12 high technologies that failed - and why

2nd Jul 2009 | 13:15

12 high technologies that failed - and why

Tech that seemed like a great idea - until people tried to use it

1-6 including VR, Viiv and video chat

The brainchild of budding entrepreneurs and research labs, these tech failures were intended to become commonplace in our fast-changing world.

Unfortunately, they turned into Frankensteins that no one wanted – mostly for scientific reasons, technical dependencies, or a poorly conceived business model.

Without further ado, let's get stuck in...

1. Mobile video chat

In the UK and US, video chat over a smartphone is still a distant dream. Part of the problem is bandwidth – there just isn't enough of it for two-way video. Part of the issue is ease of use: it should be as quick to place a video call as one where you only use your voice.

"Vendors didn't realise that the problems were more behavioural than technical and didn't approach the market properly," says tech analysts Enderle. Maybe Apple can turn this one around?

2. Quadraphonic sound

Another technology that never had a chance, quadraphonic sound put four channels of audio in four corners of the room, and it emerged in the 1970s as a way to emulate what you hear in a cinema or live performance.

The main issue had to do with a lack of standardised formats, and the emergence of Dolby and DTS surround sound – which were heavily supported by the audio industry.

3. Intel Viiv

A high-profile flop, Intel Viiv was the big announcement at CES in 2006. It was essentially the "Centrino of home media distribution" - chipsets and components designed to make it easier to store and retrieve digital media including music, movies, and photos. But it just didn't work.

The plan was for PC makers to proudly display the Viiv logo, but the failure was not in communicating the value of digital media – we'd already got that - Viiv was just too complex to understand, and partners never really warmed to it. The name was the ultimate death punch: no one knew how to pronounce it (it rhymes with "five").

4. Line of sight (LOS) wireless

LOS, or fixed wireless, emerged about 10 years ago as a way for cities to deploy their own network using the same model as mobile phone carriers.

According to IT analyst Charles King, LOS was just too complex and inflexible, especially compared to newer technologies such as Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

5. Virtual reality

One of the problems with VR is that the human brain has a hard time perceiving two worlds at once – especially when it means donning a pair of goggles that block out one of those worlds (the real one).

Videogames such as World of Warcraft pull you into the action, but you are still well-aware of your surroundings. Mind you, Microsoft Natal is a stage on from old-school VR, the latest attempt to meld the virtual world with the physical.

6. The driverless car

This one seems to have a host of problems – the high-cost of the infrastructure, AI that is not anywhere near ready, and obvious safety concerns. There's also the fact a train or a bus makes more sense in dense urban areas.

Adding robotics to cars does make sense though, and both Enderle and King suggested that driverless cars could possibly become a reality within the next 10 years for long road trips.

7-12 including dog-tracking and 3D shopping


Well, of course. The format wars ended abruptly at the 2008 CES in Las Vegas. Blu-ray won hands-down, although HD DVD even now, is still apparently more popular in the US.

In 2007, some had claimed HD DVD was the superior optical format. However, a closer look at the specs reveals the truth: the Blu-ray compression ratio is actually 50:1 compared to a much lower rate for HD DVD. BD discs hold more data, and the stream rate is higher as well (48Mbps).

According to Enderle, Sony "effectively bought Time Warner's loyalty and took the market." Still, Enderle says Blu-Ray is not a profitable format yet, and high-def digital downloads are catching up quickly.

8. SNIF tags/GPS collars for dogs

As early as last year, the idea of using a GPS collar for your dog made sense. SNIF tags, which report back on your pet's whereabouts, would help reduce the number of lost animals.

Enderle says the concept was hampered by high costs, short battery life and complexity, but that it could come back in 5-7 years.

IT analyst King says the main problem with GPS collars is that family pets usually find their way home eventually, unless they have been purposefully abandoned by careless owners.

9. 3D shopping/virtual storefronts

Ecommerce is a major hit - one 'virtual store' at a .com address now matches the sales of many physical stores.

However, the concept of 3D shopping never caught on, partly due to the fact that web shoppers are often looking for the best deal and aren't interested in being bombarded by slow-loading graphics.

"3D shopping assumed that online shopping needed to reflect real world interactions. Instead, consumers willingly traded human interactions for convenience and aggressive pricing," says King. Some still believe in it, though.

10. Personal transport device

The sad fact of the personal transport device - in other words, the Segway - is that we are not all riding them to work, touring the town, and playing Frisbee at the beach - probably while crashing into each other. Enderle says the alternatives are better: scooters, bicycles and even skateboards.

11. Video goggles

Video goggles usually appear in trendy car commercials as the device of the future, but rarely actually become a legitimate tech concept with end-users.

Once again, we have trouble perceiving two worlds at once and even the most expensive goggles cause mild nausea.

"Costs are dropping but I have yet to see something that most would accept and I've tried some advanced $20K products," says Enderle.

Even Nvidia's recent attempt with its 3D Vision kit has been met with a muted response.

12. Light-emitted keyboards

If video goggles fail because our human perceptions of video have a hard time understanding two discrete worlds, then light-emitted and roll-up flexible keyboards have a similar "physical world" limitation – we tend to need visceral feedback as we type.

Interestingly, your typing speed is faster on the iPhone when the device provides a click-click audio accompaniment.

"Touchscreen keyboards have generally been more successful when they have added the sound of keys clicking," says King.


Liked this? Then check out 8 unexpectedly amazing tech projects from IBM

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