Every year since 1967, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has been an ideal place for companies to present their groundbreaking audio, video, computer, and video game products. Not every gadget on display in Las Vegas will succeed, but sometimes they flop because they're simply too far ahead of their time. Here are six technologies displayed at CES that, for one reason or another, weren't a hit then, but have since become a part of our daily lives.
1. Sony Data Discman (1991 Summer CES)
A hot topic among book lovers today is the potential demise of the printed page now that e-readers have become so popular. But people were having the same conversation in 1991, when Sony debuted the first e-reader, the Data Discman, at a VIP-only party at the Four Seasons Hotel during Summer CES in Chicago.
The Data Discman was about the size of a drugstore paperback, weighed just under 2lbs, featured a monochrome LCD screen, and a full QWERTY keyboard. Users could search books - mainly dictionaries, encyclopedias, travel guides, and other reference materials - loaded onto 3.5” CDs that held up to 80,000 pages of text or 32,000 pictures. And when you were done reading, you could plug in your headphones and listen to a music CD, too.
Sony released several different versions of the Data Discman with varying features, like a flip-top screen. However, at $450 for the base model, it didn't catch on in America or Europe. (It was a hit in Japan.)
2. AT&T VideoPhone 2500 (1993 Winter CES)
While the concept of a videophone is almost as old as the telephone itself, and a handful of high-priced models aimed at businesses have been available since the late-1960s, AT&T’s VideoPhone 2500 was the first model marketed to the home consumer.
Although available in 1992, AT&T used the 1993 Winter CES to kickstart a large-scale campaign to promote the phone and its full-color, 3.3” LCD screen that could show video conversations over regular telephone lines.
Of course for the video to work, both callers had to have their own VideoPhone. And at $1,599 each, it was not a small investment. Even a price drop to $999 just 13 months after its release didn't help sales. But perhaps the main reason the VideoPhone didn't take off was that consumers simply didn't want to see each other every time they picked up the phone. Naturally AT&T tried to convince them otherwise with some clever marketing ideas. For example, VideoPhones were placed inside the lobbies of 150 Hilton Hotels for use by traveling salespeople. The salesperson's family could visit a local AT&T store to talk to their road warrior on the VideoPhone, or even rent a model for a few days to try it at home. However, these efforts couldn’t sway public opinion, and the VideoPhone was discontinued in 1995.
Today, of course, we carry smartphones in our pockets that feature Skype, Google Hangouts, Apple Facetime, and plenty of other apps that let us talk face-to-face using full-motion video as fast as our 3 or 4G cellular networks can handle. However, even now, video calls aren’t the norm. Maybe the videophone is a solution looking for a problem.
3. Sega Activator (1993 Winter CES)
Considered one of the worst video game controllers ever made, the Sega Activator, which debuted at CES in 1993, was an early, but severely flawed attempt at motion-based gameplay for the Sega Genesis.
The Activator was a flat, octagonal frame that sat on the floor in front of the TV. Each section of the frame emitted an infrared beam that corresponded with a button on the standard Genesis controller. Players stood inside the frame and, waving their hands and feet, broke the path of the beam that corresponded with the button they wanted to push, making their video game avatar move accordingly. In theory, anyway.
The controls were less than intuitive, and the beams weren't very responsive, so the player usually flailed around like one of those dancing windsock men in front of a local car dealership, with few intended responses from the on-screen character.
The Activator's poor functionality, coupled with the fact that it cost $150 – nearly as much as the Genesis itself - meant that motion-controlled video games would have to wait until 2006 when Nintendo released its wildly successful Wii console.
Here's the training video that came with the controller:
4. AT&T Edge 16 (1993 Winter CES)
When Xbox Live debuted in 2002, it revolutionized video games. With Xbox Live and the similar PlayStation Network, gamers can not only play head-to-head against each other, they can talk via headset microphones, and download exclusive game content like new characters or in-game equipment. Did you know Sega was offering the same thing back during the Clinton Administration?
In 1993, Sega partnered with AT&T to create a new device called the Edge 16. The Edge peripheral plugged into the cartridge slot of the Genesis console, and then a 2-player Sega game fit into the Edge. The device featured a telephone port so that two Edge owners could play against each other. This was possible because button mashes were transmitted over the phone line and the Edge device fooled the game into thinking the remote player was using the second controller on the Genesis. If the opponents plugged a telephone handset or hands-free headset into the Edge, they could call each other names as they played.
The Edge also had memory slots for storage cards capable of saving custom video game characters that could be used on other Edge-enabled consoles. Game makers could even develop special edition memory cards with exclusive characters, levels, or equipment, or make these extras available for download to an existing card.
Despite these advanced features, the Edge 16 never caught on with consumers. It was so unceremoniously canceled that I couldn’t even find any information on its demise. One possible stumbling block was that game makers had to tweak their code for the Edge device to work, adding to production costs.
5. Commercial Brake (1994 Winter CES)
Remember when you got your first TiVo? Remember how awesome it was to be able to easily skip past all those commercials? If you'd been at Winter CES in 1994, you could have been skipping commercials long before TiVo with Arista Technologies' Commercial Brake.
The $160 device sat between the VCR and the TV, and worked by looking for the black frame inserted before and after commercial breaks during the broadcast. The Brake would mark these points on an unused portion of the VHS tape and then, during playback, would blank out the screen and automatically fast-forward between them. Although the Commercial Brake was an add-on peripheral, Arista hoped to have the technology integrated into new VCRs over the coming years.
After CES, the Commercial Brake received a fair amount of buzz in the consumer electronics field. However, it couldn't capitalize on the publicity, because Arista became mired in a lengthy legal battle with the actual inventor of the commerical-sensing technology. The device's release onto the market was delayed until 1996, the same year that DVD debuted to much fanfare at CES, signaling the death knell of the VCR.
6. The Listen Up Player (1997 Winter CES)
At the 1997 Winter CES, the trade show floor was abuzz with excitement about the Listen Up Player from Audio Highway. The $299 gadget even won the CES Innovations '97 Award. And considering you probably use a descendent of the Listen Up every day at the office, at the gym, or during your commute, there's no doubt it was innovative, even if no one remembers it.
With special “AudioWiz” software installed on their desktop PC, users downloaded previously recorded MP3s, ranging from newspaper and magazine articles, movie and music reviews, or even their own emails that were recorded via a text-to-voice translator. The MP3s were then copied to the Listen Up, a small, portable, battery-powered device that played the audio back through standard headphones. This all sounds like pretty standard stuff today, but it was groundbreaking in 1997, because the Listen Up was the first portable MP3 player on the market.
While it might have been the first, it wasn't the first successful one. According to Time Magazine, only about 25 Listen Up Players were produced and an unknown number were ever actually sold. It would seem that the Listen Up Player was just a little too soon for consumers. Only a year later, the Diamond Rio PMP300 portable MP3 player debuted and went on to sell over 200,000 units.