, in their own Nubrella.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company