When we think of the great inventors, problem solvers and entrepreneurs we probably think of Elon Musk and Bill Gates; maybe Alan Turing and Thomas Edison, or perhaps James Dyson and Henry Ford.
Very few lists, however, would feature Sir Clive Sinclair; despite his massive success in creating the ZX Spectrum and therefore bringing gaming to the mass market, it’s difficult for those of us who remember not to envisage him in riding along the pavements in the bizarre Sinclair C5. A strange battery powered three-wheeled device with a top speed of 15mph, only 5,000 were sold before parent company Sinclair Vehicles went into receivership. In retrospect, it was ahead of its time and a prototype for many of the electric vehicles we see now. Or rubbish. Or turned into a vehicle for disabled people. Or unsafe.
The Sinclair C5 story shows how hit and miss completely new projects can be, in terms of success and viability. In another reality, people used these little vehicles to zip through urban areas, watching films on laser discs and chatting on Amstrad satellite phones, and chuckled at the thoughts of other products rotting in the technological graveyard.
Timing is everything; for a product to become a hit there needs to be a desire, and the right timing and marketing, but more than anything it needs to work well – or well enough. Take Virtual Reality as an example, which now appears to be finally finding its niche.
When ABC covered the invention of VR in 1991, the actual ideas of what it could accomplish were identical to what we would expect in 2017. Exploring alien worlds, touring potential homes for purchase and learning how to repair an engine were all put forward as concepts to be explored from the comfort of a headset, and looked impressive. Participants wore gloves with sensors, and walked on treadmills, to complete the effect of movement.
So why did the idea fail? A range of forces conspired to scupper the project, including the dot.com bust of the late 90s. One of the biggest factors was the lack of technology – screens were then clunky, crude representations of around 300 by 200 pixels, compared to the 4k by 4k resolutions we have now. The costs were exorbitant (up to $200,000 per headset) while the lack of computational power and resolution led to performance problems, which led to feelings of nausea and headaches following prolonged use – the screen could not keep up with what our balance was telling us.
This issue still remains to some degree, and combining that with the need for a headset still leads some to believe that VR will not be a success. There’s also a change in mindset; in 1991 computer designer Dr Jonathan Waldern, whose company Virtuality was an early pioneer in the field, said: “The goal of virtual reality is simple: total submersion and detachment from reality.” Nowadays we don’t want to be detached from reality – we just want a different reality to that which is immediately in front of us. So, for example, we want to fly to Hawaii or fight in a virtual, but realistic, battlefield.
The 1991 version of VR was too early. It’s been postulated that this is a similar reason for 3D TV failing to take off – it just isn’t good enough yet, despite many years of trial. The first 3D broadcasts were made as far back as February 1982, as part of weekly science magazine The Real World. The presenters were stunned that they could grasp at a rubber lobster, and revealed that one company was planning a full-length feature film using stereoscopic 3D but was taking out added insurance for viewers “should they feel faint-hearted”. The fad withered, then returned for football matches and notably for the film Avatar, but earlier this year the plug was finally pulled on 3D TVs again.
Of course, another reason that some technology flounders is that competitors gobble them up. The long in the tooth may remember the late 70s shoot-out between Sony Betamax and JVC’s VHS, eventually won by the latter. However, the JVS variant also even saw off one of its own products in the form of the video high density disc, as well as Philips’ LaserDisc. These 25cm discs could store up to 60 minutes of video and were designed to be interactive, with the aim of creating adventure games. But this level of complexity made costs prohibitive and led to issues with manufacturing, which eventually led to it limping into oblivion by the mid-80s. A decade later – and notably when the format was decided unanimously by all the major electronic giants – DVD arrived on the scene.
DVD is still a widely used format and will never be regarded as a flop. In retrospect, it was probably always going to be a game-changing concept, but we can’t always say that about technology. Some ‘can’t fail’ ideas have failed while other apparently dangerous technologies have withstood early scepticism and flourished. In 2016 Popular Mechanics spoke to George Spencer, about his grandfather Percy. In the 1940s Percy was a Raytheon engineer who accidentally melted some of his food while testing a military-grade magnetron – essentially a device that creates vibrating electromagnetic waves. Spencer experimented with his discovery, and to hell with the safety. Thus began the story of the microwave and by 1975 a million microwaves were being sold each year.
Other devices have not retained their popularity. SodaStreams have gone, and do people still want spiralizers? We now live in a connected world and many homeowners depend on it – nay, demand it. We want to control our heating and fridges and oven, and order everything on Amazon Dash. Even our dustbins are gobbling up information and feeding it elsewhere, so that we can order food without even knowing about it. Our cookers no longer need much input – in fact we can fire across recipes to our fryers, plonk the ingredients inside, and let them go to work without us.
Facebook was more user friendly than MySpace. Napster seems ancient, Spotify is the here and now. When Google was born as a privately held company in late 1998 at Stanford University it already had tough competition from search engines such as Lycos, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and Webcrawler, among others, but ask any teenager now and they probably won’t have ever heard of these arcane services. By streamlining and retaining its interest on search, rather than losing its focus and attempting to concentrate on diverse services, it started to gain a reputation for accuracy. Now, almost two decades on, its product and reach extend to so much of our lives that we take it for granted.
How many other online ideas and visions have come and gone in the past two decades? Some, such as pets.com and boo.com were smashed by economics in the late 90s and early noughties. Who has heard of SixDegrees.com, or Webvan.com? Even Google itself has had the odd stinker. Many other tens of thousands of websites that might have exploded in popularity have evaporated and withered. Imagine, for example, if YouTube or Twitter had been created in the pre-smartphone era of 1996 – almost certainly neither would now exist. Likewise, in the early noughties any site offering to sell your home online, or share photographs instantly to all of your friends, or stream a movie, would have been laughably bad.
The catalogue of technology hits and misses stretches back through history; there are far too many good ideas that floundered and flawed premises that somehow worked for a while to list here. Humans are fickle creatures, and something aesthetic or irrelevant that has no bearing on the actual operation of an invention can make it a winner or loser. Perhaps the ‘wrong person’ was in control and certain bad decisions were taken, or perhaps the timing was bad. Or maybe it was just a flawed idea – a C5 rather than a ZX.