Gizmodo is 20 years old! In the summer of 2002, “The Gadgets Weblog” officially launched to cover all of your gadget weblogging needs. The last two decades have been a wild ride in technology, so we’re taking this opportunity to look back at some of the most significant ways our lives have been thrown for a loop by our digital tools. We’ve come a long way since the days of TiVo, Napster, and Palm Pilots. Unfortunately, we’re still not old enough to drink.
The year is 2002. Gizmodo is a fledgling tech blog covering an industry in the midst of a renaissance. Around this time, a second-generation iPod had just brought Windows compatibility, Sony and Microsoft were in the early stages of a console war led by the PS2, and Wikipedia and Google Search were newcomers to the web. USB flash drives allowed you to store data on tiny portable devices and Bluetooth was a new, poorly adopted wireless streaming protocol.
Things were changing rapidly and many companies believed we were only years away from the sort of sci-fi worlds explored in movies and literature. Automation, robotics, and new communication methods led to bizarre products, many of which failed.
These wacky inventions, released during what you might call a “growing pains” era of consumer technology, were being covered by a modest new website with a strange URL: Gizmodo.com. Visit this new tech website and you were presented with a spartan webpage consisting of a single vertical news feed containing tiny images next to short blurbs. At birth, Gizmodo provided readers with a brief overview, an occasional witty opinion, and… that’s about it.
In celebration of Gizmodo’s 20th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at some of the wackiest gadgets we highlighted in our internet infancy.
Do you wonder what your dog is thinking? With Bow-lingual, you can just ask them! Released in Japan in 2002, Bow-lingual was a dog-to-human language translation device developed by toy company Takara. The little walkie-talkie-like device listens to the bark of a dog and then categorizes the noise into one of six emotional categories. These are then translated into phrases such as “I’ve had enough” or “I’m a little bored, let’s play.”
The device works by recording your dog’s bark and comparing it against a database of dog noises that have been interpreted by animal behaviorists. It might sound like a scam, but Bow-lingual sold well enough in Japan to debut in the US and Europe a year after its initial release and eventually spawned–you guessed it–Meowlingual for cats. Bow-lingual survived for several years as a smartphone app which shouldn’t be surprising given that this thing absolutely worked…right?
Sony Aibo ERS-31L
Creepy robo dog? That was the sort of thing people wanted in the 2000s…I guess. Sony’s robot dogs were first released as consumer products in 1999 with the original Aibo ERS-110. That robo-puppy had a beagle-like appearance and was meant for entertainment purposes. That one was cute!
A few years later, Sony expanded its litter with the Aibo ERS-31L (a pug) and two other models. The Aibo ERS-31L is the rarest of the breed and perhaps the most disturbing in appearance.
Like the other canine companions, the Pug can speak and has speech recognition. While the other models looked rather cute, the Aibo ERS-31L had a more menacing appearance not helped by its large silver grate-like eyes. Sony would go on to release new Aibo models for decades, and they continue to have a loyal following.
Wacky might not be the right term here but the iMac G4 was undeniably unique when it debuted in 2002. Hell, we still haven’t seen anything like it. To this day, the iMac G4 is considered one of the greatest Macs ever due to its refreshingly innovative design and flat-plane LCD. Reminiscent of the Pixar lamp, the all-in-one had a white domed base and a cantilevered chrome arm that extended up to a 15-inch LCD.
It was a fun, quirky design and yet didn’t sacrifice practicality; in fact, the gorgeous metal arm allowed users to adjust the iMac G4’s screen in any which direction. Better yet, the system had tons of ports and easily upgradable RAM (you hear that, Apple?). There was even a SuperDrive built into the base for playing and burning CD/DVDs.
Hitachi Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC
I promise, what is described in this slide was an actual device.
Long before Google Glass, there was the Xybernaut Poma, an early entry into the head-mounted display market. It promised a hands-free way of accessing the internet: just strap a keyboard to your forearm, clip the main housing to your belt, and wear the display over your head. Unfortunately, when you wore it, a thick metal bar would run across your forehead and a dark screen appeared before one eye as if you were wearing an eyepatch. The headgear ran Windows CR and was powered by a Hitachi 129MHz RISC processor with 32MB of RAM. Content was viewed on a miniature screen with a measly 800 x 600-pixel resolution.
On paper, the Xybernaut read like a product from the future — something that could replace your phone and allow you to browse the web via IE, watch videos on Windows Media Player, and edit Word documents. In practice, it was slow, bulky, and distracting. Did I mention it cost $US1,500 ($2,082) when it arrived in 2002?
Canesta virtual keyboard
What if you could type from anywhere using any device? That was the premise of the Canesta virtual keyboard, a projection keyboard for portable gadgets. With the Canesta, you could use the standard full-size keyboard found on a laptop to overcome the inherent limitations of smaller mobile devices like PDAs and cell phones. It worked by using a sensor that would match hand and finger movements with the pattern displayed by the pattern projector.
Canesta’s keyboard got plenty of attention from the media but suffered from too many technical problems to reach mainstream crowds. Typing on the red projected letters and numbers just didn’t work so well. You also missed out on the tactile “click” of a proper keyboard and you couldn’t really use the keyboard without looking down at the keys. These sorts of things exist today but they certainly aren’t the “keyboard of the future” some were expecting.
The half keyboard
You’re new to computers. You sit down in front of one for the first time, and quickly you realise that operating this thing won’t be easy. Your steering wheel is a keyboard with so many more keys than you have fingers! Luckily, a company called Matias created the appropriately named “HalfKeyboard,” which is essentially a keyboard sliced in half with the missing keys accessible when you hold down the spacebar.
The HalfKeyboard was actually created so you could leave your other hand free while typing with one hand. This way, you could, say, fix typos with one hand while navigating through a document with the other. No need to move your hands back and forth from keyboard to mouse. It was also targeted at those with physical disabilities as well PDA owners who could type while texting, though the thought makes me nauseous. One-handed keyboards exist today but they are almost exclusively meant for gamers.
Here is what we wrote about the HalfKeyboard in 2002:
They claim people can type up to 64 words per minute with these. Aimed mainly at PDA users, but I suspect they’re going to have a lot of trouble convincing people this is a good idea, no matter how easy to use they actually are.
Ultimate Video Calling Machine
Video calls weren’t novel in 2002 but they hadn’t exactly caught on yet. Vialta wanted to change that with the Beamer, a screen that added video capabilities to your home phone. It was easy to use, too: just connector the Beamer between your phone and a wall jack, much like an answering machine, and you’re set. There were no fees or accounts to create, just plug-and-play. And though it might not sound like it, at $US300 ($416), the Beamer was actually much more affordable than alternatives.
At that time, seeing a loved one on a video call from your home was magical, regardless of the video quality. Still, the Beamer was a failure. In its review, The New York Times complained of distracting delays between the video and audio feeds and choppy, blurry playback.
Here is one of my favourite passages from the NYT review:
Once the call is under way, though, you find out one big reason videophones aren’t yet ubiquitous: ordinary phone lines are just not ‘’fat’’ enough to carry much more data than our relatively puny voices. Trying to fit a complete video and audio signal into such a narrow pipe is like trying to cook a turkey in a toaster.
Blood vein mouse
USB fingerprint scanners were available in the early 2000s but Fujitsu thought of a new way to authenticate users, one that is frankly a bit creepy. The company made a mouse with scanners built into the palm rest that could verify a person’s identity using the pattern of their blood veins. The goal was for this technology to find its way into PCs and other gadgets, and to be used for authenticating transactions.
As strange as it sounds, the blood vein scanner supposedly worked, accurately matching the blood veins of all 700 testers, and Fujitsu reckoned at the time that it could reach an error rate of 0.5% or less. This sci-fi mouse sounds like a fairly convenient method of biometric authentication (perhaps not any more so than the methods we use today) but was never released to the public.
Read our original article on the Fujitsu mouse from 2002.
DataPlay is the CD of the future
In the early 2000s, there were serious efforts to find the next technological breakthrough that would succeed the CD. One of those was the DataPlay, a miniaturized version of a CD with a 32mm diameter. Why use DataPlay instead of CD? For one, it could store more than just music — artist interviews, music videos, and pre-recorded songs could be accessed when connected to a PC. It was also adorable tiny, or as The New York Times put it, “about the size of the ing in the centre of a CD.”
After winning the CES Best of Show award in 2001, the DataPlay was released in 2002 and was quickly backed by artists and recording studios due to its strict digital rights management system. Britney Spears’ album Britney and re-releases from ‘N Sync, Pink, Usher, OutKast, Sarah McLachlan, and Brooks & Dunn were included in the first batch of DataPlay discs.
In the end, DataPlay failed and is now an all-but-forgotten format. It was too expensive, forced owners to purchase new music players, and locked down content in a way customers weren’t used to at the time. It also arrived during the growth of digital media.
Gizmodo had a feeling DataPlay wouldn’t be successful:
Let’s see, they’ll cost more than CDs, be difficult to copy, sound about the same as CDs, and require a whole new player (of which only one is available, the iRiver IDP-100, pictured at right). Sure to be a huge hit.
Camera phone before the camera phone
Imagine your smartphone without a camera. That was life just a few decades ago before cameras on cell phones became ubiquitous in the United States (they were first popularised in Japan and Korea). What did you use instead? A separate accessory you could plug into a PDA. In 2002, we covered the Veo Photo Traveller, a $US99 ($137) accessory that “turned your Pocket PC into a digital camera!”
That camera could take 24-bit colour photos at a 640 x 480 resolution, which, at the time, Gizmodo said would “take pretty decent pics for a PDA camera.” The tiny device would connect via an SDIO port (think SD cards) and supported Palm OS versions 4.x and 5.0. You can see the image quality in this PlamInfoCenter review (thank you, internet).
TiVO with lifetime subscriptions
Don’t you hate it when Netflix raises its prices by $US2 ($3) a month? If only you could just own the service outright and say goodbye to recurring payments. In 2002, you could with a lifetime subscription to TiVo. Lifetime means the life of the box, not your life or some sort of warranty. Either way, paying $US299 ($415) up-front (after a $US50 ($69) price hike in 2002) meant saving and recording shows without spending another dime. As we covered back in 2002, TiVo prices increased to encourage people to pay for a monthly subscription.
We even suggested giving customers TiVo boxes for free and charging $US20 ($28) a month for listings while locking people into two or three-year contracts. “You can bet that if a TiVo box cost $US29 ($40) with a three-year service plan, lots more people would be buying them.” I’m not so sure.
The smartwatch of the early 2000s
Fossil made the smartwatch of the early 2000s. Running either Pocket PC 2000/2002 or Palm OS, the Fossil Wrist PDA looked like a gadget you’d see in a 007 film. It essentially took the smartphone of the time — a PDA (personal digital assistant) — and strapped it on your wrist so you could more easily access your contacts, notes, calendar, and some other basic apps.
In Gizmodo’s brief post on the Fossil Wrist PDA-PC FX2002, a rare early version of the Fossil Wrist PDA, we link to Geek.com’s largely positive review of the wearable. Overall, the reception was good despite the watch’s fairly large size and mini display. Sadly, Fossil had problems getting these things out to customers. When they finally did, adoption was poor and the Wrist PDA was discontinued after a few short years.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Microsoft released specifications for what was called the “Tablet PC.” Sound familiar? Like today’s tablets, these were pen-enabled PCs running the Windows XP Tablet operating system. Some of these had removable keyboards, essentially making them 2-in-1s before that term became popularised.
Hoping to make a hybrid computing device of its own, educational computer maker AlphaSmart released the Dana, a laptop alternative running Palm OS. Instead of being a large screen with an optional accessory, the Dana was a flat(ish) device with a tiny 2 x 7.5-inch monochrome 560 x 160-pixel screen above a full-size keyboard. Priced at $US399 ($554), the Dana was a decent device for schools, but its Palm-based OS was limited compared to Windows models and certain apps couldn’t take advantage of that awkward screen.
What did Gizmodo think of it at the time? Not much.
But why not just make the screen a little bigger and have it fold up like a laptop? And why isn’t Palm going after the Tablet PC with its own line of portable computers with full-sized screens? They’d certainly cost a lot less than a Tablet PC, and they’d easily attract users who are already accustomed to using the Palm OS.