A friendly robot named Kuri recently visited the Popular Science offices. The waste-basket sized bot rolled around the cubes making bleep and bloop sounds, trying its best to mimic and illicit familiar human emotions. At the time of the visit, Kuri was more than a year old, having made its debut at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, but the little bot still hadn’t made it to market.
Then, just a few days after Kuri visited our office, Mayfield Robotics (part of the Bosch startup platform) announced that the home robot was on-hold indefinitely. Development stopped and those who pre-ordered would get refunds. Kuri’s bid to become the go-to home companion that dances and takes video of your family doing everyday activities had ended before it ever really began.
This isn’t a totally unfamiliar story. Hardware, as they say, is hard, and getting it to market past various technical and logistical hurdles can put a serious damper on even the most hyped products. Costs change, large-scale production plans introduce new hurdles, and consumer demand and sentiment shifts rapidly.
It’s a problem that crowdfunding platforms, which allow companies to raise money for a product before they even really exist, have been battling since their inception. Last year, Kickstarter started a partner program to help fledgling companies navigate the maze of suppliers, factories, and complex legal certifications to actually put a piece of consumer electronics on shelves and in homes.
For now, Kuri’s future is still relatively uncertain, but things seem grim. Here’s a look back at some other consumer tech products that built-up lots of hype before disintegrating into a cloud of vapor.
“Let me add that to my Palm Pilot” has become a punchline in the the world—a sick burn on someone who says something woefully outdated. But Palm was once relatively mighty. Near the end of its tenure, the company had plans for a $600 laptop-like device that would sync up with the company’s Treo phones for data connectivity. This was 2007, so we were already in the iPhone era, and Palm cancelled the Foleo’s development just three months after its announcement to focus on its handsets. That didn’t work out either, and HP bought Palm in 2010.
There have been recent rumors of folding phones that open and close like a book with facing touchscreens. Microsoft unveiled a similar design in 2008 with a device called the Courier. It had a pair of facing 7-inch screens, as well as wireless connectivity, and a camera. Microsoft stopped working on the project in 2010, but there are rumors that a new device with a similar design and e-ink screens could be coming down the pipe.
“Alexa for babies” sounds like it could have been a square on our CES Bingo game, but it was the basic idea behind Mattel’s kid-oriented smart speaker. The idea was to allow kid-friendly features like automatically detecting and soothing a crying baby with calming sounds or playing alphabet games. Of course, it also allowed for e-commerce functionality like ordering diapers. The public backlash was substantial, sparking petitions and even letters from Congress members to the company. Mattel canceled the product in late 2017.
Polaroid Lady Gaga Camera Glasses
It’s not that often in consumer electronics that a product’s identity is tied so tightly to that of a celebrity. In 2011, however, Polaroid leaned on Lady Gaga to “design” and market a pair of camera-equipped glasses with a display that sat in front of the user’s eyes. Gaga’s celebrity generated considerable hype but the product—known as the GL20—was flummoxing and difficult to use. More than a year after debut, Polaroid insisted it was still working on its plan to produce and distribute the glasses.
Google Project Ara modular smartphone
Manufacturers have made several attempts at building a truly modular smartphone that can swap pieces in and out as technology and user habits evolve. In fact, you can buy a few of them right now, like the Moto Mods and, to a lesser extent, the Essential Phone with its swappable modules. Project Ara started as a Motorola project back in 2013 as part of the Advanced Technology and Products Group. The company touted the product as late as 2016, but eventually pulled the plug on releasing it as a consumer product. It’s not out of the question, however, that we could see a similar tech show up as a licensed product or in some other piece of hardware.