As the year draws to a close it is customary for bloggers (formerly known as columnists) and pundits to look back and cite what they think were the (choose one or more) best, worst, most innovative, most exciting products and developments of the past year, and attempt to predict the future. It’s also the season of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where hope and hype combine to show us what the future may look like – or maybe not.
Rather than give you my subjective top-item listicle, I prefer to look at some of the more-hyped products and systems of a few years ago that seem to have not reached their hoped-for potential, or have largely disappeared from the market and attention. Sometimes you can learn a lot about the future by looking back, right?
The first one that comes to mind is RFID (radio frequency identification). Just a few years ago, the story was that RFID tags, both passive and active, would be everywhere. Some said that they would be so cheap and so useful that we’d find them on individual packages at the grocery, replacing the truly ubiquitous bar code. The real benefit would be with re-writable RFID tags which could have basic data added as the package was traveled, as a sort of personal record of the journey.
Some of the tags would have sensors for acceleration or temperature, and record if the package was dropped, or exposed to extreme temperatures (especially useful for foods such as fish, for example). From my selfish perspective, there would be lots of analog circuitry in the sensors, the RF link, and the RF readers—much of which could then be adapted to other applications, which is a normal consequence of a high-volume product development.
Did RFID everywhere happen, or at least make major advances? I’d say the answer is yes and no. On one side, we see RFID tags and connectivity used routinely in mass-transit passes, personal ID and keyless-entry systems, credit cards, “chipped” pets, warehouse pallets, and toll transponders. However, we are not seeing them on packages of toothpaste, nor does there seem any movement towards that level of application.
Why not? In retrospect, I think it’s easy to figure out: the cost of the tags and necessary support infrastructure (RFID readers, as a start) simply do not outweigh the benefits. The bar code is more than enough for retail and many other situations, and costs absolutely zero to print on a label. Even if you have to slap on a separate bar-code sticker, that’s still pretty cheap. There’s a well-developed system for assigning these UPC codes across the industry (or you can easily set up your own proprietary set) along with the many type of scanners to read the codes. For many situations, such as tracking that frozen fish and its temperature, the changes in the overall system are simply too costly and complicated.
My other example is 3D TV. About five years ago, that was the talk of CES and the industry. This enhanced video experience would be the next big thing in the home media center as well as movie theaters. So, does everyone have a 3D TV setup at home? Answer: hardly anyone does.
It seemed to me as if the industry was looking for “the next big thing” without any real sense of the genuine interest or demand from the customers. There were also issues of standards, how to watch, production costs of 3D, and more. There was no compelling reason to get 3D TV, and no one was saying it would change their viewing priorities. Some sports events, with their “flying” cameras and sophisticated camera work, look almost 3D even though they not.
Instead, TV images and consumers have gone in a two completely different directions: up to big-screen, high-resolution video, and down to small screens on smartphones. Neither is winning any 3D eyeballs. The only venue that is doing 3D with modest success is movie theaters, with special productions which have been specifically scripted and filmed for 3D effects.
Do you have any favorites among the many items that are being promoted as the next big thing, but will instead have a dedicated niche, but no more? Will the majority of smart watchers or fitness bands end up in the back of the drawer for most of their initially enthusiastic buyers?
Bill Schweber, is an electronics engineer and author who has written for EE Times, was analog editor at EDN and prior to that worked in marketing communications for Analog Design and was also editor of its technical journal.
This article first appeared on EE Times’ Planet Analog website.
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