10 game-changing tech ideas that didn't change the game
13th Sep 2009 | 09:00
Technologies that crashed
Physics cards and new PC interfaces
Back in the early '90s, virtual reality seemed like the greatest thing ever. By simply bolting a ton of electronics to your head, dosing up on motion sickness pills and looking utterly ridiculous as you waved your arms around and tried to get used to the feeling of your eyes seeing movement but your legs being locked to the ground, you could enter a whole new world.
A whole new 3D world rendered on an Amiga, admittedly, with no tactile feedback. But still, we were impressed. Virtual reality was clearly the future of gaming. Except it wasn't.
A mix of unimpressive games and phenomenally expensive kit quickly put an end to things. The technology simply wasn't good enough – not just the VR, but also the computers that were serving up the games – and mainstream interest started to fade.
What might have been the future quickly became just a fad, and VR became no more than a footnote in the history of gaming. These days, augmented reality – laying artificially-generated images over real-life ones using tools like GPS – has taken over as the next big thing. Will it work? Ask us in 2020...
We've dived into the archives to bring you this collection of some of the other game-changing technologies that never had their shot.
In many cases, they were technologies ahead of their time. In others, they were simply bad ideas, getting attention only because of media hype and big names like Microsoft being slapped onto the title.
All of them are interesting, however, and some are even worth remembering – although perhaps not for the right reasons...
1. The 3DO Blaster
Gaming technologies tend to be the most exciting innovations of all, even if few of them actually come to pass. The 3DO Blaster was a particularly interesting one – an ISA card that, when coupled with a specific CD drive, would turn your PC into a fully-fledged 3DO. What's a 3DO? Exactly.
It was a major flop as a console, with few genuinely memorable games to its name. The concept of being able to literally turn your PC into a different machine was an interesting one, however. Of course, virtualisation and emulator tools mean that that's now possible in other ways. Sadly, we all had to wait over a decade for the tech to catch up.
2. Keyboard and mouse killers
Nothing's beaten them yet, but there's a long line of corpses from systems that tried. Speech recognition, new ergonomic layouts, trackballs, tablets... it's only with multitouch that we've seen a system that actually stands a chance, and even then, it's not going to take over for precise control.
OLD TECH NEVER BETTERED:You still can't beat the humble keyboard for controlling your PC
As for keyboards, QWERTY is king, no matter how much Dvorak fans still protest. The closest we've seen to a reinvention there is the splitdesign for RSI suffers. All the other designs, from foldout cloth keyboards to snazzy laser ones that project onto your table, simply haven't picked up steam.
3. Physics cards
Unlike many of these technologies, physics cards were clearly doomed from the start. The basic idea stemmed from the classic maths coprocessor found back in the days of the 386 – which bolstered the computer's maths ability for complicated calculations – and the now standard 3D graphics accelerators.
The problem was that changing the physics of a game will always be a much bigger issue than working on the graphics or other elements, meaning that companies wanting to use a physics card were limited to things like bigger explosions or isolated clutter instead of widespread game changes.
Without mass acceptance of the physics technology, no games were written to take advantage of it. And without the games, there was no incentive for users to buy the hardware.
The solution? 3D graphics accelerators taking over. And indeed, this is what's happened, leaving the dedicated physics cards behind.
4. New interfaces
Love or hate Windows, it's the only game in town. Failed attempts to change the metaphor have included the friendly Microsoft Bob (which turned the desktop into the rooms of a cartoon house and put a smile on it), similar projects like the Packard Bell Navigator (same idea, less cartoony) and, worst of all, the 3D desktops.
ARE YOU SERIOUS?:Microsoft Bob was a highly inefficient interface and one of the company's most infamous flops
Oddly, nobody wanted to wander around something like the infamous 'it's a Unix System' scene from Jurassic Park, or have every application on different sides of a cube.
Microsoft did finally bring us 3D desktops in Vista, but only to harness the power of modern graphics cards in order to deliver a slicker 2D interface.
Thin clients, tablet PCs, virtual money
5. Thin clients
It's an appealing idea: why buy a full-fat PC when you can buy a glorified screen and just hook into one? Put simply, because you probably want to do things on your PC. The cost of modern laptops makes the thin client largely pointless, although it depends to some extent on what you want to do.
Cloud computing means that a system that can access the web can potentially do everything you need. Nivio is the first to really throw out the PC and still let you use Windows. As for Microsoft, its big push into this market ended in 2004 with the cancellation of a project called Mira in favour of its subsequent interest in...
6. Tablet PCs
A combination of high expense, poor usability and general bad marketing torpedoed these Star Trek-style pads. While still using the Microsoft Origami moniker, they looked stylish, interesting and futuristic.
Once released as Windows Ultra Mobile PC, everyone lost interest. Uncomfortable controls on a slippery screen meant that the whole system only worked if you could twist the screen round to get a keyboard.
TOUCH REVOLUTION:Tablets and UMPCs are still sold and work well, but are awaiting their turn to shine
Instead of becoming a cheap internet platform, these expensive devices shot themselves right out of the market (except for a few niche cases). Like thin clients, however, they may be in for a resurgence now that both touchscreens and laptop technologies are getting cheaper.
7. Virtual money
Ecommerce is big business, but thankfully virtual currencies have died a death. Sites like Beenz and Flooz wanted us to put aside our boring old money in favour of stupidly named new ones.
They worked by either rewarding us in their fake-dollars for doing things like signing up to a website, or enabling us to order real products without needing to break out the Visa card.
The scheme made some sense in the days when everyone thought online shopping meant giving a million hackers access to your bank details, but that level of paranoia didn't last long. A number of companies still do very similar things, mind.
Wouldn't you rather buy something on your card than fill a virtual wallet with 2,000 Microsoft Points for an 800-point purchase? So would we. Hopefully, the nail in this coffin will be banged in good and hard soon.
8. Self-destructing DVDs
What could be more environmentally sound than a DVD that just stops working? DVD-D was intended to shake up the rental market, with discs containing a chemical that would stop them being readable after about 48 hours. DIVX (not the codec) was almost as silly.
Its discs didn't break, but locked you out after 48 hours unless you called a number to reactivate it. Thankfully for landfills everywhere, neither took off. Although piracy remains very popular.
Here's a rare case where the technology is all there and ready. We can still videophone via Skype and most MSN clients if we want to, but it's become apparent that most people simply don't want to.
It's one thing to see a family member or lover who's on the other side of the world, but nobody wants to have to check their hair or remember to grab a towel if the phone rings while they're in the bath.
10. Smelly games
iSmell. The name says it all. Wouldn't you love to be able not only to explore new worlds, but smell them too? Answer: no. Not many games take place in flower shops and bakeries, but there are a lot of sewer levels out there. These are quite atmospheric enough, thank you very much.
Other attempts to make the gaming experience more realistic include chairs that punch you in the back, vests that do the same (using motors) and an arcade machine known as the Painstation, the original version of which would burn and flay your hand for losing a game of Pong. Call us wimps, but we'll pass.
And then there's SoftRAM...
SoftRAM was a revolutionary product – a software-based way of doubling your RAM that was released in 1995. There was just one problem: it was a scam. The software didn't work, to the point where the American FTC intervened and forced a recall. Still, if it had worked...
First published in PC Plus Issue 285
Liked this? Then check out 10 computing conspiracy theories examined
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