LOSERS: CALLING THE HYPE POLICE

To conclude our annual roundup of Winners and Losers, we reluctantly present the last of the tech candidates that just left us feeling cold after studying them and consulting with our experts. They include a photonic textile display you wear, an ambitious European search engine, and a sensory-assistive device for those with sight loss.

As Senior Editor Harry Goldstein reports in "Loser: Not Ready To Wear", Lumalive from Philips Photonics Textiles, of The Netherlands, is a piece of flexible material studded with 100 inorganic light-emitting diodes and some electronics that displays programmable images on clothing. Goldstein writes that the malleable display is tethered to a case a bit larger than a deck of cards, which houses the controller and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

What's not to like in the Lumalive? "There will be a novelty factor, but it will eventually run its course," Ingrid Johnson, professor of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City, told Goldstein. "People are not going to want it after a while. They'll be asking themselves, 'Do I want to become a human billboard?' The great majority of us probably would not be attracted to it."

Next up is Quaero, a new search engine that French and German government backers hope will provide some Continental competition to Google. Spectrum's Web Editor Philip E. Ross looked into its prospects to challenge the perceived hegemony of the U.S. in Internet search technology in "Loser: What's the Latin For 'Delusional'?" and found Quaero is a misguided attempt to spend government subsidies to summon, by fiat, a body of researchers to rival those of Silicon Valley.

Ostensibly, Quaero would differ from Google, if it comes to fruition, in that it would search images and audio directly, without relying on any accompanying text. Ross writes that it is far too soon to judge the nature of that promise, as its developers, led by electronics giant Thomson, are almost completely silent on their progress. One insider who spoke to Ross for the record, though, said, "People behind it are trying to deal with expectations, which are very high." Daniel van der Velden, a principal at Meta Haven, a firm in Amsterdam preparing a proposal to design Quaero's Web site, told Ross, "Many pointed out that posing it as a challenge to Google is a sure way to fail."

And last but not least (as we really were not that interested in measuring the depths of the hype we encountered) comes the BrainPort from Wicab, a small Wisconsin company. This odd contraption has captured some media attention in the U.S., but Associate Editor Sandra Upson reports in "Loser: Tongue Vision" that the BrainPort is a clear, or maybe fuzzy, example of an idea whose time has truly not come. Its makers say that the BrainPort could one day help persons with visual disabilities perceive the world around them by retraining their neural systems to register stimulation from light via the pathways of the anatomy responsible for taste.

That's right, the BrainPort attempts to substitute stimulation of the tongue to mimic what the eyes do in those with conventional sight. Upson reports that given its estimated US $5000 price tag, however, the numerous doubts about the BrainPort's utility are compounded by questions of whether low-vision consumers will prefer it to other, cheaper assistive technologies.

So, for pushing the envelope beyond its present realistic limits to produce inventions of questionable significance, we nominate Lumalive, Quaero, and the BrainPort as technology losers. Sorry, marketers. These far-out ideas just don't have the needed je ne sais quoi to make it in the real world anytime soon. Our sympathy goes out to all our losers this year.

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