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These technologies were ahead of their time, but are suddenly cool again

The recent IFA 2017 show was notable for several key themes, including mixed reality, 2 in 1 computers, net-connected appliances and smart speakers.

The current popularity of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo Show (pictured above) and Google Home is an interesting one. They’re driven by virtual personal assistant technology and speech recognition, two technologies that were arguably ahead of their time, and have since made a triumphant comeback.

The key is computing power. Thanks to cutting-edge processors, including cloud-powering Intel® Xeon® chips and the latest 8th Gen Intel® Core™ mobile and desktop CPUs, products and services have access to vast number-crunching muscle. It has enabled pioneering technologies that perhaps launched too early, to get a second chance. Like…

Voice control
Released in 1997, the Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition/dictation software promised to bring the technology of sci-fi movies to your home PC. But only if you were willing to go through a lengthy setup procedure.

For the software to work, you had to teach it to understand the way you spoke. This required you to work through various training modules and then to carefully speak… one… word… at… a… time… Full stop. Full stop. I said, ‘full stop’, not ‘fool’s hop’… Oh, I give up. Don’t transcribe that! Or that!

Dragon NaturallySpeaking
Dragon NaturallySpeaking was one of the first speech recognition products for the PC.

A combination of a limited vocabulary and under-powered computers meant that using early versions of Dragon was a laborious affair. It was often quicker to simply type out what you wanted to say, rather than dictate and fix all the errors. A mere 20 years on, the likes of Siri, Cortana and Alexa have finally made that sci-fi dream a practical and user-friendly reality. While the latest version of the NaturallySpeaking software now leverages advanced algorithms and cloud support for greater accuracy and speed.

Pre-Alexa digital assistants
If you owned an Orange phone back in the late 1990s, chances are you might have had a soft spot for Wildfire. Using natural language processing, Wildfire could act as your personalised executive assistant, handling your voice mail messages and making calls via simple voice commands. It was arguably the forerunner of today’s more advanced virtual assistant technology.

Orange paid $142 million to acquire Wildfire Communications in 2000, only to shut it down five years later due to lack of demand.

Internet-connected gaming
These days we take our always-on, net-connected gaming machines for granted. It allows us to live in a world of easily-accessible online multiplayer, DLC/season passes, pre-order bonuses, day zero updates and system upgrades.

But it wasn’t that long ago that we played our games in glorious isolation. The game you bought was the game you played, bugs and all. In fact, when Sega tried to push gaming forward in 1998 with its modem-equipped Dreamcast console, the idea failed to catch on with gamers. Consumers preferred the disconnected PlayStation 2 instead.

Virtual reality
The idea of VR dates back to experiments in the late 1960s, but it came to public prominence in the 1990s when the term became a real buzzword. Sega announced the Sega VR headset for use with arcade machines and the Mega Drive console, while fledgling UK company Virtuality launched the first mass produced VR arcade systems.

The arrival of films like The Lawnmower Man in 1992 helped sell the dream, but the technology of the day just wasn’t powerful enough to provide an immersive experience. Consequently, VR quickly lost its appeal with consumers and lay dormant for two decades until the arrival of the Oculus Rift and its notorious 2012 Kickstarter campaign. Now VR, not to mention AR and MR (Mixed Reality) is everywhere. It even has it own cinematic standard-bearer in the shape of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, Ready Player One.

Google Glass
There’s no debating the underlying concept behind this wearable face-gear, which delivered notifications and information to data-hungry users via a tiny head-up display.

But although the wearable tech was impressive, Google Glass adoption was scuppered by concerns over privacy and safety. However, while Google shelved the consumer version in 2015, Google Glass 2.0 – the Enterprise Edition – is finding favour as a workplace tool for factory workers, alongside sporty smart glasses like the Oakley Radar Pace and Recon Jet.

The smartwatch
Digital wrist-puters like the Samsung Gear and the Apple Watch are two more examples of how today’s technology is allowing old ideas to make a comeback. Although whether you can call the return of the smartwatch a ‘triumphant’ one is debateable.

Today’s smartwatches are a far cry from those early digital watches that could swap data with a PC. The Timex Datalink, for example, used an optical sensor to receive data from a PC. Information was beamed to the sensor by a series of flashing horizontal bars displayed onscreen. It was as clunky and as unreliable as it sounds.

It makes you wonder what other new concepts will be commonplace a few years from now, despite slow adoption. Vertical farming? Artificial meat? Bitcoin? Maybe a return for personal transportation devices inspired by the Segway? We can’t wait to find out.

Main image copyright: Amazon

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