Vapourware: The tech that never was

Join us on our adventure through failed technology, stopping at alternatives to the World Wide Web, digital information that's stored on ordinary paper, early DRM and some gaming non-classics

Vapourware may sound like a technical term to describe the gradual corrosion of a kettle, but today we're using it to describe a product announced by a company with great fanfare, hoohah and occasionally hullaballoo -- but that never materialises.

Continual delays, setbacks and excuses are the calling cards of a product that becomes vapourware. Windows Vista ran the risk of joining the club, and the terrific multiplayer first-person shooter Team Fortress 2 was in production for almost a decade before it was released in 2007. Devoted TF fans feared it would become a distinguished entrant in the who's who of vapourware. You might say Google Mail is in the running, having been in beta since 2004.

But vapourware can be anything from technical concepts to physical objects, and we've picked what we think are the defining, most iconic moments in the history of products that fail to become anything more than financial black holes. Welcome to Vapourware are you now? 2008. -Nate Lanxon

Rainbow Technology
Rainbow is a paper-based storage technology that uses ordinary paper to store large amounts of data. It was first demonstrated in late 2006 by an Indian chap called Sainul Abideen from the MES College of Engineering, Kerala, and utilises the printing of shapes such as triangles and circles of varying colours on to paper or plastic.

It's a nice idea on paper (bu-dum tsshh), as paper is much cheaper than optical media, and it's also far more environmentally friendly. But Abideen's claims of being able to compress 450 foolscap pages of plain text into a 25mm square of paper are hilariously unimpressive. That amount of text is equal roughly to 1.47MB of data.

He also compressed a 45-second audio clip on to a sheet of A4. Can you imagine the size of the filing cabinet you'd need to comfortably store all The Beatles' recordings at a decent audio quality? We're buggered if we're carting that around when we want to listen to The White Album on the Tube.

Perhaps taken aback by the sheer indifference to his peculiar system, Mr Abideen has claimed his Rainbow format encoding will be able to store 2.7GB of data in into that same 25mm square of paper. This is revolutionary! The Rainbow encoder must utilise an exceptionally efficient lossless technique, the likes of which would be so ground-breaking it would overturn the entire storage industry. The only problem is, Abideen isn't talking about how it works, and neither has he demonstrated this outstanding claim.

Whatever encoding technique is being used prior to printing, it's being handled by a computer, so there should be no reason why the subsequently compressed data can't be stored on conventional media, such as a DVD or even a Web server, eliminating the need to mess around with printers, scanners, precise colour and shape recognition and, of course, dust. But that's just our opinion, for what it's worth.

As a matter of fact...
While Abideen works on using the fragile medium of paper to store humungous chunks of data, US inventor Michael Thomas is working on a type of 3.5-inch drive capable of storing 1.2 petabytes of data -- that's about 1,258,000 gigabytes of data in the space of a normal hard drive bay.

So which would you back: paper or three-dimensional atomic holographic optical data storage nanotechnology?

Sega VR
Sega VR was a virtual reality headset in development by the Mega Drive maker back in 1991. It was to be worn on the head, and had LCD screens in the visor and speakers around the ears. For some bizarre reason it never took off, and we've never really seen this sort of thing resurface for new consoles, despite the fact that Final Fantasy XIII would look freakin' awesome through such a creation.

Sensors were built into the headset that allowed the console to respond to a user's movement and head position. Quite an exciting prospect, but this was the age when console power was counted in bits, and graphics sure as hell weren't VR-worthy back then. Can you imagine playing Sonic The Hedgehog with a headset that responded to your movement? Eugh.

Apparently four games were to be bundled with the Sega VR, each using a 16MB cartridge. Obviously, none were ever released.

As a matter of fact...
Sega claimed one of the reasons for the product's scrapping was that the virtual reality experience was so real, users were at risk of trying to walk around environments in person, risking injury to themselves. The word 'LOL' springs instantly to mind.

Project Xanadu
Project Xanadu was a system designed to link computer documents, decades before the Internet came into being. It predates the World Wide Web as the first iteration of hypertext, devised in 1960 by American sociologist Ted Nelson, who also coined the latter term. It has never seen the light of day as a useful creation, and was greatly overshadowed by Tim Berners-Lee's HTML -- which Nelson once said was "precisely what we were trying to prevent -- ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can't follow to their origins...".

At its most basic level, Xanadu's intention was to allow a computer user to read a quote in a document and see the document that quote came from, along with where other quotes made in the original source were quoted, and where all other documents using material from an original source were being copied. So in the case of Wikipedia, a page filled with quotes, sources and citations could be followed to their original sources. You would also be able to see every document that's quoting or referencing the Wikipedia article.

Released in 2007, XanaduSpace is an 11-page demonstrative application that allows anyone to see the advantages of what Project Xanadu envisioned. The application's site says Xanadu "allows you to work with parallel documents -- pages connected side-by-side by many connections".

While Xanadu could have seen better fortune if the World Wide Web had never become dominant, its architecture may never have allowed such a diverse advancement of technologies like we have seen with HTML, XML, the Internet and everything these creations have made possible.

As a matter of fact...
Ted Nelson also coined the term 'teledildonics' -- sex-toy technology that allows devices to be controlled remotely through a computer.

Sim Mars
Sim Mars was a game in development by Maxis around 1998, and would've taken Sim City into the cosmos, ready for dumping on the Red Planet. Sadly, the game was put on hold after the phenomenal success of girl-favourite The Sims. There simply weren't enough resources or people available to concurrently work on Sim Mars and The Sims, and the importance of continuing the Sims franchise was deemed more beneficial to the company and to gamers.

It's probably fair to say that The Sims has more potential than Sim Mars ever would have had. Can you imagine some of the expansion pack titles we could've seen? Sim Mars: Funny Looking Rocks or perhaps Sim Mars: Bonus Clouds. Oh, and let's not forget the potential killer Sim Mars: Things That Look Like Stuff Found On Earth.

Somehow it doesn't fill us with the same God-like excitement The Sims gives us, or that Spore promises to give us.

As a matter of fact...
In an expansion pack for The Sims, called The Sims: Vacation, an arcade game playable by in-game Sims is called Sim Mars. Its description is rumoured to be that of the original Maxis title, and reads: "Direct mankind's first mission to the red planet! Launch rockets and deploy robot probes! Deploy teams to search for alien resources! Establish and run a network of specialised colonies to create a self-sufficient civilisation! Provide your colony with food, shelter, and power! Fast, furious, adrenaline-pumping action!"

SDMI
The Secure Digital Music Initiative was a group of companies, including ISPs, consumer electronics firms and security experts, who banded together to find a solution to the explosion of MP3-format music being shared over the Internet. Its idea was to legally distribute music online, and to have the music protected with watermarking that would be 'uncrackable'.

This would have been the first mainstream DRM implemented in the digital music world, but unfortunately for the SDMI guys, it became apparent (after setting hackers loose on their uncrackable technology) that the design was fundamentally flawed, and predictably crackable.

The initiative's demise wasn't hindered when Eric Scheirer, a correspondent for our sister site MP3.com, said in a 1999 article, "The real goal [of SDMI] was to bring the technology industry into the cartel owned by the major labels, to create an alliance that guaranteed the majors a continuing near-monopoly over musical content and its distribution."

He turned out to be correct. The SDMI initiative has been inactive since the middle of 2001, only to be replaced by a billion other DRM schemes, all just as equally flawed as the first.

As a matter of fact...
This was probably the first time the RIAA was chastised for its efforts in the world of distributing digital music legally online -- a trend that has certainly not subsided, and resulted in groups such as boycott-riaa.com.

Phantom
Announced in 2002, the Phantom games console was going to be a system capable of playing PC games, and utilised a direct-download delivery method, similar to how Valve's Steam service currently operates on PCs. Games would be stored on an internal 80GB hard drive. A monthly subscription option was to be available, served as a two-year contract. This would allow people to get the console for 'free', but was effectively just a fancy form of credit.

Interestingly, the components inside the Phantom were simple over-the-counter products available to anyone, raising the interesting question of whether this was simply a small PC with an on-demand front-end interface. The last specifications we know of included an AMD Athlon XP 2500+ CPU, an Nvidia GeForce FX 5700 Ultra GPU, a measly 256MB RAM and support for Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio.

But the console was never released, and during its development reportedly managed to swallow around £30m -- enough for a holiday for two to the International Space Station. Probably a better way to spend your VC funding.

As a matter of fact...
The on-demand software function of the Phantom has metamorphosed into a casual games system, reportedly signed up for use in hotels around the world. There's no word on whether it's being used in the International Space Station.

FMD
The Fluorescent Multilayer Disc (FMD) promised ten times the storage of a DVD, long before Blu-ray was launched. Thanks to the wondrous miracle of 3D data storage (more here), FMDs were theoretically capable of having in excess of 100 layers of data -- that's 50 times more than a DVD has even today. This led to promises of discs that could store a terabyte of digital information, making these conventionally sized circular discs as capacious as 2008's most capable hard disk drives.

The first prototype demonstration of FMDs appeared in 2000, in the form of a 50GB disc. This was incredible -- the average capacity of a hard disk at the time was significantly lower than 50GB. But the problem here was that Constellation 3D -- the company that was developing the format -- was still using red lasers, just like a DVD. Blue lasers, such as those now inside Blu-ray systems, were needed in order to achieve terabyte disc capacities. This advancement never happened.

Sadly, money ran out and the FMD never saw the light of day. Constellation 3D's patents were later acquired by D Data, and are now in use inside FMD's successor technology, Digital Multilayer Disc. Currently capacities, still using red lasers, are around the 30GB mark.

As a matter of fact...
A miniature version of the FMD was in development, too. It was to be about the size of a credit card and would have offered a massive advantage over flash-based storage for digital cameras, although it's debatable whether this would ever have been economically viable.

EFS
The Electronic Film System (EFS) was developed by Silicon Film Technologies just before the turn of the millennium. It allowed photographers to turn an ordinary 35mm SLR film camera into a fully featured digital camera for around $700 (£350). At the time digital camera optics weren't able to reproduce the image quality of a decent SLR, but was probably only ever going to act as an interim solution until digital imaging developed further (no pun intended).

The EFS 'film' was a single object that was exactly the same size as a roll of 35mm film, including the small amount of film between the film's casing and the winding unit on the right-hand side of the camera. This unit sat in the film cavity on an SLR camera and captured digital images from the light entering the camera's lens as normal. In theory, it was a superb idea. It gave you a 'digital negative' that could be plugged into a PC with a special piece of hardware.

The digital film had just 48MB of internal memory, and a 1.3-megapixel image would take about 2MB of this memory. So while this made digital imaging a little more attractive, 24 photos per 'film' is a far cry from what became available only a short time later as dSLRs took off. That said, you could always offload data to an external unit and reuse the 'film'.

The initiative was canned in September 2001 after having its funding cut off.

As a matter of fact...
In 1999, when the Silicon Film was being demonstrated, Nikon's 2.7-megapixel D1 was released, and was the first digital SLR to be made by a mainstream camera manufacturer. It cost $6,000 (£3,000).

Qtrax
Qtrax was arguably the most botched digital music service launch ever. If you missed our coverage and didn't hear about it from one of the billions of other outlets reporting on the madness, Qtrax was/is supposed to be a free and legal music download service, with a catalogue of 25 million songs and distribution deals with all four major record labels. It's all ad-supported, complete with DRM and files taken from the Gnutella file-sharing network.

The only problem was that it didn't have 25 million songs, it didn't have deals with any major record labels and the DRM was simply slapped on the same files illegally acquired via programs such as LimeWire. Hardly the most promising of offerings, from both legal and consumer standpoints, but that didn't stop the company from having a massive par-tay with 'celebrities' (such as James Blunt) to celebrate the launch.

Worse still, the launch was late, and when the program for downloading music finally went public in its beta form, no music was available.

To this day, nothing has surfaced and the state of Qtrax as a product and a business remains unknown. Safe to say the record labels are somewhat miffed with the company and unlikely to trust it in future. Good riddance -- it's a daft idea anyway, slapping DRM on illegal but otherwise useful files.

As a matter of fact...
Even the Qtrax download manager and player software is a shabby bit of fiddling, as it's simply based on an application called Songbird -- a free bit of software built on Mozilla technologies.

Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever is the best-known bit of vapourware of all time. The follow-up to the massively successful first-person shooter Duke Nukem 3D was announced in 1997 and despite being in constant development since, you still can't play it. A release date -- vague or otherwise -- has never even been announced. Now 11 years into its production, several rewrites, redesigns and game-engine alterations have resulted in this FPS taking longer than any other to see the light of day, put its shades on and light a fat stogie.

We're all for developers taking their time with games. Let's not forget that one of the greatest shooters of all time, Half-Life 2, took an eye-watering five years to finish, but was as close to perfect as any game can be. Duke Nukem Forever, then, deserves to be twice as close to perfect, if such a thing was possible.

But 2009 could, possibly, be the year we see a release. We've heard it before, but we believe this could be the date, and in December 2007, an official trailer was made available online.

As a matter of fact...
In 2003, Duke Nukem Forever won the Vaporware Lifetime Achievement Award from Wired News -- an award created specifically for the game.

 

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