It's funny how things come back around. When I was growing up in the '80s, music was looking back at the '50s and '60s and re-creating it into some of the best bands the world has seen. Paul Weller wouldn't have become the songwriter he is had he not grown up on the Beatles. Likewise, Paul McCartney wouldn't have become the genius that he is had he not been raised on Little Richard. And now, bands are looking back at the '80s and re-doing that explosive era -- with both good and bad results that I will not go into here lest I make new enemies.
Culture is cyclical, and we're beginning to see that technology is bound to follow that same rinse-and-repeat formula.
Some examples to ponder:
Way back in 1946, a comic-book detective named Dick Tracy confounded readers when he slid up his sleeve to reveal a 2-Way Wrist Radio. This tiny device allowed him to talk to other detectives wirelessly and with seemingly endless power. The device added video in 1964 and remained a dream for decades. That is until 2002, when Fossil released the Abacus AU5005 Wrist PDA. This device ran Palm OS and included a tiny stylus that slid out of the buckle. I had one and everyone I showed it to thought it was silly. And it was -- it was huge and had to be charged every single night. The device ended up in my desk drawer, slipping into obscurity and is now a bit of a collector's item that isn't to be taken too seriously.
Now it seems smart watches are making a comeback, but this time as an extension of our smartphones. The Pebble Watch saw early crowdfunding success even though it is struggling to meet both production demand and consumer expectations. Meanwhile, a little company called Apple appears to be poised to release an iWatch of its own. Maybe this time the smart watch will stick given the fact that we all carry powerful portable computers -- smartphones -- with us all day that can act as receivers and servers and finally make the smart watch more than a trick up our sleeves.
HUDs, or head-up displays, have been the domain of fighter jets and fictional robots in movies for years. Modern fighter jets include a mix of HUDs and head-mounted displays to deliver information to multitasking pilots with great success, but these devices haven't found a home in consumer electronics despite multiple attempts. The Nissan 240SX featured a HUD system that displayed a projected speedometer on the windshield, but the company let the technology fallow once the 240SX was shuttered. It seems no one was asking for it. These days, several cars, including some BMWs, Audis and Hondas offer HUDs, but they remain luxury options that are rarely chosen by shoppers.
This time around, though, Google promises to make the HUD a true information portal with its Glass wearable display and camera system. Google is taking its time testing the device with power users and encouraging developers to offer up their apps and content for the device, but time will tell if the relatively steep price tag and social stigma of wearing an electronic visor will become a thing for which we're all ready.
My father was always super proud of his Swiss Army knife. It could cut, tighten, clip, tweeze, file and even pick teeth. "It's all we need for survival," he'd say.
In the '60s, televisions joined forces with record players and designer furniture to become huge consoles of entertainment doom. When consumer electronics took off in the '80s, one of the first things manufacturers did was mash complementary products together into super gadgets. I clearly remember the day the answering machine joined the wireless phone -- everyone ran to his or her local Circuit City to hop on board.
In the '90s, as cellular technology was developing at feverish speeds, designers took a moment to allow the technology to breathe on its own. Cellphones were just that -- they made phone calls. People still used calculators, PDAs and portable DVD players. Now that the smartphone is powerful and reliable, though, we're cramming as many functions into the devices as possible. Huge markets of apps that harness these functions probably spell no end to the portable convergence trend.
Perhaps someone will release a phone that just makes calls and we'll all turn back, but that's looking less likely every fiscal quarter.
Either way, as device designers come up with something new and unique, they throw it at the market; the market says "meh"; and they forget about it. Then, years later, another manufacturer tries the same thing again, perhaps with better results. Maybe it succeeds this time around because the technology has improved or it's designed better. But maybe it's because we've finally developed a taste for the new-old tech. Or maybe it needs another round.
So if you're sitting there racking your brain for the "next big thing," look no further than that pile of dead devices in your desk drawer. You just might find the future in your past.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.