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5 amazing technologies that are yet to find their killer apps

The history of innovation is essentially a love story. For any new technology to be embraced and find mainstream success, it first must find its soulmate, that one killer app that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and eventually makes its existence seem as if it were always inevitable.

Think of long-vaunted, and long-stalled, augmented reality (AR) and the overnight impact of Pokemon Go, though there are hundreds of examples — from the marriage of smartphones and apps to the mix of greater data availability and better computing power that has given a huge boost to deep learning neural networks.

As with humans, innovations face a cruel reality: There are only so many available matches out there, and finding The One before the last dance is a duel with the laws of statistics and being at the right place at the right time.

History is peppered with tales of great, sometimes potentially earth-shifting innovations and technologies that just never managed to find a killer app to nudge them over the edge. Thus, potentially earth-shifting tech has often sat on the shelf, its potential squandered due to the cruel rules of the marketplace.

Here are a few incredible technologies, in various stages of maturity and fame, that are poised for success, but still waiting to find Mr. or Ms. Right.

Bitcoin

While its relatively short life span has all the elements of an excellent spy novel — mystery! illicit markets and heists! the Winklevoss twins! — Bitcoin is, to true-believers, a story about a revolutionary tech able to break up the global stranglehold of big industry banks, like a financial version of Tucker.

Alas, despite interest from big banks and easing resistance from government agencies and states, it’s been seven years since the digital cryptocurrency‘s launch and Bitcoin still hasn’t reached a tipping point.

As of this writing, the currency’s value is once again on a tear, and if Wired is to be believed, 2016 just may be the year Bitcoin hits it big. Or not — complicating things may be the emergence of Ethereum, an alternative digital currency that has already skyrocketed to a billion-dollar market cap.

Smart Home

The past few years have seen enthusiasm for smart home devices, sparked arguably by the dark horse success of the Nest Learning Thermostat, which launched to accolades in 2011.

We’re currently experiencing a gold rush, with a flood of supposedly smart products of every stripe appearing, not only from big names but also startups. And yet the clutter of competing platforms and wireless protocols — there’s Z-Wave and Zigbee and Clear Connect and Insteon and Control4 and Savant and Nest and HomeKit and on and on — have left consumers in an understandable quandary.

For new technology to find mainstream success, it first must find its soulmate — that one killer app that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts

Currently Amazon’s Echo speaker and its virtual assistant Alexa are the darlings of the smart home by allowing otherwise incompatible devices and hubs to play nice together — with the added benefit of being voice controlled. With a growing ecosystem, Alexa and the devices the work with it offer great potential, but the combo is still a far cry from being able to usher in the proverbial, Jetsons-style, no fuss, fully automated smart home.

3D printing

There is no question that 3D printing is both a viable group of technologies and also incredible — it’s truly the stuff of sci-fi dreams.

There are untold dozens and dozens of consumer 3D printers of good to great quality available on the market, and yet the promise of a 3D printer in every home now seems like a punchline. The most visible stumble came this past spring the darling of the category, Makerbot, closed down its US manufacturing and sent production to China. But the reality is that despite all the seeming (over)promise and potential of 3D printing, non-enthusiast civilians have yet to find them useful enough to buy in — no matter how incredible the tech, they’re still too much work compared with the Star Trek-style replicator we all envisioned, and just 275 000 desktop models were sold in the past year (to put that in perspective, in some quarters Apple has sold some 600 000 iPhones per day).

The flip side to the 3D dilemma, is that so-called additive manufacturing is experiencing real and sustained growth and adoption, and one particular business may prove to be killer after all: printing of after-market parts for repairs.

One intriguing illustration in a recent Wohler report suggests a scenario where a jet-engine might be able to self-diagnose damage and then automatically order a 3D printed part for delivery by the time the plane lands. Killer indeed. Perhaps the a new role for the Maytag man?

Virtual Reality

Perhaps no technology has been so anticipated, and so ruthlessly maligned, as virtual reality. For literally decades now, especially since the work of Ivan Sutherland in the 1960s, its arrival and subsequent domination has been all but a given.

Yet time and again whatever latest update of VR appears is unable to seal the deal. Currently things look as promising as could possibly be imaginable, with a host of VR viewers coming to market following the enthusiastic reception of the Kickstartered Oculus Rift in 2012, and Google’s release of its inexpensive Cardboard VR viewer in 2014.

Since then, Oculus has been joined by big-name models from Sony’s PlayStation VR, Samsung’s Gear VR, and HTC’s Vive, among others, and hype is once again on fire with assurance that this time VR will finally arrive in a meaningful way. That may be true — all VR needs is to find its Pokemon Go. If not, VR just may end up like 3DTV.

Smart Cars

Similar to the smart home and jetpacks, an intelligent auto is a concept that has been brewing since not long after the advent of the internal combustion engine.

Things seemed to finally move forward in the last decade with Microsoft’s efforts and Ford SYNC, among other platforms that promised to up the IQ of the AV and control systems of your car so they approach modernity. And both Apple and Google have a toe in the water, with CarPlay and Android Auto, which are now available on some 100 current models of cars yet still aren’t robust truly intelligent systems — most cars remain pretty stupid, and pretty frustratingly similar to cars we drove a decade ago.

Tesla is obviously at the vanguard of truly smart cars, thanks not only to its custom Linux-based OS which allows for touchscreen control of your car’s electronic systems, but also its Autopilot technology, which for better or worse has been the subject of a lot of anti-smart-car headlines lately.

Google’s self-driving car project has been humming along as well, and with Uber investing in a driver-free future, it just may be that the smart car’s killer app is already here, it just needs a better (and driverless) car.

That’s a thrilling prospect, no doubt, tempered only by knowledge that the complications of developing foolproof and safe AI, as well as basic infrastructure issues, mean even optimistic estimates put driverless cars a half-decade away or more.

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