Translucent Tech Is Having a Moment (Again)

See-through devices, once ubiquitous, have maintained nostalgic appeal. Here’s a look at what translucent design means today.
Senior Staff Reporter
November 23, 2021
Updated: December 2, 2021
Senior Staff Reporter
November 23, 2021
Updated: December 2, 2021

This year has been a pretty clear winner for translucent tech.

Xbox just released a pair of semi-translucent controllers, both of which quickly sold through stock. The Nothing Ear 1 earbuds, with their transparent casing, debuted this summer amid much anticipation. There was also that viral tweet from Iowa Starting Line senior editor Ty Rushing, noting that the iconic, translucent iMac “Bondi Blue” G3 had become a literal museum piece.

Rushing gave the news a “Wanna feel old?” framing, but it also had the effect of catalyzing nostalgic affection for the candy-colored pop and see-through casing of computers of yore. It stands out from the streamlined minimalism that defines present-day device design (shepherded by Apple, ironically) as much as it did back then from its beige-and-blocky predecessors.

The goodwill certainly isn’t limited to recent months. Recall a similar nostalgic outpouring for late-nineties and early-aughts translucent tech in December of last year, and how the Institute for Y2K Aesthetics has been cataloging that era’s (frequently translucent) preferences since 2016.

The continued reemergence is hardly surprising. Fashion is cyclical, and even our very immediate past is fodder for revivalism. But see-through tech’s enduring appeal also tells an interesting tale of how aesthetic relationships with technology can evolve and deepen over time, and how manufacturing realities sometimes bump up against those affinities.

A Timeline of Translucent Tech

See-through tech casing dates back at least to 1939. It was originally used in one-off or limited-edition units for sales and marketing demonstrations and design verification. Clear casing for mass-produced, salable devices took hold in the 1980s with see-through phones made by companies like Cecina and Conair. Translucent tech exploded after the introduction of the iMac G3 in 1998, aided by manufacturing and design-tech advancements.

 

The Early Days: A Window of Proof

To understand evolving perceptions of translucent tech, you have to go to the beginning, which stretches back at least to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The fair would become famed for having introduced or envisioned a number of breakthroughs, from freeway design to fluorescent lighting. It also introduced two other (then) novelties, together: the electronic TV set and acrylic.

Electronics company RCA exhibited a version of its TRK-12 television set encased in plexiglass. The transparent view served to prove to skeptical attendees that the casing didn’t mask any mechanical sleight of hand, that it indeed housed the parts RCA promised. It also allowed onlookers to appreciate its intricacy — and understand why it cost so much: “Visitors ... have the opportunity to observe the complexity of the radio-sight chassis and why the machines are priced from $200 to $1,000,” reported the New York Times in 1939.

The fair’s embrace of acrylic is emblematic of how, as industrial designer Tucker Viemeister told Built In, “the infatuation with clearness goes back farther than the eighties.”

It was an auspicious debut, but it proved to be the end of clear device-casing for some time. World War II began within four months of the fair, and the war effort siphoned up acrylics manufacturing, with plexiglass used for aircraft windows and canopies. 

“These casings were made for a very particular reason, which was to show a disbelieving public that it was possible the object contained the things it was promised to contain.”

When it reemerged, clear casing continued to act as a window of authentication and demonstration. For instance, the clear-cased version of the Regency TR-1, the first commercially manufactured transistor radio, was made available as a “sales aid” that “reveals inner workings” and “adds interest to any display,” per distributor materials of the day.

These casings “were made for a very particular reason, which was to show a disbelieving public that it was possible the object contained the things it was promised to contain,” said Matthew Bird, a professor of industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design.

The link between transparent casings and visual verification extended even to the personal computer age. Apple built 10 clear test units of its watershed 1987 Macintosh SE, which was designed by industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger with Steve Jobs. The clear units were given to select team members and used to “make sure that all the internal parts fit properly before signing off on production,” according to Wired.

 

The Late Eighties: Clear Tech Goes on Sale

It’s tough to pinpoint the exact pioneer that took clear tech casing from demo prototype to mass-produced, purchasable product, but it’s indisputable that phones played a major role. In 1988, a company called Cecina started making its clear Roxanne model, which lit up internally when a call was received. The French company Loys produced an even earlier version, having made a clear plastic phone that was around since at least 1986.

The model that catapulted into ubiquity, however, was Conair’s clear, light-up trimline phone. It debuted around 1989, a former Conair CEO told Slate writer Heather Schwedel last year, and it would quickly become synonymous with the nineties teen phone obsession.

A glut of see-through or semi-transparent phones, many with strikingly similar looks to Conair, would proliferate into the mid-nineties. Bell South, Swatch, Unisonic and Radio Shack all went clear for a time, notes Kristen Gallerneaux, a writer and curator of communication and information technology at the Henry Ford Museum, in her book, High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres & the Object Hereafter.

“I think that marked a shift in clear, as a housing for technology, to celebrate it instead of explain it.”

The trend was so widespread that Cecina sued one suspiciously similar competitor, and it had to dramatically lower its price amid all the clones, according to Viemeister, to whom the company turned for a new design after see-through phones jumped the shark.

Along with the Conair phone, Bird also highlighted Swingline’s transparent, battery-operated stapler as a notably successful transition into consumer-facing clarity. The simple act of stapling papers suddenly offered a nifty choreography of colorful moving parts. (Bird said the model likely appeared around 1995. Swingline did not return a request for information.)

As translucence made its way to salable devices, a shift in its appeal arguably took place as well. Both the stapler and the phone — playful and kid-and-teen-friendly in their aesthetics, with brightly-colored internal parts — elicited a new reaction, according to Bird.

“I think that marked a shift in clear, as a housing for technology, to celebrate it instead of explain it,” he said.

 

The Late Nineties: iMac G3 and the Y2K Translucence Boom

The tectonic, Beatles-on-Sullivan moment for translucent tech arrived with the iMac G3 in 1998. It wasn’t Apple’s first foray into consumer-facing translucence. The eMate 300, a translucent portable Newton device, was designed in 1996 and looks a bit like a trial version of the bright, see-through aesthetic that would soon predominate. But the iMac G3 — designed by a team led by Johny Ive, then Apple’s vice president of industrial design — launched the revolution. The desktop’s sales are credited with saving Apple and the design became a tech touchstone.

Soon translucence was the dominant culture — in tech (like the atomic purple Game Boy Color and Nintendo 64 controllers) and beyond (fashion, accessories, store displays, you name it). Advancements in both computer-aided design software and acrylics manufacturing meant that imitating the style was far easier than it had been just a decade earlier.

The iMac G3, along with a few other subsequent Ive designs for Apple, was a foundational totem of the so-called blobject era. Before reaching saturation point, the style’s fluid forms, bold colors and frequent translucence communicated buoyancy and cheer. The form became the “fetish object of the giddy suddenly innocent time before 9/11,” wrote tech and culture critic Mark Dery in 2002.

“A blobject is optimistic, familiar and welcoming,” wrote design critic Steven Skov Holt, who’s credited with coining the portmanteau, in Blobjects and Beyond. (It makes sense that a 2021 iteration of translucent tech casing — such a hallmark of old-school blobjects — would be an Xbox controller. The pronounced curve and shape of the controller’s handles make it feel like a blobject that never went away.)

The iMac G3 brought translucence together with bright, blobby conspicuousness, but the computer design’s take on see-through was also notable for being comparatively suggestive. It wasn’t as plainly self-exposed as the stark-naked phones and staplers that preceded it. It gave a peek underneath but didn’t show everything. “They were very sensitive with the transparency,” said Viemeister. “It’s not just plain clear. It’s sexier.”

Whether one prefers the rawer translucence of the Conair phone or the more discreet style of the iMac G3 is a subjective call. Either way, Apple’s success with the latter helped draw the distinction and make apparent that there were more ways than one to go clear.

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The Many Layers of Clear Endurance

The iMac G3 cemented the idea of degrees of translucence and associated see-through tech with optimism. But there’s more at play when you’re allowed to peer into a device’s inner workings.

What else does translucent tech communicate in 2021? There’s a feeling of delight, control and comprehension, even if that comprehension is a bit illusory, Bird said. Seeing a motherboard doesn’t mean understanding a motherboard, but it kinda sorta feels that way. 

“You have a sense that you’re connected to the insides … It’s a teeny bit demystifying, or even empowering,” he said.

The heyday of translucent tech, Bird said, coincided with one of the last great gasps for what’s known as product semantics. The shape and materials of tech devices nowadays rarely tell us much about their function, but in an earlier era, the question of how external presentation might help clarify internal capabilities was a bigger one among industrial designers. The Conair phone, the iMac G3 and their many offspring are all “still remembering that effort of trying to use form to tell a story of some kind,” he said.

That sense of internal mechanics made whole is arguably at play in some modern interpretations as well. For instance, you can see the rumble weight spin in the Xbox Forza controller handle when it’s activated — the trailer visually associates the action with pistons in an engine. What the controller does and how it presents go hand in hand, you might say.

“You have a sense that you’re connected to the insides … It’s a teeny bit demystifying, or even empowering.”

Another consideration? It’s fun! “There’s also just a delight” to transparent tech, Bird said. “It takes down that fourth wall and allows you inside this manufactured object,” he said. 

Viemeister likened it to Superman applying his X-ray vision — there’s a barrier, but it no longer matters for you. “It’s like somebody is hiding something, but you can see it,” he said.

Of course, all these dynamics are subjective. Gallerneaux argued in High Static, Dead Lines that all this supposed clarity served more to emphasize the machines’ magic. “The crystal clearness of the telephone amplified how little we know about basic communication channels, and the backlit glow of the iMac hinted at worlds of possibility that were almost visible,” she wrote. “In both cases, these design cues were not meant to educate, however, but to further expose the mystical properties of complex technology. It is almost as though clarity confirms our ignorance.”

Gallerneaux puts forth this perspective in an essay that also centers on the clear Sony SRF-39FP radio, which was sold only for prisons. The model points to a parallel shadow history of translucent tech. For years, correctional institutions have favored see-through casing for devices, which are available only from specialized providers. Here, the appeal is simple, and wholly divorced from nostalgia or playfulness: Prison administrators liked clear casing because it makes it hard to conceal contraband.

On odd occasions, the consumer and the prison options appear to overlap. In a 2020 video about clear tech for prisons, the longtime consumer-tech YouTuber known as Techmoan noted that some clear throwback media players available via Urban Outfitters and ones available from prison suppliers appeared to be similar — if not the same — models. A close comparison between the retro-minded retailer’s item page and a prison-vendor catalog suggests he’s right.

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The Challenging Reality of Manufacturing

Back in the consumer realm, Bird wondered if one of the reasons eighties and nineties phone-makers loved the translucent craze so much may have been that it essentially offered a way to revive a spent design. Companies could create new looks without having to make new molds — as long as their molds already supported polished finishes. But in most cases, translucent design means new manufacturing headaches and introduces new details to attend to.

Both sides of the plastic have to be polished, of course. Plus all the bosses and screws that were previously masked suddenly have to show. “To make it alluringly transparent is actually expensive to do,” Bird said.

Contemporary revivalists can sympathize. Nothing founder Carl Pei told CNET in July that the company had difficulty securing manufacturers because usually-hidden features, like magnets, needed to be polished. “Now I know why not a lot of companies do this,” he told CNET. Making the glue look presentable was also reportedly a challenge.

“To make it alluringly transparent is actually expensive to do.”

Xbox also took extra steps to make the insides of its new semi-translucent controllers look attractive, coloring much of the interior silver and adding green accents underneath the D-pad. The company declined to comment when asked to discuss the design and manufacturing process.

It’s a challenge as old as translucent tech itself. Along with the clear TV set, a “ghost car” was also exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair. The one-off, see-through Pontiac, made in collaboration with Plexiglas innovators Rohm and Haas, sported internal panels that were plated with copper, in order to make the insides look cleaner, according to designboom.

These kinds of additional manufacturing and display challenges surely don’t help the odds of a broader revival, beyond the dedicated modding-kit hobbyists. The translucent approach allows industrial designers to play with a semiotically rich approach, rife with consumer affection and cultural allusion, but unless they’re fine with warts-and-all radical candor, it’ll cost.

High-interest designs like those put forth this year by Xbox and Nothing show there may be sporadic upsides to those challenges. At the very least, in 2021, translucence still offers an abundance of nostalgia and emotion that industrial designers can either steer into or veer away from. Whether that’s enough to support anything beyond the odd bit of gadget counterprogramming here and there is, well, maybe less clear.

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