Today in Tedium: The great thing about a lot of technology is that even if its ideas fail, they often re-emerge elsewhere, influencing the thinking of others in the field to come up with something better and more interesting. But often isn’t always, and sometimes ideas just die on the vine, with no innovator coming up behind to make it better. It was an idea that deserved to fail, but that nobody thought might be worthy of giving a proper follow-up for whatever reason. Tedium is a place where failure deserves to live forever, where we embrace it, so with that in mind, today’s Tedium brings you a list of 10 examples of hardware features, devices, and gadgets that did not change the world, or really even influence it much. They mostly just ended in disappointment for everyone involved. — Ernie @ Tedium
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1. The giant infrared field within which you controlled your video games
The idea: Rather than controlling games via a controller, let’s have you wave your hands in front of an IR-blasting pseudo-laptop.
The device: The Brøderbund U-Force
The era: Late 1980s
The mainstream success of the Nintendo Entertainment System created a situation where companies were increasingly willing to experiment with new approaches in an effort to find the thing that would wow the public and get them to part with their hard-earned cash.
The problem is, infrared technology was just not the way to do something like this, and honestly made the device something of a nightmare to use. It was also built quite cheap, making it a generally hit-and-miss controller in more ways than one.
The device, like many dozens of other peripherals from the NES era, were quickly forgotten about.
» The same idea, but better: By making it so that you don’t have to be tethered in one place, Nintendo developed a version of this that people actually liked for the Wii, and was miles more successful than the forgotten Brøderbund device. But the makers of the U-Force shouldn’t feel so bad—far larger companies than Brøderbund have messed the general idea up, including Leap Motion and Google’s Motion Sense.
2. The J-Mouse
The idea: Rather than relying on a trackball or trackpoint, let’s give the letter j some extra superpowers!
The device: The Packard Bell Statesman, Zenith Data Systems Z-Star EX.
The era: 1993
As I’ve written numerous times before, Packard Bell had a strong reputation for building cut-rate computing devices, and that definitely was the case when the company decided to build a laptop around 1993.
The company’s Packard Bell Statesman sold at a cut-rate price of $1,500—a very low price for a laptop during that period, which the company achieved by leveraging the resources of Zenith Data Systems, which owned a minority stake in Packard Bell during the period, and relying on cut-rate technologies, including proprietary RAM modules and a Cyrix 486 clone that was really just a souped-up 386SX.
The machines were just rebranded Zenith Data Systems machines, which meant ZDS machines looked similar.
But the reason why we care is that, in lieu of a mouse, it had a cursor baked into the J key, with other keys serving as left or right clicks. It was a design only ZDS and Packard Bell used … fortunately. As Lazy Game Reviews noted, the implementation was rough. (Fittingly for two companies that have roots to the early days of radio, the two companies would eventually merge.)
Anyway, could you imagine having to switch between using your keyboard as a mouse and back over and over?
» The same idea, but better: The trackpoint, most famously associated with the Thinkpad, was a much more elegant take on this general idea, one that didn’t make the J-key do double-duty.
3. The CRT-Based PC-TV combo
The idea: Rather than having a TV at the center of your house, how about a giant computer monitor instead?
The device: The Gateway 2000 Destination
The era: 1995
Admittedly, there have been many attempts to combine televisions with living rooms over the years, and increasingly, those mergers have made a ton of sense.
What didn’t make sense was what Gateway did—which is create a computer where the PC was driven by a 31-inch CRT monitor in the mid-1990s, at a time when CRTs of that size easily topped 100 pounds. (A 36-inch CRT, also equally heavy, appeared in 1997.)
We figured out this tech paradigm eventually, but Gateway wasn’t the company that gave it to us, and it didn’t come with a CRT, either.
» The same idea, but better: The Macintosh TV, while not an amazing device and barely on the market, did the same thing, but slightly better, in part because the monitor was way smaller. Later devices like Roku and Apple TV proved that we wanted light computing experiences with our TVs, not full computing experiences.
4. The cartridge slot upgrade path
The idea: Let’s upgrade an existing game console with a device that sits in the cartridge slot and has faster chips.
The device: Sega 32X
The era: Mid-’90s
Although some attempts to upgrade the capabilities of an existing console had come and gone by this point—infamously, the keyboard component of the Intellivision, which ended up sinking that whole console—the 32X was a unique beast.
A device that effectively replaced the guts of the Sega Genesis with a much better console, it came late in the life of the Genesis, but seemed like an ugly duckling from the start, in part because it emerged at a time when it was already well-known that a dedicated 32-bit Sega console, the Saturn, was already on the way.
The rushed nature of the device led to rushed games and a lack of third-party support, and that ensured the 32X would remain a novelty in Sega’s history.
» The same idea, but better: The 32X was built in part because Sega felt it could not get away with an upgraded console, but later devices produced by Microsoft and Sony later proved that a mid-cycle refresh was very much a device people would pay for.
5. The proprietary disc drive standard meant to be similar, but incompatible with what everyone else uses
The idea: Let’s make just a little more room for data on the discs our video game console uses to make the discs harder to copy.
The device: Sega Dreamcast, a gone-too-soon video game console, and its GD-ROM drive.
The era: 1999-2001
We don’t mean to pick on Sega here, but it ran into a lot of technological dead ends during its time in the sun.
Piracy was a real problem for video game companies during the CD era, for obvious reasons: Anyone who had a modern computer most likely had a way to burn CDs themselves, which theoretically meant that they would be able to easily copy games. Sega thought it found a solution to the problem by creating discs that were different enough, technically, from CD-ROMs that nobody would ever be able to pirate them. These devices, called GD-ROMs, had the company speaking confidently around this period.
Just one problem: They weren’t different enough, and the system included support for a CD-ROM-based multimedia format, MIL-CD, that was fully compatible with the Dreamcast. In a matter of months, it was possible to play CD-ROM-based games on the console—a problem many believe hastened the platform’s demise.
While Sega used the drives for its Naomi 2 arcade machines, they never saw the light of day in another consumer device.
» The same idea, but better: The Nintendo GameCube, while not immune to copy-protection concerns, had at least stronger surface-level protection from copying because of its reliance on relatively obscure mini-DVD-sized discs.
6. The PC that fit in an ottoman
The idea: Rather than hide your PC in a corner, what if you could kick up your feet on it? We’ll get a couple of industrial designers right on that.
The device: The Intel Ottoman PC
The era: 1999
Anyone who knows about the supercomputing firm Cray knows that there’s an audience for computing devices that double as furniture.
However, those people might be surprised to learn that Intel once tried something similar, developing a concept PC that fits in an ottoman with the help of SozoDesign, an industrial design firm.
It was built around the idea that computing power would be more elegantly integrated into the home. But it came off as kind of silly. As a CNET columnist put it:
And although the stylized PC represents the next wave of computing, the industry may also have sown the seeds of its own destruction. On one hand, the technology is brilliant. PC companies have harnessed the computing power that 20 years ago managed missile guidance systems for Norad and turned it into a tiny household device that can be decorated with daisy stickers or a cushion.
On the other hand, the Ottoman PC is what it says it is: a footstool. Countless hours of R&D and it ends up a piece of patio furniture. It also doesn’t work perfectly. At its debut, the product manager had to confess that someone kicked it before the presentation and dislodged the hard drive. Developments like this certainly won’t turn the heads of the Nobel committee.
So yeah, not exactly a barn-burner.
» The same idea, but better: About a decade after Intel flubbed with the Ottoman PC, it developed its first NUC, which was small enough to fit unnoticed in an ottoman.
7. The hand-crank charger
The idea: The people who are intended to use this device may not be near an electricity source, let’s give them a crank to generate some power.
The device: One Laptop Per Child XO laptop
The era: Mid-2000s
The One Laptop Per Child project, a fascinating experiment that tested the powers of tech and philanthropy working together, got a lot of momentum from a peripheral that didn’t actually end up shipping with the final product. It was the buzziest design feature of the whole thing, yet it didn’t actually make sense for it.
As a 2018 Verge retrospective of the project recalled:
If you remember the OLPC at all, you probably remember the hand crank. It was OLPC’s most striking technological innovation—and it was pure vaporware. Designers dropped the feature almost immediately after Negroponte’s announcement, because the winding process put stress on the laptop’s body and demanded energy that kids in very poor areas couldn’t spare. Every OLPC computer shipped with a standard power adapter.
Oh sure, a third-party hand crank eventually came out—and you can find battery adapters with hand cranks on Amazon. But since OLPC won a lot of headlines with this peripheral, nobody has been willing to embrace the idea of a device where a primary method for charging is something you power with your arm.
» The same idea, but better: Solar is often embraced for these kinds of use cases instead—and OLPC itself came out with a solar add-on a few years later.
Imagine you spend years working on a display technology and this barely released watch is all you have to show for it.
8. The elusive reflective display in a smartwatch
The idea: Put a display technology in a watch that worked better than eInk but didn’t suck anywhere near as much power as an LCD screen
The product: Qualcomm Toq
The era: 2013
The Qualcomm Mirasol display technology is one of the great more recent technology what-ifs. A competitor to eInk that had many of its capabilities without some of its downsides, the technology largely did not appear in the hands of consumers and mostly stayed in the domain of trade shows and tech previews.
Well, except for this device, which did see a small release. The Qualcomm Toq, which came out at the end of 2013 and was widely reviewed. It was an imperfect watch, but many admired the battery life. However, the screen, the very thing that was interesting about it, was seen as a weak spot. An Ars Technica review put it best:
The trade-off, though, is a big one: the display looks cruddy. It’s not particularly sharp, and the colors it produces aren’t particularly good. It’s fabulously readable in the kind of full sunlight conditions that might have you cupping your hand and squinting at your phone, but it’s dim indoors in the evening.
Understandably, Mirasol ended up fading away not long after this.
» The same idea, but better: Color eInk is improving, but outside that venue, a technology in this same ballpark worth keeping an eye on is Sun Vision Display, a brand of reflective LCDs that don’t rely on backlights and as a result don’t emit so much blue light or energy. It’s not in any smartwatches yet but it is for sale in signage and even a monitor.
9. The miniature antennas that siphoned off over-the-air television
The idea: A bunch of tiny antennas intended to work around a giant regulatory loophole
The service: Aereo, a streaming television service.
The era: 2010s
Whether the idea of doing an end-run around broadcasters was a wise idea or not, you have to admit that Aereo’s technology lent itself to pretty amazing looking press photos. The company became known for using a narrow interpretation of case law to structure its entire business. Basically, rather than simply delivering content over the internet, it acquired broadcasts from the air using dedicated antennas for each user, then gave each user their own broadcast.
It’s not all that dissimilar to the “controlled digital lending” approach we’ve seen used by some digital libraries in the past, and it uses much of the same thinking.
The problem was, however, that the scheme was pretty transparent to broadcasters, who quickly sued the company out of existence. Something tells me we will never see a company put out a fleet of miniature antennas like Aereo did ever again.
» The same idea, but better: A service built directly in response to Aereo, albeit without the miniature antenna technology, is Locast, which attempted to develop the same idea under a nonprofit structure. Developed by a lawyer with ties to the FCC, it failed in court, too, but stuck around longer.
In real life, the phone was subject to nearly as much hype as it was in “Don’t Look Up.”
10. The overhyped phone by the ultra-high-end video camera manufacturer
The idea: A phone intended for high-end professional videographers and tech enthusiasts, complete with a planned add-on system and unique 3D capabilities.
The device: The RED Hydrogen One
The era: 2018
A couple of years back, the film Don’t Look Up got everyone’s attention for its take on climate change and the way that we tend to focus on anything else other than the real, genuine, obvious risks in front of us.
So it’s understandable if you watch it and don’t notice some of the details, like the fact that all of its characters are rocking the RED Hydrogen One, a device that came and went in a matter of months. It was heavily hyped as a phone that would be compatible with future RED cameras, while being capable of on-device 3D.
But reviewers hated the damn thing, with The Verge being particularly harsh, calling it overhyped and its 3D technology a not-worth-it gimmick.
RED has not moved back into the smartphone market since making this thing, and odds are, they won’t be back.
» The same idea, but better: Sony, another company with a contingent of professional creators using its stuff, has been making phones with extra bells and whistles for the professional market for years.
In a lot of ways, the thread that holds together these ideas that were either misguided or poorly thought out or dead on arrival is that someone had to come up with them. There are people and stories behind these devices, and all of them deserved to exist.
Maybe they didn’t spark huge trends at the time, but in 100 years, these are the kinds of things that will be written about because they’re interesting. Is it fair to focus on these and not the successes that were had? Perhaps not.
But these are the wrinkles that make life interesting—the wrinkles historians will appreciate about the gadgets we own.
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And see you next week. We got plenty of rad stuff on the horizon.