For suitably small values of "infinite"

One Jiang Gonglue has come up with this brilliant idea:

Infinite USB


Never mind the fractured English - these passthrough piggy-back plugs, called "Infinite USB", are clearly a work of genius.

And I'm not the only person who thinks so. Infinite USB won Mr Jiang an "iF Design Concept Award!

The only problem, really a very minor one, hardly worth mentioning, is that each of these cables is presumably a two-port bus-powered hub. And the USB spec forbids plugging one bus-powered hub into another one.

The official specs for USB also prohibit plain extension cables, mind you, and most extension cables actually work fine with most devices, provided you aren't greatly exceeding the five-metre cable-length limit. And, similarly, in reality you often can plug one bus-powered (or "passive") hub into another and have it work, more or less. You may not be able to use all of the ports - which is less of a problem if there are only two, of course. And you're quite likely to find you only get a USB-1-speed connection. But passive-hub into passive-hub will usually sorta-kinda work. Especially if the powered port your illegal chain of bus-powered hubs is plugged into can deliver more than the half-amp of current that the USB spec says it should.

The reason why daisy-chaining passive hubs works at all, by the way, is that many bus-powered USB hubs report themselves as being self-powered. A real self-powered hub is one with its own DC power supply, which allows it to deliver the full 0.5A of current on each of its ports. But there's nothing, except the ethics of the manufacturer, stopping a bus-powered hub from declaring itself to be self-powered, whereupon it'll at least attempt to work if plugged into another passive hub. A passive hub that admits that it's passive won't work at all if you plug it into another, similarly-truthful passive hub.

(Most self-powered hubs will work even if you don't connect their plugpack power supply, but they'll only be bus-powered when the power supply is not connected. I wonder how many of them report themselves as bus-powered when the plugpack's not plugged in?)

So the Infinite USB plugs aren't abominations like male-to-male plug adapters and such. They might work. A bit.

I'd be pretty surprised if even the green-striped #3 one in the above picture worked, though. I'd bet money that the apple-cart would have been thoroughly upset at least by the time you plugged the #4 grey one in. Oh, and if the Infinite USBs reported themselves honestly then, of course, none after the original #1 blue plug would work.

But, as we've seen before, trivial considerations like whether the product could ever possibly work are not an obstacle for hard-working design students and the institutions that give them awards.

23 Responses to “For suitably small values of "infinite"”

  1. Jax184 Says:

    What happens when you want to unplug the first USB device in the string? You'd first have to unmount everything plugged in after it. USB hard drive? Mouse? Or worse, the USB WiFi adapter you're connected with.

    It's also worth noting that stringing together these USB doodads will quickly result in a very awkward, fragile tumor hanging off your laptop. I've already had to replace several shredded USB ports for customers without great honkin' masses of USB hubs being involved.

    I could also see a problem with recessed USB ports, ones stationed next to other ports, etc.

    It seems like the iF Design Concept Award is quickly losing its prestige.

  2. Astaro Says:

    The Page linked from the photo describes an external power adapter, which could help with at least a few of the problems with this idea.
    If only it didn't look like an ordinary USB connector, presumably driving the existing power pins. I have a mental image of a the regulator in the plug pack, and the one in the computer fighting to the death over whose interpretation of 5v is the correct one.

  3. rndmnmbr Says:


    what on earth do you use that USB-to-FireWire adapter for?

    I'm baffled.

    [As best I can figure out, they're for peripherals that're similarly offensive-unto-sanity. Some bizarre devices, apparently, actually do have a female USB A connector on them where there ought to be a B. I can only presume that the USB-to-FireWire cable means that some lunatic has now managed to make a device that wants USB communication through a FireWire port, or uses a FireWire socket as a 5V DC-in jack, or something. I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of these devices are special custom hardware made for giant companies at tremendous expense. -Dan]

  4. jmarini Says:

    I've used some Dell USB keyboards that provide a similar function. They allow a "low-powered" or "self-powered" USB device (presumably a mouse) to be plugged into the keyboard. Would a large manufacturer like Dell be intentionally violating the USB standard?

  5. bbot Says:


    Hubs, not devices. The keyboard presumably has a bus powered hub, which plugs into the root port on the computer, which the keyboard hangs off of, and which provides the additional ports. If you tried plugging a bus powered hub into the keyboard, though, it wouldn't work.

    And no, Dell wouldn't be violating the USB standard, because it couldn't be wearing a USB logo if it hadn't been approved. Fly by night operations can get away with counterfeiting, Dell can't.

    (The new CAPTCHA is hideously unreadable!)

  6. corinoco Says:

    I love the side-cable idea too, it instantly gives you a 50% chance of rendering the neighbouring USB port utterly unusable. Much in the same manner as some humourously-shaped USB devices do, or 99% of all wall-wart power packs do. It reminds me of the bad old days of parallel-port dongles, when your CAD app wanted one, each of the third-party plugin apps wanted one, your plotter needed one and your accounting app needed two. All of them demanded to be the first in the chain, and your poor printer at the end claimes it warranty was void if dongles were used on the parallel cable. Ah, the good old days.

    Having graduated from a design-based degree I can tell you from experience that awards tend to be given out based on who your parents are, how many Apple iProducts you own/wear, how expensive your clothes are, how many staff/jury members of either/any sex you slept with, and how many times you used the words 'urban ecology', 'Derrida', 'epistemeliology', 'quantum', 'Foucault', 'Proust', any French, German, Spanish or Japanese word of more than 6 syllables (bonus points for "terrorist" languages such as Irish Gaelic, Catalan or Georgian), 'palimpsest', 'zeitgeist', 'fractal-based design diversification strategem', 'synergystic' and 'problematic' (which means as much as 'bascially', ie nothing) in your submission. Oh, and a picture of Che also gets bonus points.

  7. timix Says:

    Ha. This looks like a fun way to encourage people to cause grievous bodily harm to their laptops. I can see a number of problems with this sort of thing, none of which could occur if you were to use a $10 USB hub instead:

    1. Imagine tripping and yanking on the blue cable in that pic. Or if that's plugged into a friend's USB drive, and they need it back ASAP, but you've got some other data transferring to a drive plugged in on the green cable and don't want to interrupt anything. It'll be like having to unplug and reattach a USB hub each time you wanted to add or remove another USB device.

    2. Imagine how hard it'd be to remember the exact order you plugged everything in last time. You'll have drive letters wandering around, causing backups to fail and common sense to go all upside down, and probably everybody here knows the sheer pain of having fifty copies of the same printer installed (if each cable acts as its own little hub, even swapping two cables around will convince Windows you've plugged the printer into a different port).

    3. Got really crowded USB ports? Cool, you're going to have a lot of fun trying to unplug one of these cables by tugging sideways on the cord. Every other USB device known to man has a cable leading directly away from the plug, which acts as a convenient handle for those who can't physically grasp the plug itself.

    Practical nightmares aside (he's obviously had Apples in mind when he thought of all this, what with the form over function) they do *look* nice, and the colour coordination would be nice to have - looking at the back of my PC right now, I have six USB things plugged in and every single cable is black.

    It's worth checking out some of his other ideas - he's got a concept design for a car with the body of a shark, a cockpit canopy "like airforce", and the wheels of a jaguar.

    Hey, they're concepts. They don't have to actually *work*.

  8. whacko Says:

    Not to reiterate other people's comments as to why this device wouldn't work, but are these really just USB extension cables? I mean are they just a usb male (and female) plug on the PC and and a USB female outlet on the other? Are they like 3 feet long?

    From a purely practical standpoint, wouldn't all those cables running all over the place be a hassle to deal with? Especially for devices that connect with cables themselves (mouse, camera, tablet, etc). I can easily see some over-enthusiastic USB fanatic turning themselves into a Web 2.0 styled Jacob Marley with a set of these plugs.

    Also USB hubs can be as small as a 5-stick pack of gum. From a convenience standpoint wouldn't it be easier to find space in your laptop bag for something that is the size of a small pack of gum instead of several lengths of 3-foot USB cable?

    I know design "concepts" are really just fancy sketches, but it would be nice if the people who judge design competitions would take a slightly more critical eye when handing out awards.

  9. Daniel Rutter Says:

    he's got a concept design for a car

    So he does. And unless I'm very much mistaken, the front fenders fit the wheels so tightly that this car would not be able to go around corners.

  10. meow Says:

    So he does. And unless I'm very much mistaken, the front fenders fit the wheels so tightly that this car would not be able to go around corners.

    they also stick so far out from the fenders they'd pose a safety hazard to pedestrians, and would probably be illegal.
    Not to mention his idea of an "Energy Saving Design", just place a solar panel over the trunk, hah if it was that easy I wonder why no one has thought of that before.. It's probably not a very aerodynamic design either, which is something you'd probably want for an energy saving design.
    But isn't it always like this? Designers, architects, whatever, get all the credit just for sketching a silly idea, no one cares about the skilled engineers that actually made his/her ideas come to life.

  11. Alex Whiteside Says:

    If you look around the site, he's worked on several real projects, including some practical and software engineering. Not that it mitigates the badness of these particular ideas (and that his portfolio is an agonisingly overworked PowerPoint presentation), but we should avoid falling into the fallacy of assuming people who have dumb design ideas must be creatively impotent doodlers with Lightwave*. A terrifying number of bad ideas come out of people with the ability to turn them into a reality.

    *Or whatever the kids are using these days.

  12. Fallingwater Says:

    RE the USB-to-Firewire adapter thingie: there are, in fact, devices that have Firewire ports but actually talk USB. I assume it's because the manufacturers managed to get a big discount on large stocks of firewire ports (possibly because nobody ever uses firewire nowadays anymore), and decided it cost them less to include a firewire/usb cable in the gadget than to use USB sockets in the first place. No big-brand device that I know of is like this, of course (big brands prefer, of course, to use pointless proprietary connectors), but I'm 100% sure I've seen some chinese gadgets that have Firewire ports and USB communication.

  13. Kagato Says:

    It might not actually be impossible, despite how ridiculously impractical it is.

    A single iUSB acts as a 2-port hub (piggyback socket and cable). If you plug in a second iUSB, the socket isn't treated as USB at all but instead acts as an internal connector, some electronic magic happens, and now the combined unit becomes a 3-port hub.

    Even if such an abomination was possible to build in some form, I doubt you'd be able to wire up very many units that way. Unless you abuse the connector design as well, you've only got 4 wires to work with.

    And I don't know much about the USB spec, but I doubt a hub is allowed to dynamically change the number of ports it contains on the fly; so the first connector would have to announce it was an X-port hub anyway. That kind of defeats the purpose, considering a dedicated X-port hub will almost certainly be smaller, sturdier and more practical for any given value of X.

    Besides which, even if you could build this, it's still a dumb idea: it hangs out stupidly far, it would be wonky as well, and you can't unplug any one device without unplugging everything after it.

  14. Itsacon Says:

    The wrong sided USB connectors actually have a use: USB-on-the-go.

    That protocol uses these wrong cables to connect USB devices to other USB devices. I actually have a female USB-A to male mini-USB-B adapter for an old image tank. You plug your camera or card reader in through the adapter and copy the files. Then later on, you use a normal male USB-A to male mini-USB-B cable to connect the device to a computer (or another USB master device).

    So yes, you could connect two of those devices to each other, reversing the cable (originally, it had a male mini-USB to male mini-USB cable, even more confusing) would determine which device was copied to or from.

    PS: Note that I got the female USB-A to male mini-USB-B adapter when I lost the original male mini-USB-A to male mini-USB-B cable, but haven't ever used it, so I'm not COMPLETELY certain it works the same.

  15. AndyD Says:

    Now I'm intrigued - or just confused. I drive a Mac, (an Apple Mac) which offers spare USB ports on the monitor and keyboard. The monitor ports are powered, the keyboard ports aren't (or so I assume since some things won't work in the keyboard due to being underpowered but will work in the monitor ports).

    I currently have a powered hub plugged into a monitor port. Should I really have it plugged into the keyboard instead? I guess it would at least free up a powered port so I'll try it anyway.

    But how does the "don't plug powered into powered" thing work? The keyboard itself is presumably plugged into a powered port (into the computer) so if I plug the hub into it, aren't I still daisy chaining into a powered chain even if the keyboard-out ports aren't themselves powered (how can they not be powered anyway - that concept is beyond me I'm afraid)? Do I even know what I'm asking?

    I'm sorry, I just re-read what you wrote and think I see the error in some of my questions but I'll leave them there for now because I've already pressed the button...

  16. Red October Says:

    Wait, so it's just like HP-IB, except worse in every way?

  17. Shadowex3 Says:

    Yknow I'm not an electrician by any means, but even I took one look at some of Those Cables and immediately thought to myself "That's not right, that can't be healthy".

    It's times like these I sometimes want to just grab someone by both ears, go forehead to forehead with them so I KNOW they're paying attention to me, and tell them "THIS THING YOU ARE DOING IS NOT A THING THAT YOU SHOULD BE DOING! THIS IS A WRONG THING THAT SHOULD NOT BE!"

  18. Cezille Says:

    this is like christmas ligts that you can insert another christmas light at the back of the plug. This can also be called octopus wiring. hehe. But I don't think this can result to overload :D

  19. Red October Says:

    Shawowex3, you made me think of "Hold! What you are doing to us is wrong! Why do you do this thing?" Someone here will get it, I'm sure.

  20. Shadowex3 Says:

    That's not an accident, my variant was basically the intentional conception of the bastard-child of Star Control and Inigo Montoya.

  21. Erik T Says:

    I/O Letters #102 and 103 have disappeared from the main site for some reason, though they remain accessable from the index.

  22. Red October Says:

    They have vanished into the rift in spacetime caused by the existance of infinite USB.

  23. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Whoops - a file-versioning mistake on the index page. Fixed now - thanks!

    (I'm not dead; new stuff soon. I'm having one of those periods when you keep starting in on something and then finding there's more to the job than you thought.)

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