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Gadgets Gone Wild

Rube Goldberg's - Self-operating napkin

The introduction of Apple’s new iPhone prompts a review of that enduring cultural artifact known as The Gizmo.

Digerati were abuzz last month when Apple’s Steve Jobs introduced the company’s next earth-shaking, paradigm-shifting, reality-changing, epochal product/event/gizmo: the iPhone. Featuring a revolutionary touch-screen user interface, the iPhone was hyped as the ultimate convergence device: an all-in-one cell phone, digital music player, and wireless Internet communicator.

Gadget-freaks and first-adopters have since calmed down significantly, perspective restored now that Jobs’ rock-star MacWorld appearance has faded from the headlines. Also tempering the excitement is the fact that the iPhone will retail for $500-$600. As a friend of mine pointed out, many sensible people might balk at keeping a $600 gizmo in their pocket: “Because, you know, sometimes I drop things.” Amen, brother.

Rumors are already swirling that Apple had intended a broader iPhone product line upon launch, but ran into some speedbumps by trying to follow the release strategy of the iPod. For example, there were plans for something called the iPhone Nano, later renamed the iCochlear Implant. Apple engineers, attempting to bypass entirely the pesky tradition of having to use your hands in the first place, also proposed a peripheral ocular interface called the iEye. Test users balked, however, at having to actually “uninstall” one of their eyeballs. Pansies. The proposed iPhone Shuffle – a lighter and cheaper version – also failed to get out of the prototype phase when users found little utility for a phone that calls numbers randomly.

But such setbacks are to be expected on the road to progress. In fact, the history of industrial design is littered with gizmos that, for whatever reason, simply failed to catch on with consumers. Let’s take a look at some of these failed gadgets from the past.

The Wall-Mounted Cellphone

This innovative project from Motorola was introduced in the mid-'90s to address what appeared to be a legitimate consumer issue. Motorola customer service representatives noticed a growing trend in support calls with users complaining that they were constantly misplacing their ever-smaller mobile phones. Lead designer Hans Breckenridge hit upon a simple and elegant solution: a tether, or “cord” if you will, that anchored the phone to a wall-mounted receiver. Callers would thereby be assured that the home phone was always in one place, yet could still carry the phone with them – albeit within the limited radius of the wall-mounted “cord.” Development was abruptly halted, however, when a temp worker pointed out the screamingly, achingly obvious. Breckenridge was summarily dismissed and retired to a remote island in the South Pacific, where even the natives make fun of him to this day.

The Hydrogen-Cell Water Bottle

Long an industry leader in sports equipment and accessories, Everlast Athletics attempted a remarkably ambitious technological leap with the Hydrogen-Cell Water Bottle. While the actual science involved was quite sophisticated, the end-user experience was relatively simple. An athlete need simply fill the standard-looking bottle with tap water or, ideally, filtered water from another bottle or dispenser. The bottle itself would then evaporate the existing water to power its built-in hydrogen cells, expelling harmless oxygen. Special filters would then re-circulate the same oxygen, combining it with hydrogen from the cells, to refill the bottle with water. Publicly demonstrated prototypes established that the entire process could be completed in less than 40 minutes. Still, Everlast abandoned the project for reasons that are still unclear.

The Seiko Laser Burst Wristwatch

In 1989, the Japanese watchmaker Seiko Instruments introduced their next-generation wristwatch at a trade show in Tokyo. The new timepiece, codenamed Sparkleflash, featured all of the standard digital options – stopwatch, timer and alarm functions – plus a special button that, when depressed, emitted a high-concentration beam of laser light that burned the face right off of your skull. The Seiko marketing department finally vetoed the project, stating that it seemed to be innovation for innovation’s sake, and that it would be difficult to market effectively since it used a laser beam to burn the face right off your skull.

The Wind-Powered Radial Fan

From the makers of the Solar-Powered Flashlight – oh, never mind.

The Biodiesel Home Humidifier

One of the empirically worst ideas ever to come from venture capital boom of the mid-'90s, the Biodiesel Home Humidifier was an attempt to leverage the nascent ideals of industrial green power. Radically simplified, the Biodiesel Home Humidifier used recycled vegetable oil from the grease traps of fast-food restaurants to power a central air humidifier for residential buildings. Predictably, test-runs of the new technology coated every interior surface and occupant of the home with what was inevitably referred to as a “rancid, fatty glaze”. Consumers found the effect off-putting, although sales were surprisingly good in Cleveland, for some reason.

Vibraslacks

In an unusual move for the typically conservative company, San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. introduced a pair of concept slacks in 1998 aimed at cracking the lucrative weight-loss and fitness markets. Vibraslacks featured a built-in, battery-powered “vibramatrix” that, when activated, stimulated weight loss and muscle growth by pulsating at variable speeds throughout the day. Vibraslacks never made it to market, however. According to internal company memos, prototype test groups tended to wear the slacks “for all the wrong reasons”, and that, visually, activated Vibraslacks were “profoundly disturbing to behold”.

Whether Apple’s heralded iPhone will ultimately be adopted by mainstream consumers remains to be seen. In any case, it all reminds me of an idea I had a few years back. Remember the Segway, the two-wheeled personal transportation gadget that was supposed to change the world but, instead, didn’t? (Although the Department of Homeland Security, in an effort to add some physical comedy to the War on Terror, issued several thousand of them to airport personnel.) What about a similar idea, only instead of handles, wheels and a motor, you just have handles, footrests and a big spring on the bottom? No fuel needed this way, and you can just bounce around under your own power! Like pogo dancing, only with a stick!

Always thinking!

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