Not long ago, if you spotted someone walking down the street and having a conversation with an imaginary companion, you were looking at a candidate for the funny farm.
Today it's likely to be a friend or neighbor chatting with a spouse, significant other, office mate or boss on a concealed but very real cell phone - completely oblivious to the fact that he looks like a raving lunatic.
The only way to separate a fake raving lunatic from a real one is to look for a strange, metallic growth protruding from the fake lunatic's ear. These are called Bluetooth headsets, clever gadgets whose main job is to take us a step closer to true hands-free operation of our cell phones.
With evidence growing that using a traditional cell phone behind the wheel is an invitation to an accident, Nanny State advocates around the country have been pushing legislation that would require driver/gabbers to have hands-free phones. They almost succeeded in Maryland this year, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time until they do.
With that in mind, I recently joined the ranks of Bluetooth lunatics to try out Verizon's new LG Decoy phone - the first I've seen with a built-in, detachable Bluetooth headset.
Given the number of people who leave their headsets at home, forget to charge them, can't remember where they left them, or accidentally drop them down a street grate, a headset that latches onto the phone itself sounds like a no-brainer. But the idea must be either too obvious or unexpectedly difficult to execute, because the Decoy appears to be a first of its kind in the mass market.
Overall, I found it worked well enough for casual use if you don't mind repeating the occasional spoken phrase.
Serious hands-free talkers will be happier with a stand-alone, noise-canceling Bluetooth headset with more battery life.
A word here about Bluetooth, a term that still confuses a lot of folks.
It's the official name for a short-range, wireless technology that a consortium of computer, printer and other gadget makers developed in 1998 so devices could communicate without cables.
Bluetooth failed to gain traction until cell phone makers began using it in headsets that communicate with cell phones - in essence piling wireless technology on wireless technology.
Bluetooth headsets don't get tangled up like their wired cousins, so they've become popular for hands-free phone operation.
Now to the LG Decoy, which at 4 inches long, 2 inches wide, and two-thirds of an inch deep, is a little heftier than most other models, with a screen that slides up to reveal the keypad.
In addition to making calls and snapping 2-megapixel photos, it can deliver most of Verizon's extra-cost offerings, including messaging (text, photo and video), Vcast video broadcasts, the company's VZ Navigator GPS mapping service, music downloads, mobile Web applications, e-mail and other goodies.
I'm not a fan of phones with slide-up screens because the keys tend to be smaller than those clamshell or open-face models. The Decoy's keys were no exception. Nor did I particularly care for the joystick-button that handled most on-screen navigation chores. It was too hard to control.
But these are matters of taste, and the slide-up design was probably the best one for the Decoy's distinguishing feature, a notch on the back that contains the 1.5-inch long Bluetooth headset.
The headset detaches easily and fits quite comfortably into my ear.
The headset has a button on the outside for initiating communications with the phone (or answering a call), as well as tiny volume controls that I was constantly hitting by mistake.
The phone had no trouble establishing Bluetooth contact with the headset, and within a minute I was pushing a button on the earpiece and listening to the phone ask me for a command.
Here's where I ran into my first problem.
It was almost impossible to get the phone to understand spoken numbers, particularly when the car was under way and there was noise in the background.
I had better luck once I had entered some contacts and could tell the phone to "Call Home" or "Call Ben." Even so, the phone frequently asked me to repeat myself, or just timed out waiting for a response.
Although I could hear reasonably well through the headphone, folks on the other end said my voice sounded like someone talking into a barrel. When I left voice mail on a couple of different systems and could hear what I sounded like, I had to agree with that assessment.
One issue is Bluetooth technology itself, which is still a work in progress. Using Bluetooth to send one-way data to a printer is relatively easy; using it to rebroadcast a voice that's already been degraded by one broadcast is something else entirely.
The other issue is the technical design of this headset, which fits in the ear comfortably but does not offer electronic noise cancellation, which goes a long way toward making cell phone conversations more audible. At $179 (after rebate with the usual, odious 2-year contract), this is a fairly expensive headset: It should have better sound.
Another serious issue is battery life: Unless you're careful to shut it off, the Bluetooth headset will run down in a couple of hours, long before the phone gives out. Nor does the headset seem to recharge itself from the phone's battery unless the whole unit is plugged into a wall outlet.
All of these make the Decoy a handsome but ultimately flawed offering for people who do a lot of hands-free gabbing. For occasional hands-free use, the Decoy is a better choice. It's a lot easier to remember one phone than a phone and a Bluetooth headset, and having one available could make life a bit safer when you absolutely need to make a call behind the wheel.