Failed at scale: are some technologies just simply unwanted?
3D cinema has had four attempts at establishing itself, but all have failed to stick. Why are some media tech doomed to unpopularity despite repeated attempts to foist them upon us?
Many of you will have heard of the Gartner Hype Cycle, a wave-shaped framework seeking to explain the lifecycle of a new technology.
Its five stages are:
- The introduction of a new technology into society, called the Technological Trigger.
- Its rise to fame, often fuelled by overenthusiastic hyperbole, called the Peak of Inflated Expectations.
- Its fall from grace as an inevitable backlash begins, called the Trough of Disillusionment.
- Its renaissance and maturation, called the Slope of Enlightenment.
- Its final resting place, where its optimal use-case is at last fully realised, called The Plateau of Productivity.
The Gartner Hype Cycle is reasonably effective at helping us understand where a new technology could be heading.
For instance, right now the metaverse seems as if it is teetering at the Peak of Inflated Expectations, moments away from log-fluming down into the Trough of Disillusionment. A backlash may be imminent.
Maybe, in time, it will find its natural level, however, via the Slope of Enlightenment. Not yet though, it appears.
There are historical examples too. Nuclear power was initially lauded as a panacea, the answer to all our energy needs, with radioactive isotopes even being injected into toothpaste, hair cream and cosmetics in the 1950s.
Soon, however, high profile accidents like Chernobyl had sent it crashing into the Trough.
Only now in the 2020s is its rehabilitation long overdue, with nuclear power repositioning itself as a genuinely misunderstood technology with a vital part to play in tackling climate change. Again, it’s started its climb back up the Slope.
Throughout the history of tech, waves crest and waves crash. However, the Gartner Hype Cycle does not foresee the future path of every technology. In fact, there’s one style of tech it seems less able to accommodate: those which seem simply unwanted, despite repeated attempts to foist them upon us.
We can all name technologies that seem to be permanently imminent, yet never achieve a true breakthrough. Tech which never reaches the Slope of Enlightenment or The Plateau of Productivity, but simply endlessly cycles through the Peak and the Trough, switching from boom to bust and back, and never to achieve acceptance or adoption.
I place this tech on the alternative ‘Sisyphus Cycle’. Sisyphus was a character in Greek legend destined for all eternity to repeatedly push a boulder uphill, only for it to roll to the bottom once he neared the peak. Repeat ad infinitum.
Here’s some examples of Sisyphean Tech:
Notably, 3D cinema has had four attempts at establishing itself, but all failed to stick: the 1950s with its exploitation cinema titles such as Bwana Devil; the 1980s with films like Jaws 3D; the late 2000s with Avatar; and now in the 2020s, director James Cameron has returned with Avatar 2.
With the exception of this latest iteration, each time 3D cinema’s birth [or rebirth] was hailed as THE disruptive moment that would change the industry forever.
Each time we heard: this time it’s different, this time it really will change everything. Yet it didn’t. In 2023, 3D film takings are at an all time low, even with the pandemic taken into account.
Another example of Sisyphean Tech is VR. The emergence of companies like Virtuality in the 1990s heralded the arrival of a mind-blowing technology that was to redefine our relationship with the real-world. Yet the slow processing speed, bulkiness of the kit, and the cost of the technology meant that it didn’t scale.
Fast-forward to the 2010s when smartphones could be slotted into ‘drop-in’ headsets like Daydream and Gear. VR had been democratised and the stage was set for an epic comeback. Yet both platform offerings are now defunct.
Now, in the 2020s, with the advent of the metaverse, Facebook has rebranded themselves Meta and placed MetaQuest (née Oculus) at heart of their offering. Again, today, the same proclamations resound: this time everything will be different.
But with Sisyphean Tech like this, will this time be different? Will the boulder stay at the top of the hill? Or is it that some tech is just destined to never hit the big time?
But can some tech break the cycle?
Right now there are three high-profile tech candidates that could tantalisingly go either way. They could remain locked into an endless cycle of comebacks and falls-from-grace, but never achieve true acceptance or mass adoption.
Or, like Brendan Fraser, they could pull out of the nosedive and be embraced by all. They are:
Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and even (remember?) Samsung’s Bixby were all the recipients of billions of dollars of investment generating a wave of hype. Every home would have one; every device would be voice controlled; keyboards would be defunct.
Half a decade later and we hear that most apps on the Alexa store are downloaded and used only once. A recent study by Forrester found that voice assistants failed to answer shopping queries 65% of the time.
Elsewhere, there were very real privacy concerns. Can voice tech finally find its killer use case and achieve meaningful mass adoption? Or will it forever be the soda stream, the waffle maker, the rice cooker of the tech world?
Imagined by futurists and science fiction enthusiasts alike, the driverless car has long been postulated as an intrinsic part of our wondrous future. But not until Elon Musk threw his hat into the ring did it actually look like it might come to fruition.
Around the same time, not coincidentally, Uber hinted at a shift towards driverless. However, it rapidly became apparent that full driverless will be a colossal challenge, with Musk forced to admit it was much harder than he had initially anticipated. Uber soon admitted the same.
Will anyone crack it, and power the driverless car up the Slope of Enlightenment, or will it stall at the bottom of the hill, the tech of an permanently imagined future?
Has there ever been a technology more evangelised by its adherents? Crypto enthusiasts bellowed their message from the mountaintops: fiat currency is dead, long live libertarian society!
At one point, tech news headlines were awash with stories of quadruple-figure percentage increases in investments, and instant billionaires created thanks to the contents of their USB keys.
But then came the Crypto Crash. Savings were wiped out. Twitter users quietly removed the ‘laser eyes’ overlay from their profile picture. People went to jail. Is Crypto the DeLorean of payment systems? Or is its time in the sun yet to come?
There is one technology, however, after years of promising to arrive, and decades of false starts, finally did come good: video calls.
Attempts were made in the 90s to introduce videophones using landline technology, but poor bandwidth left the pictures hopelessly pixelated.
In the early 2000s, before the advent of smartphones, telecom provider Three burst onto the scene offering video calls on mobile phones — but the tech still wasn’t quite there, with bandwidth and handset battery issues still a blocker to mass adoption.
But then the pandemic came: Zoom and Teams became standardised. Telephones were removed from office desks. The rest is history. Sometimes a tech is just waiting for the right opportunity to shine.
These three technologies — voice, driverless and crypto — are at a fork in the road. Will they become the 3D cinema of their time? A boulder continually pushed uphill, only to roll to the bottom once more? Or will they be the new ‘video calls’? Waiting in the wings for decades, but finally finding a use case.
What’s the lesson for brands in all of this?
Innovation is compulsory, but you can be innovative without being faddish.
Embedding innovation in your organisation means embracing a mindset that seeks to fully understand a technology’s future path and its proper use case.
Do this and your chances of finding a technology’s optimal role in your marketing increases – rather than charging headlong into a tech territory in a frenzy of FOMO-driven overreaction.
Technology will play a part in the future of advertising and marketing. Of that there is no doubt. But we need to be more discerning about which technologies we are backing — and how we can use them to their maximum potential.
Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK and the author of Hit the Switch: the Future of Sustainable Business. He writes a monthly column for The Media Leader about the future of media and tech.