(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)
LAS VEGAS — Oh, CES. You tease.
Like more than 170,000 of my closest friends, I went to Las Vegas last week for the Consumer Electronics Show to see what’s coming in technology. As usual, I also saw a lot of tech that will never be delivered.
CES inevitably winds up spotlighting promising, intriguing, or just weird products that never reach customers. I’ve been to the show every year since 1998, and I’ve seen more than a few of these “vaporware” debuts.
It’s too easy to joke about some of them: never-shipped flops like the DigiScents iSmell (because the only thing worse than a website with pop-up ads is one that then remotely commands an aroma generator to perfume your room). But I’d rather talk about the more subtle flops: the products that solved real problems … that still need to be solved.
1998: Microsoft Auto PCs
Does your car need a Start menu button? In 1998, Bill Gates argued that it would, in the form of Microsoft-powered, voice-controlled car stereos that could provide driving directions, read you your messages, and exchange information via infrared with handheld organizers running Windows CE (or just Wince, as we liked to call it). Microsoft’s press release touted pledges of support from Hyundai, Nissan, and VW.
But that was nowhere as ridiculous as the car-computing concept I saw at my first CES: an Intel demo of a Ford Explorer with built-in Windows 95.
Alas, only one Auto PC model ever hit the market, an aftermarket unit from Clarion.
2006: SED TV
When it comes to flat-panel TVs, comedian Louis C.K.’s line has held true for the past 15 years: Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy. We have TVs you can hang on the wall! But the black levels aren’t right, and they’re a little too thick.
At the 2006 CES, “surface-condition electron-emitter displays” promised to make it all better. So-called SED screens developed by Canon and Toshiba would combine the deep blacks and lightning responsiveness of plasma with the brightness of LCD, and with lower power consumption than either competitor.
OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens have taken SED’s place as the great bright hope of flat-panel TVs, but low manufacturing yields at most manufacturers have kept them pricey playthings.
2008: Panasonic AnyPlay P-DVR
Two years later, Comcast teamed up with Panasonic to introduce the AnyPlay portable DVR.
The idea was that you could record Comcast fare on its 60 GB hard drive, and then either watch it on your own TV, on its built-in 8.5-inch display or on any other TV. You could even play CDs and DVDs on the thing.
But a year later, Panasonic and Comcast hadn’t shipped the box and were instead revisiting what features belonged on it. As the two companies’ relationship continued to cool, we learned that commercial availability would not be among the product’s features.
2010: Toshiba Cell TV
This big-screen flat-panel LCD was going to do it all. The Cell TV (named for its use of the same Cell processor as in the PlayStation 3) had fast Wi-Fi to play Web video, a built-in Blu-ray player, 3D support that included the ability to add a third dimension to 2D fare, and even a 1-terabyte hard drive to store content.
Toshiba couldn’t name a price or a ship date, which is not unusual for CES, but the way it chose to name one line of Cell TVs the “Illusion” series should have been a warning.
2012: Glasses-free 3D TV
Only two years after 3D TV’s big debut at CES, television vendors had begun to recognize that the need for battery-powered, wireless-synced “active shutter” glasses was not helping 3D sets fly off shelves.
Glasses-free sets would solve that problem … once engineers could figure out how to generate the 3D effect from a viewing angle other than smack in front of the screen. One 2011 demo offered only three viewing angles, marked on the floor with black electrical tape. A year later, a Sony demo was more forgiving.
But with or without special eyewear, there wasn’t enough viewer demand for 3D, and as TV channels like ESPN shelved their 3D ventures, TV manufacturers backed away from the technology, too.
Problems still to be solved
You could look at this legacy of failure and think “What a waste” or “Ha-ha!” But you might also want to take a moment to reflect that many of our cars still don’t ship with a good voice-controlled navigation system, that many TVs use far too much power, that recordings you make on cable-issued DVRs are none too portable, and that watching TV still requires connecting too many boxes together. And I don’t know, maybe it would be neat to watch Avatar in all its dimensions without any funky hardware on your face or without having to literally sit on top of someone else.