Modern Solutions for Very Busy People

Some people worry about the end of time. Perhaps we should worry more about the end of free time — which is something to think about while deleting a seemingly endless stream of junk e-mail.

With each new technological advance, Americans work harder than ever. And even with cell phones, computer networks and wireless devices, we're often too busy to keep in touch with the people we love.

What happened to the promise of modern society?

"We get so easily seduced by all these electronic baubles," says futurist David Zach. "But the notion of freeing up time is going away."

Still, an amazing array of new products and services are springing up, almost on a daily basis, for people who have no time for their children, their love lives, and, of course, themselves.

Let's take a look at some of these modern conveniences:

1. The Problem: Wasting Time Checking E-mail

The Solution: The Ambient Orb

What's your obsession? Do you check the stock market 14 times a day and your e-mail twice a minute? Maybe it's time for the Ambient Orb.

This $150 gizmo, which looks like a desktop globe, is designed to wean you off your computer. Just plug it in, and it will let you know when you need to check whatever it is that you're obsessed with.

If you're a stock freak, the Ambient Orb could be set to glow green if the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up, and change to red if the market is down. Amber would mean the market is unchanged.

If you're an e-mail junkie, the Ambient Orb could be programmed to change from green to red every time there are more than 10 unanswered e-mails waiting for you.

The Ambient Orb works on the same technology as a cell phone, and it can be programmed to give you color signals for almost anything — from today's pollen count, to homeland security alerts, to even whether your favorite sports team wins or loses.

The Orb is said to be a great way to get any obsessive computer geek offline. In fact, it glows a special color when it's time to get a life. 2. The Problem: Bailing Out on a Bad Date The Solution: Escape-A-Date Cell Phone Services

It's not that you wouldn't stoop to lying to ditch a lousy date. You just might not be a very good liar. That's when you need "Escape-A-Date" services from Cingular Wireless — a cell phone plan to fake an emergency exit from blind date hell.

Just schedule a "rescue" phone call at a preset time. Then your phone will ring with one of eight 30-second fake emergencies. Perhaps your fictitious roommate is locked out. Maybe you forgot to pick up your pretend aunt from the airport.

"Hey, this is your Escape-A-Date call," your automatic caller will say. "If you're looking for an excuse, I got it. Just repeat after me, and you'll be on your way! 'Not again! Why does that always happen to you? … All right, I'll be right there.' Now tell 'em that your roommate got locked out, and you have to go let them in. Good luck!"

Escape-A-Date costs less than $5 a month. Other cell phone companies are offering similar services, with such names as SOS Call and Rescue Ring.

But what if you want to bail out on a date before it starts? No problem. The Simeda software company now lets clients download fake background noises into their cell phones that are just perfect for whatever excuse you need.

Press a button on your phone and you can conduct a conversation through the fake sounds of a traffic jam or a thunderstorm.

Why couldn't you make the date? Oh, there's thunder and the roads are a mess. OK, let's just forget tonight.

3. The Problem: Shopping With a Bratty Kid The Solution: "Tantrum Tamer" Shopping Carts

A chain of British groceries isn't kidding around when it comes to shopping with bratty kids. New shopping carts, dubbed "tantrum tamers," will come equipped with a DVD/CD player and electronic games — to get these little monsters to shut up.

Tesco supermarkets designed the high-tech shopping carts — designed to deal with little tyke's "boredom tantrums" — after customers complained in a survey about the stress of shopping with a crying child.

"The supermarket can actually be a great place for children to learn all sorts of new things," a Tesco spokesman said.

Frazzled parents can now push their kids around in quiet, as the kids watch their favorite shows.

Until, of course, there's a commercial for the newest, neatest, extra-crunchy, chocolate marshmallow breakfast cereal — Zappy-Os! Baby's got to have Zappy-Os right now. Come on, Mom! Wwwwaaahh! Wwwwaaahh!

4. The Problem: Awkward Elevator Conversations The Solution: Captive Network TV

The need to make small talk in elevators is going down, and that's because of what's going up in elevators — video screens. Consider it the next step in humanity's ultimate goal — never again speaking to an annoying neighbor or co-worker about the weather.

Over the next 20 months, Captivate Network — recently purchased by Gannett Co. — is planning to install 10,000 flat-screen monitors in 20 cities, ultimately reaching 3 million daily elevator riders.

You'll get news headlines, stock quotes and the weather, along with God knows how many advertisements, depending on where you're getting off.

Of course, since many elevators already have surveillance cameras, you'll be watching a TV monitor while you're also being watched on another TV monitor, making it the most Orwellian form of transportation.

5. The Problem: Restless Workers The Solution: Napping Pods

For the right price, you can get anything you want in New York City — even a nap. On the 24th floor of the Empire State Building, the going rate for a 20-minute midday snooze is $14, which is nothing to snore at.

Welcome to MetroNaps, New York's first napping center. Here weary commuters can catch some shut-eye in futuristic "napping pods," which resemble dome-covered La-Z-Boy chairs, equipped with music and ambient lighting.

When your respite ends, the pod gently vibrates, and you can freshen up with lemon-scented hand towels before heading back to the mean streets of Manhattan, reinvigorated.

MetroNaps hopes to provide quiet time in airports, shopping centers, and highway rest stops all around the country, according to founders Arshad Chowdhury and Christopher Lindholst, who opened their New York snooze-atorium in May.

Of course, you don't have to leave home if you want a nap. You can purchase the official MetroNaps pod for just $7,950 and catch all the ZZZs you want. But for that kind of money, you might want to sleep on it.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.