5 future technologies that never quite made it

There's nothing quite like the terrible pause between being told that the future has arrived and realising that the subject of that statement just never caught on. It's long, drawn and the pain only ends for the inventor/advocate of said technology when either it goes out of production or that thought pops into the consciousness of society that runs "Hey, whatever happened to the...?"

So during a week where we've been looking forward to what tech treats might be, let's all spare a moment for five launched in the past that never quite made it. Let us know any of your favourites we've missed in the comments below and perhaps even a few from the present you feel are destined for the same sorry path.

 

The LaserDisc

Year launched
1978 (Jaws)
Moment in the sun
Honk Kong in the 90s
Reason for demise
Too big and not recordable

The LaserDisc is a tragic tale of too much technology, but not enough thought. It was by head and shoulders the superior quality video product of its time and still remains sought after by videophiles the world over because of its uncompressed audio encoding at CD quality and often in Dolby stereo as well. Developed by Philips and MCA under all sorts of interesting names such as Laservision and Disco-Vision, it was eventually brought to market by Pioneer as the first commercially available optical storage medium.

Out just 2 years after VHS, it was a direct competitor in the format wars but suffered to its inferior rivals for a number of largely practical reasons. The first, and probably most important, factor was that you couldn't record onto it, which was the very feature that made VHS the Sky+ of its generation. Second, they were massive. Perhaps not a killer but they were seen as somewhat unwieldy and it also meant a larger surface to damage which made them a lot less robust than plastic protected magnetic tape.

The final nail in the coffin was the fact that you could only fit 30 mins of material on one side before having to turn the thing over and press play again, and, if that lot wasn't enough, early versions suffered from surface oxidisation and ruining of the discs in what was termed "Laser Rot".

That said, the LaserDisc did better then most people give it credit for. LD players were in 2% of American households in 1998 and 10% of homes in Japan where the product had been priced to match VHS. Indeed in Hong Kong through much of the 1990s, the LaserDisc was the prevalent rental format and it was only in 2001 when the last title on LD was released, while the players themselves were manufactured by Pioneer until 2009.

Still, despite their surprisingly impressive footprint, that future that was now firmly belongs in the past.

 

Virtual Reality

Year launched
N/A
Moment in the sun
1990s
Reason for demise
Clunky and not useful to the consumer

It's hard to pin down VR to a birth, death or even defined experience but it's a concept that's been banging around laboratories and military training centres for a good 50 or 60 years. It was in the late 80s and particularly the early 90s when the media picked up on this concept of immersing yourself in an all-encompassing 360 degree graphical world. You only need to look back to films like Disclosure and, of course, The Lawnmower Man to see why it never really happened at the consumer level.

The first problem was that, at the time, it required being strapped into the largest, most terribly cumbersome and wired heavy equipment that no one would ever be able to bring to market because of the costs as well as practicalities. The graphic interface was also pretty basic on the same kind of level as playing Elite. What's more, it was essentially pointless for the public. It had and still has a purpose for training people in the professional worlds that can afford top level simulations, but other than that it only really survives now in the public realm as the concept of a virtual world, the like of which you see in Second Life.

The only time VR ever really made an attempt to hit the mainstream was when it appeared in video arcades with a helmet and glove for all to try at top-end prices as far as that environment goes. The user was then hugely disappointed as they grew bored of what they saw after which time they were probably tangled up in the floor in all the wires.

To say that VR has died completely is not true, but it's no longer in the consumer world. It was a case of a decent idea coming a long time before the technology was there to make the experience rewarding. If its application can become both usable and useful in the future, then it may have a renaissance probably in gaming if nowhere else but, for now, augmenting reality has surpassed it on every front.

 

Video Calling

Year launched
2003
Moment in the sun
Japan
Reason for demise
Expense

In 2003, the first video mobiles were launched in the UK with 3 using the 3G network. There was suddenly a buzz that the future had arrived and we'd all be chatting face to face on our mobile phones. It never happened. There are a few reasons as to why this was. The first was that not many people had a 3 phone to begin with and it was very much marketed as something you needed in order to do that, despite the 3G network and front facing cameras being available to all.

Second, was that in the early days 3's network had a terrible word of mouth record in the public for dropping calls left, right and centre. Lastly, video calling was expensive, and it was a time when people were watching their minutes very carefully and the mobile phone was a luxury item that you would never use at home instead of the far cheaper land line. Mass minutes, texts and yes, highly underused video minutes came much later by which time this vision of the future had passed.

There has also been the argument that the public is simply too self-conscious to make video calls but strangely, there are parts of the world, particularly in Asia where the idea has taken off and people make video calls on a fairly regular basis. Perhaps though, the biggest blocker to this trend is that, unlike voice calls, it serves far less of a useful purpose. Voice allowed us to communicate to anyone, anywhere and that changed the world. Video just allows us to enhance that a little bit.

 

The Intelligent Fridge

Year launched
N/A
Moment in the sun
Hotel mini bars
Reason for demise
Long fridge life cycles

If you've been to a consumer electronics show any time since the 60s, you will have seen kitchen appliances with interactive computers embedded. It's been the future for many years now. If the intelligent fridge and other such white goods haven't turned up, it's because, so far, no one really wants one. The technology has been there to make these things for ages now; putting a scanner on mini fridge doors to auto bill customers when they remove a £3 fun-size Twix after room service has closed down for the night.

The trouble, until recently, has been that having a computer in your Smeg 3000 hasn't been entirely practical. The life span of a fridge is 10 years plus. The life span of a computer can be as little as 12 months. It's just never made sense and the functionality hasn't really been there either. Bring that forward to the present to our connected world and suddenly you've got a computer that can update itself and a way of getting the supermarket to automatically deliver you food when your fridge knows you're running low on cheese or what have you.

The fridge could also become the home of the kitchen screen for TV watching or computer use or might just have apps that supply recipes to your touch or even according to what ingredients it knows you have. These things are all possible, but it doesn't deal with the issue of the fridge's hardware lasting a lot longer than that of the computer. What's more, out of all the futurologists and tech minds we spoke to in research for Future Week, not one mentioned the rise of the intelligent kitchen.

 

APS

Year launched
1996
Moment in the sun
'97-'98
Reason for demise
digital cameras

It would be easy to say that it was just digital photography that did for the Advanced Photographic System (APS) or Advantix as Kodak called it. When you look at the bigger picture though, it was basically rubbish anyway.

This 24mm film format offered absolutely no reason for consumers or professionals alike to bother making the switch. Its size meant it was of lower resolution and two of the three image sizes available were just crops of the other, even if you did want to start buying photo albums that fitted them. It was a slightly tidier mechanism with a more protected negative roll but hardly worth buying all new equipment for.

It's the kind of invention that might have caught on by force if the major manufacturers had simply cut off their production of 35mm film but, instead, after just 3 or 4 years of existence, the autofocus digital camera became affordable and kicked it off the shelves - a very good thing too.