James Dyson, perhaps the best-known British inventor, is most famous for making oddly futuristic-looking vacuum cleaners and hand-dryers that, it has to be credited, actually dry your hands. But on the occasion of his eponymous company’s 21st birthday, Dyson reminds us that good inventors don’t limit themselves to a single market.
They’ve unveiled three designs that never quite made it to market, but which demonstrate that they aren’t just about innovative nozzles and fans. The one which has garnered most attention is known as project N066, or the Dyson Halo—or according to the hype, a kind of ten-year-early Google Glass or Oculus Rift.
While the general idea behind the Halo is admittedly quite Glass-like, it’s necessarily encumbered with the tech of its time. It’s essentially an augmented reality headset, which Dyson describes as “a portable, head-mounted, wearable computer, that could be carried in the user's pocket, but which worked as a communications device and PC.”
We probably wouldn’t consider it that “wearable” by today’s standards; the computer part looks like an old-school Walkman with the headset plugged in like headphones, but worn like glasses. As for how it works, Dyson’s brief presents two tiny monitors at the wearer’s temples that would be reflected by mirrors and prisms to give the effect of a 10-inch screen about a metre in front of your eyes.
As further evidence that the Halo was pretty ahead of the curve, it also boasted voice commands and a Siri-like personal assistant component. As well as having a box in your pocket and a headset, however, you’d also need a watch-type accessory to use as a kind of mouse to control the device. It might only be a decade old, but the design already has a bit of a retrofuture vibe with its wires and boxes. Just check out the font and pixellation on the prototype menu (and probably roll your eyes at the choice of picture for "virtual PA"):
While the Halo was put on hold, Dyson said components from it are still being used in other projects.
The two other newly revealed old inventions are arguably more interesting in terms of potential impact, though less consumer-friendly: a fuel cell, and something dubbed a “Diesel Trap.” Fuel cells—which make energy out of hydrogen and oxygen—are something of an unfulfilled promise in tech innovation. They’ve been around a while, but we haven’t really figured out how to use them broadly and profitably yet. Hydrogen-powered cars aren’t exactly taking over the roads already.
Dyson attempted to use a fuel cell with their digital motor and found they could achieve a “20% increase in power density and improved efficiency.” Not completely abandoned, thw motor's still in the “potential” phase, with further work being done.
The “diesel trap” also has grand ambitions; it’s intended to cut down air pollution from diesel engines. It rather appealingly used the same kind of cyclone technology that’s a trademark feature in Dyson vaccuums, but the particles it filtered were tiny morsels of polluting diesel rather than, say, dust. It looks like the diesel trap never really went anywhere, with Dyson blaming a lack of interest on the part of car manufacturers. A shame, because it's got an awesome jetpack-like look to it.
While none of these ever quite made it, there’s something strangely compelling about abandoned technological prototypes, and the rare glimpse they afford us of the potential futures that never were.