We've all had that Christmas gone wrong. The days before instant online reviews and unboxing videos were like the Wild West. All you could glean about a product would be the commercial, the anticipation, and the knowledge that "everyone else would have it."
My personal blunder was Christmas 1995 and the notorious Virtual Boy, Nintendo's tragic "portable" failure designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the genius behind the classic Game Boy. Nintendo poured good faith and money into what ended up being a red-tinted, headache inducing nightmare machine that inexplicably launched with a game based on Kevin Costner's Waterworld. (Fun Fact: The SNES version of Waterworld was developed by DMA Design, who later became Rockstar.)
I begged and pleaded for it and I received it, but that new videogame system smell only held me for so long. Three days of attempted fun playing blood red tennis solo and a bottle of Advil later, I subsequently returned it for a mountain of X-Men toys. Oh and Gunpei? After 31 years with Nintendo he left the company following the Virtual Boy's release and then got hit by a car, dying less than a year after that. It was a cursed system.
But even the Virtual Boy pales in comparison to the CueCat, arguably the most useless, pointless piece of tech to ever exist, but one that is still important to look back on in today's tech landscape.
The early 90s saw a very strange surge in consumer barcode reading technology. In Japan, the Barcode Battler by Epoch was a massive hit.
The Barcode Battler was a card reading LCD game system that allowed scanned barcode cards or barcodes from over the counter products to "fight," based on a generated skill point system made from the barcodes. Naturally, an LCD system with no graphics was a huge failure by the time it hit North American shores.
Still, investors and inventors alike saw promise in what they perceived as a burgeoning home-scanning market. By the late 90s and early 2000s home computers were the norm and marketers were hungry to take advantage of this hot new thing called "the internet."
Enter J. Hutton Pulitzer (or J.Jovan Philyaw, or just Jovan, depending on when you ask him). Jovan was an infomercial production magnate, self-professed 'assaholic' and one-time background actor in a Jackie Chan movie.
In 1996 he launched Net Talk Live (sadly the URL bizarrely links to a Google Video Search now, but WayBackMachine came to the rescue), which claims to be the first "triplecast," a live TV show RealAudio stream and radio show, all airing live at the same time.
Despite its rough edges, for 1996 it was undeniably ahead of its time. It aired for an insane 266 episodes and was syndicated in certain markets. According to himself he is the most prolific inventor since Thomas Edison, based on his patents.
Even with the triplecast and years of infomercial money in place Jovan wanted more. He was convinced that consumer scanning was the future, particularly with the internet. He launched Digital Convergence, a company whose focus was on cracking the consumer home scanning market. With his media contacts in place he was able to raise an insane $185 million dollars, including major investments from RadioShack, Coca-Cola, and Dallas media giant Belo.
The CueCat was the result of those millions. The idea is that you're reading a magazine, you come across a product you're interested in, you scan the CueCat across it and voila, you're instantly at a website with more information.
Now, obviously that raises many questions. If you're already reading a magazine in front of your computer, what problem does this solve? If you're savvy enough to be aware of something like the CueCat already, aren't you the sort of person who would know how to find a product on the internet? Why is it shaped like a cat?
Naturally, it was a colossal failure. PCWorld named it one of the Top 25 Worst Tech Products Of All Time. This was a product that solved a problem that didn't exist. Digital Convergence manufactured over 3,000,000 of them and RadioShack was forced to literally give them away.
To add insult to injury, in late 2000 a security breach was pointed out that revealed users personal names and email addresses. There are, of course, methods of hacking your CueCat to remove this backdoor, if you happen to still be using one. For the record it still works with Movie Collector, if you have a giant DVD collection or something.
It's easy to look back on the CueCat for exactly what it is. However, Jovan & Co do deserve some praise. Internet TV and livestreaming have become commonplace, but in 1996 it was unheard of, for that he and his posse were almost pioneers. Plus, the CueCat is an obvious precursor to the eponymous QR codes that now appear everywhere. He unfortunately started a little too early to truly capitalize on these ideas, but the CueCat still stands as a monument to the dotcom boom.
That being said, do not get anyone a CueCat for Christmas.