8 Infamous tech flops that were way ahead of their time

Not every tech product can be a winner in the marketplace, but some failures don’t deserve to be thought of as disasters. Whether it’s a good idea executed badly, a great product that was too expensive, or simply a futuristic idea which was way ahead of its time; here are eight tech flops which were later revisited more successfully.

Noble failures of tech, we salute you!

Apple’s Newton MessagePad (1993)

A line of personal data assistants (PDAs), the portable Newton MessagePad was supposed to be Apple’s next big hit after the Macintosh. Arriving in 1993, the $699 first-gen device offered handwriting recognition able to recognize 10,000 words right out of the box, some impressive AI abilities for scheduling meetings, infrared technology for “beaming” data to other devices, and a whole lot more.

Unfortunately, it never really caught on. Despite Apple launching a number of new models which got progressively better, a combination of early negative press and lack of easy internet connectivity meant the MessagePad is considered one of the biggest flops in Apple history.

After all, a pricey mobile device built by Apple? What kind of a nut would think that could be a hit?

LaserDisc (1978)

Anyone who thinks that DVD was the first disc-based home video format needs to think again! Launched all the way back in 1978, LaserDiscs offered far superior image and sound quality to VHS tapes, and pioneered the kind of movie “extras” which later became a key part of DVD and BluRay presentations.

Unfortunately, the discs themselves were easy to damage, the expensive LaserDisc players could be excessively loud, and there was no way to record TV shows with them. They eventually sputtered out in the 1990s.

Sony Glasstron (1996)

famous tech flops glasstron

Costing $900 ($1,350 today), the Sony Glasstron was a head-mounted display which promised to replicate “the viewing experience of a 52-inch TV at 6.5 feet.” Inside were twin 0.55-inch LCD screens, each one boasting a resolution of 180,000 pixels.

Slap on a pair of stereo speaker earbuds, chow down on some popcorn, and — from your perspective — it was like you were sitting in a real movie theater. From else’s perspective, you looked like a bit of a dork. Oh, and it probably made you feel a bit nauseous, too.

Regardless, it’s the ancestor of today’s more successful generation of VR headsets.

Polaroid Polavision (1977)

Imagine being able to take the instant approach to photography pioneered by Polaroid, and apply it to moving pictures. That doesn’t sound too spectacular in an age in which entire movies have been shot on smartphones, but it certainly sounded pretty impressive back in 1977.

Polavision included a camera, film, and movie viewer that let you rapidly develop your motion picture and screen it. The problem was that the movies included no sound, ran just 2.5 minutes each, and required incredibly bright light to film, due to the slow film speed. Most people went with Super 8 cameras in the short term — even though this required sending your films off to be developed. Later on, both were replaced by VHS tapes and the arrival of the camcorder.

WebTV and MSN TV (1996)

From the nostalgic sounds of the dial-up tone to Usenet newsgroups to the fact that we ever thought looping MIDI themes were a good quality for a website to possess, there’s plenty about the early days of the internet that we look back on with rose-tinted glasses. Something that nobody remembers fondly? Attempts to use televisions as makeshift monitors for accessing the web.

While it sounded cool and high tech, clumsy controls interfaces and the generally horrible resolution of 1990s TV sets meant that this was more an exercise in frustration than anything else. The most notable attempt at a web-connected set-top box was WebTV, which offered TV-based e-mail and internet browsing via a wireless keyboards.

It was later rebranded as MSN TV by Microsoft, but failed to catch on under any name with customers. Today, of course, smart TVs are pretty much everywhere.

AT&T Picturephone (1970)

There was once a time when the idea of a videophone seemed every bit as futuristic and impossible as teleportation and flying cars. One of the companies that tried to change that? AT&T with its Picturephone service, launched commercially way back on June 30, 1970.

For the bargain price of just $160 a month (around $1,000 in today’s prices), plus 25 cents per minute after a “free” half hour, users could call one of the other hundred or Picturephones scattered around the U.S. It didn’t exactly take off, although services like Skype and FaceTime show that AT&T was definitely thinking along the right lines.

Sega Dreamcast (1998)

It still physically pains us that the Dreamcast is not only considered a commercial flop, but that it brought an end to the videogame glory days in which Sega was a maker of brilliant hardware, instead of a publisher churning out terrible Sonic the Hedgehog games.

The Dreamcast may have represented the end of an era in some ways, but it was incredibly forward-looking in other regards. The biggest one: including a modem in every console to allow gamers from around the world to play against each other, participate in leaderboards, chat, or download content. And all back in the heady days of 1998!

Power Glove (1989)

It seems unimaginable that a product called the “Power Glove” could have ever been a commercial failure, but somehow it was. Launched by Mattel as a NES accessory in 1989, it offered users a new way of interacting with Nintendo games by way of various gestures.

Although it became a cult hit, it failed to sell at the time — and, as with several of the technologies on this list, didn’t work quite as well as advertised. Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that this is the same concept that would later be more successfully adopted for technologies like the Wiimote, the PS move, and motion controllers for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.


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