Can’t wait to buy an Oculus Rift?
Hopping from foot to foot at the prospect of your very own Apple Watch?
Relax, you’re decades behind the times.
VR and wearables, like tablets and MP3 players and Spotify, are simply revived tech ideas that are actually very old (in tech years anyway).
So let’s go back in time and pay tribute to those visionary old technology ideas that were simply born into a world that didn’t understand them (or have good enough wi-fi).
1. Virtual Reality
Readers old enough to remember the mid-90s might recall a film called the Lawnmower Man. Terrible name. Pretty bad movie. But it enjoyed some success because it was about virtual reality. And back then everyone was into VR.
The coin-op arcades were fiddling with the idea of creating headsets that enveloped users inside a virtual world. Tilt your head one way and the graphics would react as if you were in the ‘real’ world.
Nintendo experimented with Virtual Boy while UK firm Virtuality briefly became one of the sexiest tech brands in the world.
By the start of the 2000s, VR was an embarrassing memory. The old technology didn’t work. It made people physically sick. But by 2012 a handful of engineers who recalled the promise of those early days resolved to give it another go.
Oculus Rift was born. The tech was/is sensational. So much so that Facebook bought the business for $2bn.
There’s still no commercially available product, but Zuckerberg et al clearly believe VR can be the next big thing in user interfaces.
Here we are, days away from the launch of Apple Watch and – possibly – a new era in digital/physical interaction. Needless to say, this is not the start of the smartwatch era. Pebble, Samsung, Motorola and more have all launched devices in advance of Cupertino.
But they too were copycats.
Why? Because over a decade ago, in 2004, there was the Microsoft SPOT.
It’s so often Microsoft isn’t it? First with the big idea; first with the terrible execution. Spot stood for Smart Personal Object Technology (acronyms – already a bad sign). The products used FM signal to send info to products with a $39 to $59 yearly subscription fee. There were 12 different channels including MSN Direct: Think Sports, News, Weather, Stock Tickers and more.
All very different from now, with wifi and Bluetooth serving as data channels and everything tethered to a smartphone. SPOT was, of course,old technology massively ahead of its time and lasted till 2008.
Bill Gates said: “The Tablet PC is a natural evolution from the laptop…when you compare today to five or six years ago, you see that several key technologies have really come together to make these kinds of devices a reality.”
How true, Bill. But not in 2001, when you said it.
While Microsoft was prescient enough in the late 90s to see that tablet computing had a future, it just couldn’t execute. And it was too early.
Touchscreen tech was not up to the task. Also, Microsoft insisted on forcing a specific tablet version Windows XP into its tablet specs.
As history shows, it took Apple to create a tablet people actually wanted. Meanwhile Microsoft ploughs on with its Surface range. Fine devices, but still trailing miles behind the iPad.
4. MP3 players
The MP3 era was not born the day Steve Jobs revealed the iPod in 2001. It actually came three years earlier courtesy of Korea’s Saehan Information Systems.
Hands up who has an MPMan F10.
It contained 32MB of memory and a tiny LCD on the front.
Keeping digital songs in your pocket was such an obviously brilliant idea that other companies copied the MPMan F10. Most notable was Diamond Multimedia’s Rio – probably the first device to really capture the imagination of early adopters.
It was still awfulold technology though. Bad enough for Steve Jobs to sense an opportunity. The iPod arrived in 2001 with a click wheel for speedy song discovery and a tidy software programme to make it easy to add and remove songs.
The iPod saw off everything else, not least Sony’s many efforts at turning the Walkman into an MP3 device. Sony insisted for years on using ATRAC, a proprietary file format useable only on Sony machines. Unsurprisingly, the public decided this wasn’t a good idea.
5. The iPhone
In 2005, Steve Jobs stood on stage and said: ‘today we are introducing the iTunes phone.”
Not 2007, when Apple launched the iPhone.
No, Steve was previewing the Motorola ROKR E1 – Apple’s first and highly regrettable foray into the mobile space. In the summer of 2004, Jobs signed an agreement to “bring iTunes music player to Motorola’s next-generation mobile phones”, and this ugly device was the result.
Even as he was introducing it, Jobs was damning it with faint praise: “it has built in stereo speakers that are quite good.”
Given Apple’s ludicrous high design standards it seems amazing that the ROKR E1 was ever released. Needless to say, it didn’t sell and Apple and Motorola ended their partnership shortly after.
Apple – master of old technology ideas – launched the iPhone within a few months.
6. App stores
Imagine a portal accessible directly from the mobile handset that sells all kinds of content. A couple of clicks and you’ve downloaded a game, a music track, a weather app.
Congratulations, it’s 2005 and you are using Verizon’s Get It Now service.
In a time before iTunes apps and Android Play, mobile operators were the gatekeepers of mobile content. Users would navigate to media stores like Vodafone Live and Orange World to fight through layers of badly designed screens and clunky payment forms in the hope of successfully downloading a disappointing Java game.
Verizon’s Get It Now was a bit better. It was all based on one platform – Qualcomm’s BREW – so as long as your phone supported the OS, the experience was a little smoother.
There were other possibilities too. You could try one of Nokia’s many efforts. Preminet, perhaps?
Anyway, they were all swept aside by iPhone and Android. Gone were the old problems with handset compatibility. Meanwhile, once you had assigned a credit card, payment was instant. It was one of the greatold technology ideas, and it just worked, and tens of billions of downloads followed.
7. Streaming music
Back in 2001, most music lovers were discovering the morally dubious joy of ‘sharing’ their favourite songs for free on Napster, Gnutella, Limewire and other MP3 services. The act of downloading individual tracks was brand new.
So the notion of spending a fixed amount to stream as much as you wanted? Well, that was the space age.
But this was exactly what Rhapsody was doing. At launch its library was formed of songs from independent labels. But by 2002, it had all the majors.
Trouble was, Rhapsody relied on desktop broadband. There was no mobile broadband in 2002, so everything had to be tethered to the PC. And neither were there decent options for mobile listening: the iPod only worked with iTunes.
Rhapsody was ahead of its time. It struggled on. It’s still out there. But it’s been utterly eclipsed by Spotify, which has 60 million users.
Wouldn’t it be a great idea to make a scaled down PC that gives consumers a simple, low-cost way to surf the Web and send and receive e-mail?
Lots of companies thought so in 2000: 3Com, Netpliance, Compaq Gateway and Sony.
But they had this grand vision before there were affordable laptops or widespread wifi. Before anyone had dreamed on cheap ubiquitous 3G.
So products like the Sony eVilla sold for around $500 and required a $21.95 a month broadband subscription. The eVilla was a desktop device that used a 15 inch CRT monitor, and it linked to a walled garden of content designated by Sony.
It took seven years for products like the Asus Eee series to make netbooks commercially viable. But the market moves fast and even Asus struggled to compete with tablets and Google’s Chromebook range.
9. Mobile gaming
Just days ago, Nintendo confirmed it would bow to the inevitable and make mobile games. The Japanese giant stubbornly resisted the pull of phone gaming for years, preferring to tough it out with its own machines such as the DS.
But look around you. What are the kids playing? They all have iPhones and Galaxys, and the entertainment available on the app stores is quite good enough for them. And a damn site cheaper than the portable consoles.
Mobile gaming has won. But who was first?
Tragically, it was Nokia. It’s like the Microsoft of mobile: so often ahead of its time with ideas, and so bad at executing them.
How fitting that they are now one company.
In 2003, Nokia launched the N-Gage especially for mobile gaming. It came with its own mini cartridges and looked ridiculous. To make calls you had to hold it perpendicular to your head. Like a massive metal ear.
10. Social networks
No, this entry is not about MySpace. Or even Friendster. Or (for UK readers) Friends Reunited.
The social network that started it all off was arguably LiveJournal. The site was created by Brad Fitzpatrick in 1999 to keep high school friends up to date with his life. It later turned into a public journal for anyone who wanted to contribute.
In that sense it was more like Tumblr than Facebook. Though hampered by an old technology invite-system, it grew and grew. Geeky users gravitated to LiveJournal, especially those posting ‘fandom’ entries.
It all started to unravel when LiveJournal, without warning, deleted hundreds of journals in what came to be known as Strikethrough. Despite the furore, it repeated the trick in the ‘boldthrough’ months later.
LiveJournal still lives, but it’s owned by Russian media company SUP Media and is now focused mostly on the Russian market.