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Timing Is Everything: 10 Failed Inventions That Were Just Ahead of Their Time

Kade Call

When it comes to new technologies, it’s not always about innovation; it’s about timing. These 10 products were just before their time.

What kind of device are you reading this article on right now?

A decade ago, the obvious answer would have been “a computer.” However, given that there are now approximately 1 billion tablet owners throughout the world, there’s a pretty good chance that that a tablet is exactly what you’re using.

And, when one considers the recent trend in smartphone devices towards larger and larger screens, the reality is that even if you prefer a smartphone over a tablet, the line that separates one from the other is becoming really blurry.

And why not? Tablets feature the portability of a mobile device while still allowing for the increased usability of a desktop. Simply put, the tablet computer is a good idea—one that seems so obvious that it would be a success, that we can’t help but wonder why no one thought it up sooner.

Except that someone did think it up sooner. Even though Steve Jobs and Apple rocked the computer world with their introduction of the iPad back in 2010, the truth is that the first tablet computer had actually already made its debut about a decade earlier.

In 2000, the Microsoft Tablet PC was first introduced, and despite featuring a touchscreen and other innovations that would go on to become synonymous with mobile smart device functionality, it was met with little fanfare. As Bill Gates stated in a 2012 interview, “He [Steve Jobs] did some things better than I did. His timing in terms of when it came out, the engineering work, just the package that was put together.”

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Let’s take a look at 10 other has-been technologies that were ahead of their times.

Polaroid Polavision
Polaroid Polavision

1. Polaroid Polavision

Back before digital cameras became the norm, Polaroid was a name synonymous with instant film. All you had to do was point a Polaroid camera at something, snap a picture, and within minutes you’d have a developed image ready to be shown off.

But the rise of the fledgling home video market presented a new frontier for Polaroid, and so the Polavision was born. In contrast to conventional home video film which needed to be professionally developed before it could be watched, the Polavision made it possible for home video enthusiasts to record and review in a matter of minutes.

Why wasn’t this innovation a success?

Well, there were a few problems. You see, the movies couldn’t be longer than two and a half minutes (which meant that filming Jr’s soccer game was out of the question). Also, the sound could not be recorded. And (this was kind of a big one), the movies relied on a unique filtering process to produce color images, and that process left the resultant movies so dark that they were nearly unwatchable.

In the end, Polaroid ended up losing approximately $68.5 million on the venture. That having been said, Polavision managed to generate interest in the possibility of instant home video, eventually leading to the direct VHS (and later digital) recording devices that found success.


2. LaserDisc

The general trend in technology is that it gets smaller while becoming more powerful. LaserDiscs understood the second half of that principle, having higher picture and sound quality than the VHS tapes that they were contemporary with.

On the other hand, LaserDiscs were the size of hubcaps, weighed about half a pound each, and were as fragile as you would imagine a gigantic DVD to be. At the same time, they hadn’t quite made jump into the future of home entertainment, in that they still relied on analog, rather than digital, methods of storing information (although later versions evolved to make use of digital stereo sound).

Still, the LaserDisc showed the consumer market that it was possible to enjoy higher sound and picture quality than was possible with the magnetic tape encoding used by VHS, and the ideas it pioneered were later adapted and improved upon by new DVD and eventually Blu-Ray formats.

LaserDisc managed to limp along until modern DVDs hit the scene in the late 90s, at which point the LaserDisc slunk away into a quiet corner and died.

General Motors EV1
General Motors EV1

3. General Motors EV1

Unlike most other examples on this list, the GM EV1 wasn’t, strictly speaking, a failure. In fact, when it was released, it was greeted with excitement by a large portion of the consumer community. This is because the EV1 was the first mass-produced electric car from a major automaker to ever hit the market, and of those that had the opportunity to lease the vehicle (GM was not willing to sell any outright), many became absolutely enamored of their new, gasoline-free vehicle.

In fact, one driver even went so far as to produce his own radio commercials to help generate public interest for the EV1. However, GM never seemed quite able to fully commit to their new electric automobile. They employed a strict screening process on all leases, only made cars available to individuals living in parts of California and Arizona, and backed away from most forms of multimedia promotion.

In 2003, they officially recalled every EV1 that had ever been leased. Despite driver protests, virtually every EV1 ever produced was repossessed and destroyed. Why were such drastic steps taken to put an end to what might have been a new era of cleaner transportation?

That’s difficult to say, but there are those that claim that GM feared what electric cars might do to the oil industry in general and the GM spare parts industry, in particular. Now, over a decade later, Tesla and other automakers have revisited the possibility of the electric car, leaving GM to wonder if it might have been a bit too rash when it pulled the plug on the EV1.      

Sega Activator
Sega Activator

4. Sega Activator

For video game enthusiasts, the dream of being able to control onscreen movement with one’s own body has always been a better concept than a reality. Even the Wii, arguably the most well-received motion-controlled video game system of all time, relies on little more than wrist movements for most of its games.

But back during the video game revolution of the 1990s, the thought of having digital characters mimic real player movements was enough to give gamers fever dreams. Thus, the Sega Activator was introduced. The activator was an octagonal gaming peripheral which was designed to be placed on the floor.

Using infrared beams, the device would ‘read’ the movements of anyone standing inside the octagon, and use those movements to control onscreen characters—specifically for fighting games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.

Of course, the technology was far from perfect, and most matches ended with players flailing themselves into a disgusted heap while their onscreen characters received the worst beatings of their virtual lives. A few other peripherals would attempt to reinvigorate motion control technology in the following years, but the truth that ‘less is more’ when it comes to video game motion control wouldn’t actually be realized until the first decade of the 21st century. 

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Microsoft Spot Watch
Microsoft SPOT Watch

5. Microsoft SPOT Watch

As evidenced by the Microsoft Tablet, Microsoft has a history of coming up with innovative ideas, only to have Apple take the idea and make it their own. And while the Apple Watch may be the current toast of Wearable-Tech Town, Microsoft’s connected SPOT Watch first hit the scene as far back as 2004.

Using FM waves to beam important information from MSN Direct channels directly to the watch, SPOT made it possible for users to receive instant messages, browse news headlines, check stocks, review sports scores, get weather forecasts and more. Because it wasn’t Bluetooth compatible, the watch actually functioned as more of a stand-alone device than as an extension or a second screen (unlike the Apple Watch and most other modern smartwatches, which need to be connected to a primary device such as a smartphone in order to function fully).

On the other hand, it wasn’t perfect. It’s design was somewhat clunky and unattractive, and the $150 price tag (plus the ~$50 yearly subscription fee for the MSN Direct FM service) seemed like a bit much to pay for something that was really more of a novelty than anything else.

However, what may have been the death of SPOT was the fact that its reliance on one-way FM radio to receive data seemed outdated even back in 2004. Cellular broadband data promised much more extensive connectivity, and soon SPOT was forgotten, as real mobile smart devices began to appear on the scene. Microsoft discontinued support for SPOT back in 2008.    

TwitterPeek Device

6. TwitterPeek

There are those who would argue against TwitterPeek being included in a list of technologies that are before their time, simply because the overall concept was so limited that it probably wouldn’t have been well received at any time.

However, back when social media was first really beginning to hit its stride, this particular gadget may not have seemed quite so ridiculous. The idea behind the TwitterPeek is relatively simple: It’s basically a smart mobile device that you can use to access your Twitter feed.

Whether you want to post up to 140 characters or read the posts from other that you follow, the TwitterPeek can do it all. Except that it actually couldn’t do much of anything else. It couldn’t send or read emails or texts. It couldn’t browse the internet. It couldn’t even take phone calls.

In an era where the smartphone, with its all-in-one take on usability, had just made a tremendous splash, this device had the audacity to be single-purpose. And, to be honest, it didn’t even fill that purpose all that well.

Users could only access one Twitter account per device, making sharing it among friends or family (or even using it to access multiple accounts owned by a single person) impossible. With $99 price tag, plus $7.95 in services charges every month, it seems as though it should have been obvious that this particular gadget would soon be abandoned and forgotten.

Sure enough, Twitter stopped supporting TwitterPeek back in the beginning of 2012, approximately three years later than it probably should have. Still, as the Internet of Things becomes more of a reality, we are likely to find ourselves once again relying on single-purpose devices—just not for checking Twitter feeds.


7. Revolv

The modern device market is certainly a cut-throat one. Take the story of Revolv, for example. Debuting as recently as 2013, Revolv seemed as though it might be a key player in the future of home automation.

It even caught the interest of Nest Labs, which bought the company for an undisclosed amount back in late 2014. And what plans did Nest have for Revolv’s future? The trash heap, apparently, because shortly after the deal was finalized, Nest discontinued Revolv sales—although it has opted to continue service and support for existing customers.

Why would Nest bother buying something only to discard it? The official story is that Nest wanted access to Revolv’s team. However, speculation suggests that Nest wasn’t all that thrilled with what Revolv was trying to accomplish.

You see, Revolv’s mission was to create a smart hub that could be used to control a variety of smart home devices, regardless of manufacturer. This would give users the freedom to choose the best devices for each situation, rather than being stuck with compatible devices from a single company.

With Nest poised to take the lead in the fledgling smart home market, giving users the option of using non-Nest devices was probably the last thing it would want to do. Whatever the case, Revolv had its share of problems even before it got the ax (price and limited protocol support being the most obvious). That having been said, as smart homes become more common, a hub that could operate well across a variety of manufacturers might be the wave of the future.    

9. Brock Control Systems

For those who work in the sales industry (be it B2C or B2B), understanding and tracking customers is absolutely vital. After all, if you want to get the most out of your potential consumer base, you need to know their interests, buying history, contact information and as much other actionable data as possible.

If your customer base happens to be larger than just a handful of people, you’re quickly going to discover that collecting, organizing, and recalling all of that information is a very time-consuming task. This is where sales automation comes in. Back in the early 1980s, as computers were first finding their way into business offices, entrepreneur Richard Brock came to the realization that most salespeople had neither the time nor the expertise to create the kind of support software that would be beneficial to them.

He founded Brock Control Systems in 1984, creating enterprise-level customer relationship management (CRM) software that quickly began to make waves in the world of sales. Businesses large and small flocked to this new technology, but Brock Control Systems was in for rough times ahead.

They began to focus too much of their energy on their larger clients, leaving many of their midmarket companies behind. At around the same time, Brock Control Systems had difficulty making the transition from Unix to Windows, further distancing themselves from their target market, giving new sales-automation/CRM companies a chance to fill the vacuum that had been left behind.

While a thorough CRM comparison might no longer include Brock Control Systems (or Firstwave, as it was renamed in the late 1990s) among the leaders in the industry, few could deny the groundwork that it laid for the modern CRM industry.  

Google glass

10. Google Glass

We’re just going to come out and say it: Google Glass is a flop. What was heralded as the future of wearable smart tech only a year ago has proven itself to be buggy, over-priced and apparently quite threatening (considering the overwhelmingly negative response many early adopters encountered while using it).

Add that to the fact that the thing made wearers look absolutely ridiculous, and it’s little wonder that Glass failed to turn the tech world on its head. Still, Google is refusing to see this as a failure. Instead, they’re viewing it as a necessary first step towards future successes. Google Glass was, after all, just a prototype.

While many might call Glass a cautionary tale about the problems of wearable tech, there are those who would rather see it as an early example of a drive towards a better-augmented reality. If that’s true, then we may one day look back on Google Glass as a forerunner to technologies such as HoloLens that may one-day redefine how we see the world—we just probably won’t be seeing it through a silly-looking head-mounted display.

Image Credit: Golubovy/Shutterstock
Kade Call Member
SERP destroyer and marketing addict. Currently ninja-ing rankings all over the net and content marketing lead at California Poolside. Spends his free time banging on drums and daydreaming about the singularity.