Dumber than Advertised: 5 Half-Baked Technologies that Failed to Deliver

The purpose of technology – flush toilets, smart phones, the wheel – is to make our lives easier. When technology is foisted on the unsuspecting public with the promise of being awesome and actually ends up causing us grief, i vote FIRE. Throw it all in a smouldering heap, and stick with what works. Here are five not-ready-for-primetime that either need to go back in the oven for another decade, or set ablaze and used to heat our homes while our lives are made easier by the stuff that actually works.

1. Wifi

Wifi? Thaaaaat’s right. i’m gonna open with a bang. i’m going to argue that the reality of wifi has fallen far short of the promise of wifi. This reality was never more clear a few years ago, when you had the choice of buying a wifi-only, or cellular version of a gadget, and you thought “why pay for an expensive telco contract, when i can just use this thing anywhere there’s a hotspot?” By now, in the future, we should have a land flowing with milk and honey and wifi. Connectivity should be dripping off the lamp-posts and sparkling off the tops of our houses. Entire cities should be blanketed in the stuff – a thin layer of wifi as technological icing, settling into every crevice of civilization like freshly-fallen snow.

George Jetson car

Aaahhh – the first wifi of the year.

What we’ve got for viable wifi hotspots are your house, Starbucks, and an open hotspot owned by a private utilities company that costs two dollars a minute on your credit card. The rest of the hotspots you see, if you see them, require a WEP password, because the FBI thought it would be a great idea to hold people accountable when strangers surfed child porn on their open networks.

FBI SWAT

Open the door. We’re here to let one person spoil technology for the rest of humanity.

Nowhere is the failure of wifi more heart-breaking than at a technology conference. For years, i’ve been attending conferences like GDC, an international conference staged in the heart of Internet-land, and throughout the show have been required to sit immediately next to a single consumer-grade Linksys router jury rigged to a lighting stand, or to sneak into the press room, to check my email. And that’s been my best-case scenario. From Casual Connect in Seattle, to Indiecade and E3 in Los Angeles, to whatever the heck goes on in the Toronto Convention Centre, all the way to visiting someone else’s school, home or office and feeling like a dork for sheepishly requesting the password, wifi as a life-changing technology has a long way to go before it functions as advertised.

And just to add insult to injury, the World Health Organization thinks it gives us cancer. Well done, scientists. Well done.

Fluoroscope

Fluoroscope foot X-ray machines used to be installed in shoe stores across the country. What could possibly go wrong?

2. Motion Controllers

The Wii sold like hotcakes on the promise of a new type of input system for video games: one where you move the controller like a sword, and your on-screen character mimics those motions, hacking and slashing his way through enemies. You hold two controllers and use them like drumsticks. You use a controller like a baton to conduct an orchestra. People loved the idea that they could play a video game in a way that felt much more natural than clawing a complicated controller packed with abstractly-mapped buttons.

Miyamoto Wii Music

Now i can play video games with my arms up over my head, just as God intended.

That’s the myth we were sold. What we actually got was a stick which, when waggled vaguely in the direction of something sort of, in a general kind of maybe way, something on-screen possibly happened. i guess. The accuracy of the input was so underwhelming that Nintendo had to release a “hardware patch” in the Wii Motion Plus dongle, which was a lot like saying “thanks for your money – here’s how it was supposed to work.”

Wii Motion Plus

Introducing the Nintendo Oops™, pictured here at the base of the Nintendo Sorry About That™.

The Kinect system is equally disappointing. It allows you to use your entire body as the controller so that you can operate a video game one half-second into the future. If you want to move your hands to pop on-screen balloons slightly later than you expect them to react, run and grab a Kinect. If you want a true 1:1 motion experience like you saw in that exhausting UX nightmare scene from Minority Report, you’re gonna have to wait a while. More than half a second, anyway, until companies like Microsoft put this bun back in the oven and fully bake it.

Minority Report

i can’t WAIT to use my computer STANDING UP with my ARMS OUTSTRETCHED for seven hours straight.

And the Playstation Move controller looks like a buttplug.

Playstation Move

Paging Dr. Dover – Dr. Ben Dover.

3. QR Codes

i still don’t understand why marketers think we’ll all get tremendously excited about technologies that exist solely to sell us more crap. QR codes have essentially become an alternate method of typing in Proctor and Gamble website URLs. If you want a faster way to reach Tide.com, photographing a QR code is your best bet.

QR Code Ralph

This magazine isn’t filled with enough advertising for my taste. Let me go buy a 400 dollar gadget so that i can photograph a QR code to see where else i can piss away my money.

This technology is another example of marketers going nuts over something while the rest of us squeeze our eyes shut tightly and wait til it’s over. Like the Lambada. What galls me about this particular gimmick is that it reeks of fifty-year-old, technologically unaware ad and marketing execs thinking it’s especially cool that you can take a picture of something that’s NOT a website, and it magically becomes a website. It’s as if the whole concept of interpreting pits and peaks as digital information is entirely new and fascinating to them, so they have to go slapping QR codes on all of their billboards in the hopes that consumers will be equally mystified and dangle themselves out the passenger-side windows of their cars on the freeway trying to snap pictures of these mystical pots of technological gold.

QR Codes: Lame

It may not have dawned on them that a) nobody cares, and b) this type of technology isn’t actually new or interesting, because we’ve seen it all before in stuff like optical discs, cassette tapes, bar codes, computer punch cards … and mother-flipping player piano rolls.

Piano Roll

It doesn’t LOOK like music, but an expensive device turns it INTO music! The future is here!

4. Augmented Reality

Most people like the idea of augmented reality, but i’d be amazed to find that anyone has enjoyed the implementation of it. The gimmick is that you can point a screen-enabled camera at some sort of marker, and a 3D model or text label will pop out of it, giving you an “enhanced” version of reality that exists inside your cell phone. In practice, what it actually gives you is a glitchy, janky Playstation 1-era graphic suffering a grand mal seizure with the slightest twitch of the marker.

Augmented Reality

The piece of paper with a car popping out of it inside the computer is WAY better than just a regular piece of paper. Waaaay better.

i’ve never looked at a street filled with restaurants and thought “man … i WISH i could aim my phone at this street to see which of these restaurants has bought into a promotion displaying their dinner specials tonight”, or “holy SHIT, do i ever wish i could drum on my own FACE.”



AR is an example of technology where both the quality of the experience AND its proposed uses have stirred in me a big steaming pile of “no thanks”.

5. Stereoscopic/Polarized 3D

Make no mistake: there are two reasons entertainment companies are pushing 3D on consumers so desperately: 1. big teevees, home theatre systems, and BitTorrent have rendered astronomically expensive nights out at the movie theatre largely inviable, so cinemas need an only-in-theatres gimmick to put bums back in seats, and 2. in the absence of a media shift from DVD/Blu Ray to something new, the not-only-in-theatres crowd like Sony Home Entertainment needs a reason to re-sell our entire movie collections to us. The best way to get people to buy a new copy of Steel Magnolias is to release Steel Magnolias 3D.

Steel Magnolias

Now, Tom Skerritt’s moustache is in YOUR face!!

Forget the fact that it annoys me when someone says “the new Batman movie is in THREE-DEE!” and i think “so … it’s animated?”, but they actually mean stereoscopic 3D. Practically, the technology just stinks. i took my young family to a sterescopic 3D showing of How to Train Your Dragon. The glasses were eight times the size of my youngest daughter’s head, and she got tired of holding them up to her face after five minutes. An uninvolved toddler is an unhappy toddler, so my wife had to take her out of the theatre to entertain her while my eldest and i finished watching. That was fifty bucks in theatre tickets largely down the tubes.

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Audience

Just the other night, i was playing the new Motorstorm 3D Rift game on one of Sony’s aggressively-priced-and-marketed 3D teevees. Both players wear a set of glasses that make them look like they’re 90 years old. The polarity is adjusted for each pair of glasses so that one player races a dunebuggy while the other races a motocycle, with each player’s version of the game superimposed on the same screen. It’s likely being marketed as the evolution of split-screen, and definitely solves the problem of dividing the screen in half like we do now. However, while fixing the problem of diminished screen estate for each player, it inflames a rash of new problems:

  • Both players look like absolute tools.
  • No one in the room without glasses can watch the race.
  • The player’s filtered view is dimly lit and inferior to an unfiltered image
  • The game likely runs at a lower framerate than a dedicated single-player experience.
  • The glasses take batteries.
  • The glasses can be sat on and/or lost in the couch cracks
  • You need to buy a 3D teevee and glasses.

Any technology that solves one minor problem while causing a crop of new ones AND costs consumers more money is not worth our attention. Die die die in a fire fire fire. We’ll shield our eyes from the fearsome blaze with enormous black world-dimming glasses.

Geezer

(and we’l look like geezers doing it)

With Thanks to Prometheus

These so-called technological “advances” are, in certain cases, a step back. My proposed solution is a technological advance that actually has improved our quality of life: fire. We should use fire to either fully-bake these half-baked ideas before charging $199.99 for them at FutureShop, or let them be consumed in the flames. Then, from their ashes, may arise technologies that actually do make our lives better, from universal Internet access, to accurate motion controls, to g-d FLYING CARS ALREADY.

SERIOUSLY, men and women of science: i’ve been patient. Get on it.

George Jetson car

Screw you, George. Stop waving that thing in my face.

8 thoughts on “Dumber than Advertised: 5 Half-Baked Technologies that Failed to Deliver

  1. Sean Bawden

    My business card now has a QR code. >-( Thought we were hip, but I guess as they say, “res ipsa loquitur”. Look it up, that’s funny.

    Post-script: Nothing is ever funny if you have to explain it.

    Reply
  2. Mushyrulez

    I don’t even have a cell-phone to scan QR codes with! Nothing more insults my personal technological tastes than a giant sign that says ‘simply scan this into your cellphone!’ when I /can’t/.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      There was a great comment on the Gamasutra mirror:

      Both players look like absolute tools.
      – while without the glasses they would be 2 coolest dudes ever ?

      Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i didn’t mention it because it was contrary to my AR beatdown, but yes, the Lego thing is the very best use of AR that i’ve seen. But that’s a lot like buying a $300 Wii for one or two Nintendo titles, followed by a four year reign of shovelware. It’s very much the exception, and not the rule.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.