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6 CES Technologies Ahead of Their Time

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Getty Images

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. But sometimes the world just isn't ready. These six items weren't a hit at the time, but later became 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.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

5 Film Transitions Worth Knowing

You see them every day, on TV shows, the news, and in movies, but how well do you know the most oft-used film transitions? Here are the big five:


The dissolve is an editing technique where one clip seems to fade—or dissolve—into the next. As the first clip is fading out, getting lighter and lighter, the second clip starts fading in, becoming more and more prominent. The process usually happens so subtly and so quickly, the viewer isn't even aware of the transition. The above video offers a great overview of the cut, with examples.


This transition is the opposite of the dissolve in that it draws attention to itself. The best example of the wipe is what's known as the Iris Wipe, which you usually find in silent films, like Buster Keaton's or the Merrie Melodies cartoons—the circle getting smaller and smaller. Other wipe shapes include stars, diamonds, and the old turning clock.

The Star Wars films are chock-full of attention-grabbing wipes. Here are two good examples from The Empire Strikes Back. The first shows the clock wipe; the second, the diagonal wipe (pay no attention to the broken blocks at the start of the second clip—that's a technical glitch, not part of the film).


As the name implies, in the basic cutaway, the filmmaker is moving from the action to something else, and then coming back to the action. Cutaways are used to edit out boring shots (like people driving to their destination—why not see what the character is seeing or even thinking sometimes?) or add action to a sequence by changing the pace of the footage. My favorite use of the cutaway is in Family Guy, where the technique is used to insert throwaway gags. Here's a great example:


The L Cut, also called a split edit, is a very cool technique whose name dates back to the old analog film days.

The audio track on a strip of celluloid film runs along the side, near the sprocket holes. In the L Cut transition, the editor traditionally cut the picture frames out of the strip, but left the narrow audio track intact, thus creating an L-shape out of the film. A different camera angle, or scene was then spliced into the spot where the old picture was, so the audio from the old footage was now cut over the new footage.

Of course, with digital editing, one doesn't need to physically cut anything anymore, but the transition is still widely used, and the name has remained the same.

Split edits like these are especially effective in portraying conversations. Imagine how a simple conversation between two people might look if all we ever got was a ping-pong edit back and forth between the two people talking. The L cut allows the viewer to read the emotion on the listener's face, as the dialogue continues over, as we see in this clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off:


The fade in and fade out usually signal the beginning or end of a scene, especially if the filmmaker is fading to/from black. This is the most common, of course, but fading to white has become trendy, too. The opening title sequence from the HBO series Six Feet Under featured many fades to black and a couple brief fades to white. The very last bit in the sequence fades slowly to white, and is my all-time favorite example of the transition:

King Features Syndicate
11 Things You Might Not Know About Blondie
King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

For close to 90 years, Chic Young’s comic strip Blondie has been a constant in newspapers around the world, reaching an estimated 280 million readers in 55 countries. Despite its title, most readers are probably more familiar with Blondie’s husband, the sandwich-consuming Dagwood. Check out some facts about the comic’s origins, its feature film franchise, and a very unfortunate incident involving a dirty word that rocked Blondie's readership to its core.


An illustration of Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead of 'Blondie' comics fame
IDW/King Features Syndicate

Before Blondie debuted in 1930, cartoonist Chic Young had attempted to create a female-driven strip without a lot of success. Titles like Beautiful Bab and Dumb Dora were some of the more unfortunate ideas, with Young preoccupied by the notion of having a vapid leading lady. For Blondie, Young initially pursued the “dumb blonde” stereotype before dialing down the chauvinism and allowing the single, mingling Blondie Boopadoop to appear at least as intelligent as the succession of boyfriends courting her in the strip. Later, Blondie would become the voice of reason [PDF] to fiance Dagwood Bumstead’s bumbling presence, inverting the gender roles of Young’s previous strips.


For the debut of Blondie, Young’s syndicate, King Features, launched an aggressive mailing campaign in an effort to entice newspaper editors to pick up the strip. Editors first received a letter “announcing” the engagement of Blondie and Dagwood, which was followed by protestations from the Bumstead family and eventually a cardboard suitcase that cautioned them not to peek inside. Naturally, everyone did. Inside was a paper doll cutout of Blondie wearing lingerie, with her “wardrobe” (more paper doll clothing) included.


He might strike you as incapable of tying his own shoes, but there was a time when Dagwood Bumstead carried real potential. Instead of his current working-stiff incarnation, Dagwood was originally heir to his billionaire father’s railroad fortune. But when he married Blondie in 1933, the Bumstead family effectively disowned him, fearing Blondie was only out for his money. The couple’s move to the middle class was Young’s way of acknowledging the fallout of the Great Depression.


With the Bumstead family highly skeptical of Dagwood’s plans to marry Blondie, the would-be groom decided to earn their blessing by going on a hunger strike that played out in real time. For 28 days, Dagwood refused to eat and grew frail until his family finally consented to the marriage. The narrative stunt drew the attention of new readers, raising Blondie’s profile on the comic pages.


A 'Blondie' comic strip with Blondie and Dagwood Bumstead in bed together
King Features Syndicate

For a good portion of the 20th century, it was seen as proper to depict married couples on television or in comics as sleeping in twin beds, eliminating any hint of carnal activities happening off-screen. (Or in this case, off-panel.) But Young thought this was juvenile and insisted that Blondie and Dagwood appear sleeping in the same double bed. Perhaps not coincidentally, the two had their first child, Alexander, in 1934.


While Blondie and Dagwood got along without incident, the same couldn’t be said for another couple featured in the strip’s early years. One of Blondie’s earlier suitors, Hiho, married girlfriend Betty and the two became supporting characters in the strip. Hiho and Betty had what could be considered a tumultuous relationship, with each threatening to punch out the other on a regular basis [PDF]. Young eventually phased the two out, replacing them with far less volatile Bumstead neighbors Herb and Tootsie Woodley.


After the atomic bomb was dropped twice to bring an end to World War II, American citizens understandably grew skittish about the ramifications of wielding such power. To ease their minds, the U.S. military partnered with Young to produce 1949’s Dagwood Splits the Atom, a “fun” booklet that sees the character shrunk down in size to help readers understand atomic power and nuclear fission. Although other comic characters like Popeye appear, it’s Dagwood who has the honors of blowing a neutron into a uranium atom in order to split it.


Although Young’s son Dean had been working on Blondie and was prepared to take over writing duties when his father passed away in 1973, newspapers weren’t so sure. According to Young, more than 600 papers canceled the strip when his father died, fearing it would suffer a drop in quality. Young persevered and eventually won over the naysayers, reclaiming space in the papers and adding several hundred more. (Currently, Young writes the strip and artist John Marshall illustrates.)


In 1938, with Blondie firmly entrenched on the comics pages, King Features and Young agreed to license the strip to Columbia Pictures for a series of live-action feature films. The movies were shot quickly and economically with stars Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake portraying Blondie and Dagwood, respectively. The studio produced 28 features between 1938 and 1950. Attempts to adapt the comic to television were less successful. A 1954 pilot was unaired, while a 1957 series lasted just one season. Another 13-episode iteration was produced in 1968-69, with Bruce Lee appearing as a karate instructor in the last episode.


With their relatively trivial subject matter, comic strips rarely have the potential to offend. A 2004 Blondie entry proved to be an exception. In the strip, a character uses the word “scumbag” to describe a baseball umpire. Readers wrote in to Dean Young to lodge complaints, with Mr. Young and his proofreaders apparently unaware that “scumbag” is a euphemism for a used prophylactic.


A 2005 'Blondie' comic strip featuring a number of other comic characters
King Features Syndicate

Before shared universes were a thing, Blondie’s 75th anniversary strip published September 4, 2005 had a cameo from virtually every notable comic strip character past and present. As Dagwood and Blondie hold up a cake—shaped like a sandwich, naturally—they’re surrounded by Ziggy, Garfield, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Dilbert, and dozens of others. In the weeks leading up to the strip, the comics pages were full of Blondie references and sight gags.


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