Cool gadgets that went (almost) nowhere

Near the top of the list must be the Apple MessagePad (Newton).

Also, I vaguely remember a Panasonic VCR that hooked up to your telephone line (the same way you hook up an answering machine), so that you could dial in and remotely program it to record a TV show. Anybody else remember this?

Any other cool “flops”?

The videophone. It seems that there’s always this feeling that it’s a technology whose time has come, although I can’t imagine why. For a while it really looked like people would buy them maybe - it was an actual videophone gadget (I think they even had one on Loveline) as opposed to videoconferencing through your computer which I guess some people actually do. An actual videophone unit.

I had the Sega channel way back when. It was a Sega cartridge that had a cable connection. You’d plug it into your Genesis and get 20 different games a month. It was really annoying to get Mortal Kombat 3 because they’d split the characters up into two seperate games that you had to download, cutting down on your choices. That and you couldn’t save RPGs. But we got specialty games you couldn’t get elsewhere: some Tetris knockoff that was really good, and Pong!

It’s because the camera and the screen are in different places so it’s disocncerting talking to people since they aren’t looking directly at you. Also, lots of people just dont want others to see what they looked like.

Personally, I was disappointed the segway was such a flop.

The videophone is amazing, if only because it is probably the longest-lived failed invention ever. It has cropped up in some working experimental form over and over again since at least 1930, only to be promptly shoved aside each time.

You’d think that after all this time the phone people would have caught on that nobody wants the goddamn thing. BUT! NOOoooooo. Every few years, there it is again. It’s getting to be the technological equivalent of the old pull-the-quarter-out-of-your ear trick: no one cares anymore, especially since in this case, we don’t even get to keep the quarter.

Enough already with the videophone.

You actually can buy those—my aunt & uncle and my grandparents got a couple, a few months back. (You hook it up to your phone line, and your TV set. The framerate isn’t great, but it’s workable.)


Nixie Tubes

Jet Packs. (Later Bell models, as I remember, not only had a true jet engine, but an endurance time of seven minutes.) Or the Williams Aerial Survey Platform.

RCA Videodiscs. Or Phonovision discs.

Flamethrowers. (Maybe “went nowhere” is too strong, but they have kind of died out.)

The Pedfersen Device

Ranchoth: That Phonovision story borders on the sci fi. Imagine - they could record TV (back when there hardly was TV). But they couldn’t figure out how to play it back - it was just noise-on-a-record until computer frequency analysis and filtering.

I submit for your approval Thaddeus Cahill’s unbelievable Telharmonium. was the first truly electric musical instrument. It was the talk of New York in 1907. By 1908 it had gone broke. By 1912 it was back. Only now, nobody cared.

Want your flying (or floating) car? Consider the Aerocar and Amphicar.

Deaf people really like them. My brother and all his friends in the deaf community all use them. I think they even have a video relay operator now (to translate between hearing and deaf callers). So in that limited regard, they are met with a degree of success.

That and cell phones with text messaging.

There are thousands of them out there right now being used for Video Relay Service for the speech and hearing impaired. One of the more popular ones for home use is the DLink i2eye. It’s essentially a set top box for your TV (thereby putting the camera right above the TV screen) with a high enough frame rate for real time sign language, and a price in the sub-$200 range.

Here’s what really ended up happening to the Newton and that VCR: They were cutting edge products that created a new market, but didn’t evolve enough to keep up with their imitators. For example, this January, I was on vacation in London, and realized I had forgotten to tell my TiVo to record the Superbowl. We were walking through Soho, and I saw the London Apple Store. I ducked into the store, took out my Palm handheld, and connected to Apple’s open WiFi network. I then used TiVo’s online scheduling service to tell my TiVo at home to record the Superbowl. A few minutes later, I had an email confirmation. The PDA and remotely schedulable DVR are the natural descendants of the Newton and Panasonic VCR - they just aren’t made by Apple or Panasonic.

It was bound to be. Now, sure, it can be a great personal vehicle, but it has one major and a couple minor design problems:

  1. Where does it run? It’s a motor vehicle, but the “rider” is sort of a pedestrian. Many areas won’t let it ride on the sidewalk, as it goes too fast, and it could be a mild danger and a significant annoyance to real pedestrians. It’s too slow to go on the street. Every area doesn’t have bike paths, and even so, bikes go faster, and they won’t want you there.

  2. No cargo space- when people go places, they want to take things with them- to wrok, your computer that case you’ve been working on, and shopping- what you;ve bought on the way back.

  3. You stand, not sit- and dudes are lazy.

But it’s #1 that killed it- no use buying something that can’t go anywhere!

If everyone had a segway, then everyone would want a segway. If nobody has a segway, then nobody would want one precisely because of point no 1. I was just hoping that it would reach a certain critical mass where cities could be re-designed around it like Kaman claimed. I think it was a mistake to release it in the US first, I think it would have been accepted much more readily in Europe.

The problem the segway wanted to solve, in my mind, is this last mile problem with personal transport. Say you live a mile away from the train station and the other train station is a mile away from your work. What are your choices for getting to work? You can’t drive to the train station because theres nowhere to park there. You can bike there but you can’t take the bike onto the train so you’ll have to walk at the other end. You can walk to the train station but it’s a mile both ways. Finally, you can just give in and drive to work, if you can find a parking spot for less than $10 a day. With a segway, and appropriate infrastructure support, you’ve solved this problem! The money you save on car support alone well justifies buying a segway, even at $5000. You just ride your segway onto the train and park it in a built in booth, get off the train, ride it to work and park it into a designated employee segway parking lot.

And because Americans are so attached to their cars, it’s hard to imagine ever doing completely without one. But in Europe, you can do stuff like go shopping and put all your groceries at a designated dropoff point where it will then be delivered to you later in the day. If your computer needs to be repaired, the repairman can pick it up from your house and return it when it’s fixed etc.

I think the segway was a genuinely viable product that, sadly, never got the support it needed to gain it’s full potential.

In safety-mad America, you’ve also got the challenge that a Segway goes fast enough that falling off the thing will injure the rider.

If you hit an obstacle, such as a curb or piece of debris in the road, you go face-first onto the cement after your private parts get thwacked by the handlebar. So very quickly people will be wanting bicycle helmets, elbow pads, etc. And what do you do with all that gear when you get to the store or to school or work?

The folks that ride bikes for transport now put up with lugging all that stuff around when they get where they’re going, but that’s because they’re fanatics, or kids with no choice.

Putting up with that degree of inconvenience will never be a mainstream American value.

Prsonally, I’d like to have one, but more than that I’d like to have a use for one. Sadly, that’s just not happening, even in my bike-friendly suburban world with the long commute.


Not quite a helicopter, it can’t hover, although it can fly as slow a 5mph.

Slower than an airplane, it is also short-ranged.

It is chiefly famous for its goofy appearance, & a brief use in a James Bond film.

The Sewgay is not a very good solution for this problem. It would take up too much space in the train, and subway stations must be redesgned to eliminate escalators and have wider passages. A much better solution - and this is very common in Japan - is to have a bicycle storage facility at the station. You can keep a cheap bike in storage at the station near your work. Other solutions include buses, vans operated by the employer, and folding bikes.

IMHO the only “problem” the Segway was designed to solve was: “We spent all this money developing a 2-wheel balancing system for the iBOT (electric wheelchair), but the market for those isn’t very big. How can we make more money with this technology?”

The Segway was just the son of the Sinclair C5; a solution looking for a problem.

Yes, when Kaman said that cities would be redesigned around these things, what he really meant was cities would have to be redesigned around these things for it to be viable. It’s true the Segway mk1 has a rather large footprint, but in principle, theres nothing stopping it from just big enough to enclose your personal space.

The inside the Egg shell scrambler?

Re: Segway,

You can’t carry it around because it’s too heavy. If you hit someone, it’s like you hit them while running with a huge backpack. Many people couldn’t even get it over a curb easily. It costs enough to buy a used car and use that for the other end of the train ride.

Why not just make it so you can bring your bike on the train? That would require only very minor changes, whereas what you suggest would require massive changes to infrastructure.