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Tech Lab

After hype, some digital devices flopped

Over the next week or so, you’ll read about a host of new digital devices that will transform our lives forever. Or not.

Get ready for the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), kicking off next week in Las Vegas. There, the world’s leading tech companies will introduce “world-changing” products, many of which probably won’t change a thing.

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Some are clearly absurd — Internet-connected refrigerators? But others contain the germ of a good idea, just imperfectly realized.

Over the years, many showpiece technologies from the electronics show have utterly flopped.

These products aren’t doomed — just stifled. And each has a fighting chance to catch on, eventually.

Here are four of my favorite examples from years past:

3-D TV: They were among the most hyped products of our time. So how are 3-D television sets doing?

Lousy. Just 2 percent of us own one, according to IHS Screen Digest; that’s 6.9 million of America’s 331 million TVs. What went wrong?

Plenty. Would 3-D really improve “Two and a Half Men?” Apart from sporting events and a few movies, most shows don’t use it.

Besides, tens of millions of Americans upgraded to HDTV in the past few years. These great-looking sets have a life expectancy of a decade or more; it’s too soon to buy new.

All TV’s will eventually be 3-D compatible, whether we ask for it or not.

But you don’t have to use this feature. And without more and better programs, you probably won’t.

Smart TV: Build a computer into a TV, and you can stream online movies, play games, or browse the Web while lounging on the living room sofa.

Surely we would all want to do that. Except that we don’t. NPD Group, a technology research company, found that 60 percent of smart-TV owners use them to stream Internet movies, and about 15 percent listen to online music streams. But hardly anyone uses the other smart features, such as gaming, social networking, and shopping.

Who would want to run Google searches or peck out a Twitter message on a TV remote control, when they can use a mobile device instead? About 40 percent of Americans who own a tablet computer or smartphone use it while watching TV, according to Nielsen Co.

Smart TVs should add speech-recognition software so you can control them with your voice. I was unimpressed with a voice-controlled TV from LG Electronics that I recently tested. But as the technology improves, our TVs might become smart enough to compete with our phones.

Video calling: Your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer almost certainly has a small front-facing camera. Throw in a broadband Internet connection and software like Microsoft Corp.’s Skype, Google Inc.’s Hangouts, or Apple Inc.’s FaceTime, and you can look at your friends while you chat.

A 2011 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 37 percent of Internet-connected teenagers make video phone calls. ­Microsoft calculates that Skype users worldwide generated 50 billion minutes of video calls in the first three months of 2012. Clearly, video calling is beginning to get some traction, after years of unfulfilled promises.

But the technology still falls far short of its potential.

The leading video calling programs don’t talk to each other. It is as if AT&T phones wouldn’t connect to Verizon Wireless customers. Besides, you need a high-speed Internet connection, and about one-third of Americans don’t have one at home.

And if you video-chat via smartphone, you can quickly burn through your data plan. Fix these problems, and video calling will truly catch fire.

Ultrabooks: Thin, lightweight, and powerful, these elegant computers running Microsoft’s Windows operating system were supposed to revitalize the laptop market. Not quite. Research firm IHS iSuppli expected sales of 22 million Ultrabooks in 2012. By year’s end, they had cut that estimate in half.

Ultrabooks skimp on features — a lack of USB ports and the absence of an optical drive are common complaints. Their use of flash memory instead of traditional hard drives means they can carry less data. And Ultrabooks generally cost $900 or more. You can easily find bulkier but more capable Windows machines for $300 less.

The success of Apple’s MacBook Air proves there is a market for sleek, driveless laptops. But Apple fans don’t mind paying extra; Windows users think differently. Ultrabooks will do just fine, but only if the price comes down.

So if you’re expecting the next big thing in consumer electronics next week, you could be right. But it will be years before you know for sure. Big things take time to grow.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Watha. 
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