Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Worst Kind of Technologies Failure

At one point in time, each of these was either a conceptual technology with loads of promise, possibly even a budding market reality. In all cases, the technologies and products involved were doomed for the worst kind of failure. In fact, you may have forgotten some of these ever existed.

Virtual Reality

Now, I’ve never been much of a gamer. But as a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, I remember just how much of a hype machine was behind virtual reality. It was the type of technology that I would lay wide awake for hours on end fantasizing about. I mean, you’d get to be in your own damn video game. Incredible! Movies and pop culture were all too quick to expound upon just how great virtual reality was going to be when it took over arcades and home consoles in those oh-so-distant years of the 2000s.

And then something happened. More accurately, nothing happened. Today, we have the technology to make virtual reality possible, but it remains but a tiny novelty. It never took the video game world by storm as promised, and failed to really produce anything convincing. I suppose, the motion-based gaming that has taken off so heartily in recent years is a form of virtual reality. But the fully immersive environments inside helmet- or goggle-mounted displays remain scarce. Maybe there’s still a future for a five-sense, brain-manipulated version of virtual reality worthy of the Matrix, but you just really don’t hear much about it the way we did in the 80s.

If you look at some other lists of failed technologies, you’ll find gadgets like video phones (VoIP, anyone?) and e-readers that actually had a second life well after those articles were published. So only the future will tell whether some of these technologies bounce back and leave us eating our words. But for now, they’re all flops and joke-butts.

Personal Mobility Devices

This category is almost synonymous with its most famous member: the Segway. And that’s because the Segway was such an irredeemable, deep-throating flop, there just wasn’t room for any serious competitors. Though it’s been a little more persistent and extinction-resistant than the rest of the items here, the Segway has been an epicly disappointing device. Of course, disappointment is bound to happen when you declare your device as something capable of changing the face of the world as we know it.

Not only did the Segway fail to change the way cities are built, it pretty much failed to attract anything more than a cult following of extreme geeks. In fact, in 2007, Forbes reported that the Segway had sold just 30,000 units in six years–just 3/4 of the 40,000 the overly-exuberant company expected to sell in its first year. Turns out, most people aren’t really that interested in buying slow, awkward, $5,000 “transporters” that are only good for sidewalks and large shoulders. We have enough faster, more versatile and/or cheaper options with cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and, yes, walking. In fact, just thinking about how revolutionary people thought this thing would be makes me a little angry.


Unlike other tech fails in history, the spirit and idea behind HD DVD was a big success. It’s just that Toshiba’s version of high-definition discs was dominated and destroyed by the Sony/Pioneer-backed Blu-ray format that we know and love today. The HD DVD had nearly two good–well not good, but existent–years between its introduction in 2006 and its official demise in 2008, but the idea of two formats that each require different equipment and discs was bound to produce one winner and one loser. They probably should have just collaborated on that one.


This one’s lame name should have been a clue that it wouldn’t last long. PDA sounds okay (albeit the same as the pejorative “public display of affection”) but Personal Digital Assistant? That just sounds like a technology that can only exist on the person of a dork with a pocket protector and bow tie. And, indeed, the PDA was never really anything more than a lame duck for business and tech dweebs.

Popularized right around the same time that cell phones were becoming an every-man device, even the least tech-savvy people were staring back and forth at the PDA and the cell phone and wondering why one device couldn’t do it all. You only have so much pocket, after all. And within a few short years, one device could do it all, and the PDA became a bit of a joke. To the PDA’s credit, unlike many items on this list, it did have a few short years as a cutting-edge piece of technology (I was pretty psyched when I got my HP iPaq for Christmas ’01). Still, though, the short-natured existence of this technological stopgap makes it a decided fail.


Remember back when interactive TV was all the conversational rage? I remember smell-o-vision getting thrown around back around the turn of the century when TV and software companies were trying hard at making TV a more interactive communications piece. Little did I know at the time, smell-o-vision had been trying (and failing miserably) to gain hold in the market for more than four decades.

Despite the plodding advances of Web integration into TV, interactive elements like smell-o-vision remain deader than dead. And that’s probably because smell-o-vision was arguably the dumbest idea to come from the interactive TV school. Sure, smell may be one of the strongest senses for identification and long term memory. And, yes, being able to smell the program you’re watching would undoubtedly present an immersive quality well beyond what 3DTV and surround sound offer. But do you really need to smell the dank, blood-stained NYC streets on CSI New York, or the fat slowly melting away on The Biggest Loser? No, not at all. And that’s why smell-o-vision remains but an anecdotal footnote in tech history. TIME magazine even named it one of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century.

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