6 Hyped Tech Innovations That Elicited Yawns

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Go ahead, put an Apple ( AAPL) iPad, Microsoft ( MSFT) Kinect, Sony ( SNE) PlayStation Move or Panasonic ( PC) 3D television and glasses on your wish list this holiday season. The tech world reserves the right to mock you for it later.

It doesn't care that roughly 8 million iPads have been sold already and retailers including Target ( TGT), Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Verizon ( VZ) Wireless stores are tripping over themselves to keep the tablet on shelves. It cackles at commercials for Best Buy ( BBY) and Toys R Us that push Microsoft's motion-control device for the Xbox 360 and show rhythm-deprived families playing out of step with Viacom's ( VIA.B) Dance Central -- despite the Playstation Move motion controller's role in September's video game accessory sales spike. It snickers at Samsung and Panasonic's support of the home 3D format and pairs of shutter glasses that cost $100 to $200 a pop, mostly because it's been through this all before.

Apple knows all too well that hype is no match for history, especially after its $100 million Newton platform for its MessagePad devices bombed in the 1990s and is known only as the cool-but-unpopular ancestor to the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Microsoft and Sony likely took notes from a pre-Wii Nintendo's punishing history of video game peripherals that reached rock bottom with the Power Glove back in 1989. As for 3-D, bad films from Creature From The Black Lagoon to this year's Clash of the Titans retread are a steady reminder that they're the rule to Avatar's exception.

But the modern consumer's too savvy to blindly believe the hype anymore, right? Besides, didn't skeptics bury the e-reader as a flop before the Kindle kick-started the market three years ago? Perhaps, but more than 1 million consumers also bought Toshiba's HD-DVD players around the same time before that particular product was discontinued in early 2008. It's hard to tell which gadgets and their free-spending fanbases technology will be laughing at in five years, but we know which ideas still get more chuckles than use today. Here are just six of many once-hot technologies that never lived up to the hype:

The Segway
Want to start an all-out shouting match in the halls of government in any major city in America? Hold a public hearing about Segway tours on city sidewalks. Nine years after the release of the two-wheeled, gyroscope-guided personal transport brought to life by inventor Dean Kamen, this is what the Segway's legacy has been reduced to: Walking tours for the lazy.

This is couldn't be further removed from Kamen's original vision for the device as a means of allowing the disabled access to more of their urban environment and a way for cities to reduce vehicle traffic by allowing pedestrians to cover ground more quickly. Leaked quotes from its proposal had venture capitalist L. John Doerr comparing Segway's importance to the Internet itself and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Steve Jobs saying the device would have "cities built around it."

How did that work out for them? Safety recalls in 2003 and 2006, combined with an incident involving President George W. Bush leaping from one of the devices after losing control of it, did little to help Segway's image. Little more than 50,000 of the $5,000 to $7,000 Segway devices have been sold since their introduction in 2001. Ford, meanwhile, sold nearly 50,000 of its $22,000 F-150 pickup trucks last month alone.

After Segway refocused its efforts on a two-seat scooter it is developing in collaboration with General Motors late last year and billionaire Segway company owner Jimi Heselden died in a Segway-related accident in September, the future of the single-person scooter seems somewhat unstable. With U.S. cities continuing to restrict its use as a motor vehicle, the Segway's had a steep slide from sidewalk supergadget to tourist sideshow.

The Sony Minidisc
The recent release of a MacBook Air without an optical drive may have discs on death watch, but the MiniDisc's sad story made that medium's best offering irrelevant more than a decade ago. As Sony learned once before when its clearer, sharper, proprietary Betamax video technology was bested by the cheaper VHS in the '80s, the best tech doesn't always win. Before recordable CDs were as ubiquitous as the mix tapes of a generation before, the MiniDisc not only allowed users to record to an all-digital, searchable, no-skip format, but could store 80 minutes of audio in a format much smaller than a standard CD. While musicians and audio geeks still love it, the MiniDisc never gained traction; stingy old coots stuck to cassettes and first-adopters were offended when record labels basically ignored the format.

Though it still survives today as a data storage platform -- with new Hi-MD discs holding up to 1 gigabyte of data or recorded audio -- it's a quaint afterthought to flash drives, MP3 devices and smartphones.

The Palm Pre
Just as the smaller, cheaper, hipper Palm ( HP) Pilot PDAs helped kill Apple's Newton devices, so did the hipper, hotter Apple iPhone crush the more practical Pre. Blame the creepy eyebrowless woman in the Pre's ads all you'd like, but the Pre's death came by 1,000 killer apps. Functionally, the Pre was an outstanding phone. Its card-shuffle multitasking was a great feature and updated contacts, calendars and messages from sources including Facebook, Outlook and Gmail. The Web search automatically pastes search terms into various engines, the pinching and double-tap zoom is as easy to navigate as the iPhone's and the sliding touchscreen also yields to a keyboard when needed. With Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, an airplane mode, Microsoft and Mac compatibility and voice quality similar to a landline phone, the Pre was the happy medium between a Research In Motion ( RIMM) BlackBerry and an iPhone. It was also a total misread of a market that -- as evidenced by the growth of the iPhone and embrace of Google Android products -- is moving away from the old Blackberry Model about as fast as it can.

The Pre's 16-gigabyte upgrade came too late, its 3-megapixel camera just wasn't enough and its apps library was filled with PDA rehashes. This is why Apple sold 14 million iPhones last quarter while Palm and its less than 5% smartphone market share were still hashing out the Pre 2 with HP. Good luck getting Palm and WebOS back into the game, printer guys.

DivX In the days before Netflix ( NFLX), Amazon ( AMZN) On Demand, iTunes video, Redbox and even before Blockbuster's last gasps at instant viewing and DVD by mail, there was a little electronics store with a big idea. Circuit City, which until last year was in the big red-and-white store that now houses your local farmers' market, holiday pop-up store or clan of squatters, decided more than a decade ago it had millions of dollars in loose cash on its hands and needed a way to put it to work. The company's ensuing brainstorm produced DivX -- Digital Video Express -- which allowed a customer to "buy" a movie for $4 and watch it all he or she wanted within 48 hours of its original viewing. The catch? Only Circuit City sold the self-destructing discs, only Circuit City sold the hardware to play the discs and only Circuit City could monitor the use of those discs through a phone line (?) attached to the player. This sounded like a great idea to Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks, who released films exclusively through DivX when it didn't trust those newfangled DVDs to properly withhold ... er, protect its content from a greedy, pirating public. Circuit City set up its DivX system just in time for the holidays in 1998. The whole operation folded just six months later, with DivX ( SNIC) device buyers getting $100 refunds. The whole affair cost Circuit City at least $114 million. It's just one of several reasons why Netflix's red envelopes are so ubiquitous while Circuit City's red facades sit so empty.

Imagine your GSM-system phone but about five times as heavy and almost as many times more expensive to operate. That was Iridium ( IRDM) roughly 12 years ago after Iridium Communications launched 66 satellites into space in an attempt at worldwide phone coverage. Fundamentally, Iridium succeeded; its system is used heavily by the Department of Defense (which pays $36 million a year for the privilege) and other government agencies. Commercially, though, Iridium was an absolute disaster. Hardware was clunky and awkward, service was spotty because of the fragile satellite network, usage fees cost multiple dollars per minute and the company lost $1 billion in its first two quarters. Yet the company and its more than 300,000 customers not only persist and maintain the network, but last month secured $1.8 billion in financing for a new array of satellites. Here's a better idea: Get a $49 feature phone from AT&T ( T) or T-Mobile and take it on your next trip abroad. Improvements to mobile networks and roaming agreements since 1998 have made it a little less necessary to heave the physical equivalent of the Strategic Defense Initiative anti-missile system into space every time Americans abroad want to call home and check if the cats are eating well in their absence.

Virtual reality
Like Iridium, virtual reality was a fundamental success. It allows doctors to practice difficult procedures, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder to walk therapists through their experiences and archeologists and scientists to reconstruct long-disappeared lifeforms and artifacts. Comercially, however, it never quite lived up to the immersive video game hype of Tron, The Lawnmower Man or even Beavis and Butthead. The closest we came to a commercial product were some really expensive arcade games and a Nintendo product called Virtual Boy, whose goggles displayed all its games in a blurry, headache-inducing monochrome red. Only 800,000 Virtual Boy consoles made it to the global marketplace, only 14 games made it to America and it was likely the only product bad enough to get GameBoy inventor Gunpei Yokoi booted from Nintendo. Considering the richness of today's high-definition video game landscapes, the gaming public would likely prefer to virtually sever its own head than get back into those goofy-looking goggles and helmets again.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.