The 9 Most Bizarre Computer Peripherals
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 26 November 2016.
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 26 November 2016.
It's hard to believe, but before a touch screen took over as the input device of choice, you used to have to buy a whole bunch of junk for your computer. Not just keyboards and mice but dongles, plug-ins, and peripherals that did all sorts of things.
There's always been a culture of gadget fetishism in computer culture. Software is fun, but buying hardware is where the real endorphin rush gets us. So it's not surprising that enterprising companies pushed out lots of cool junk for us to buy and jam into our USB (or SCSI) ports.
Some of those things became vital parts of our setup, but others faded into obscurity. In this feature, we'll share with you nine of the quirkiest, weirdest peripherals that ever hit the market.
1. Raildriver Train Cab Controller
One of the biggest drivers for the peripheral market is gaming. While you can play just about everything with a keyboard and mouse, some software needs a little something extra for the full experience. And if you're hardcore into train simulations, you want your choo-choo to be as realistic as possible. Enter the Raildriver Train Cab Controller, a deeply insane control device that consists of accurate switch, throttle and brake controls coupled with 34 chunky programmable buttons. It's probably only a matter of time before somebody tries to play Dark Souls with this thing.
2. Alphagrip iGrip
The thing with a good game controller is that it should have only the buttons it needs and nothing more. Think about the classic Nintendo game pad - as more buttons and joysticks got added over time, casual players got less and less comfortable. We can only imagine what they'd say if you showed them the Alphagrip iGrip, easily the most overloaded game controller in recent memory. When the manufacturer of a controller tells you it will take at least 30 hours for you to learn how to use it, you know you're in for something intense. In addition to the trackball and buttons on the front, there are 18 "rocker" switches on the back corresponding to letters of the alphabet so you can type as you game. Throw in six Shift keys and you've got a controller you need a PhD to operate.
3. USB Ghost Radar
The advent of USB ports made the computer peripheral market explode - no longer did devices have to work with individual operating systems. As long as they could tap power from a port, they worked. Some USB devices are essential (we don't know what we'd do without flash drives), but others are just goofy as hell. Meet the USB Ghost Radar, a plastic device with an array of lights and speakers that claims to detect paranormal entities in the vicinity and alert you of their presence. Exactly what technology this thing is using to pinpoint restless spirits is beyond our capacity to understand.
Sometimes peripheral manufacturers have too much confidence for their own good. The Digital Convergence Corporation brought the CueCat to market in 2000 to fill a need nobody knew they had. The device was a barcode scanner, like the kind they use at grocery stores, but it plugged into your home computer. Users would scan codes on articles or catalogs and be taken to websites, which the inventor heralded as a bold new way to surf the web. Millions of the units were produced and companies like Radio Shack signed on, but nobody bought the weird cat-shaped peripherals and they quickly went out of business. In 2005, one retailer announced they had two million of the things for sale at thirty cents apiece.
5. OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator
Let's be frank: having to use our hands to control our computer is pretty dated. Aren't we living in the future by now? The OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator claims to capture electrical activity in the brain and translate it into digital signals, but really it's picking up a mixture of skin movement, muscle activity and other stuff. The device was sold from 2008 to 2011 and reviews were pretty unforgiving. The promotional materials advertised that the OCZ could cut your reaction time as much as 60 percent, giving you a competitive edge. Remembering the different facial expressions and "mind fingers" you need to do things is a Herculean task.
6. SafeType Keyboard
In general, there's not a lot of room for innovation in the keyboard market. Sure, you'll get a few companies still making Dvorak layouts, and maybe some with extra function keys and weird stuff for video editors, but most typing devices look pretty much the same. And then there's the SafeType, which is basically what would happen if you invented a medieval torture device you could also compose a resume on. Instead of bending your wrists to type, you hold your arms in front of you with palms facing each other to type on the keys on the outside of the two elevated platforms. Sure, you can't see the keys you're pressing, but you'll figure it out eventually.
7. Zalman FPSGun
Gaming mice are a world of their own, coming with a variety of increasingly weird designs and features to give you max fragability. Probably the nuttiest we've seen is the Zalman FPSGun, which has a form factor to make you feel like you're really holding a weapon in your sweaty mits as you shoot and strafe. The FPSGun vaguely resembles a sci-fi laser pistol that you hold upside down, with an optical sensor on the bottom. Apparently it has pretty good horizontal accuracy but bad vertical, so it's better for old-school games like Doom where you don't have to look up or down.
8. Titan Sphere
Let's stay in the gaming world for a little bit with one of the weirdest controllers we've ever seen. The Titans Sphere hit the market in the late 1990s and promised a totally new way to interact with your favorite games. That was probably true, but the Titan Sphere shows that "totally new" isn't always great. The unit took two standard joystick and button inputs and mounted them on either side of a grapefruit-sized cylinder. The handles could be moved freely in six directions, giving you unprecedented 3D control. Needless to say, this revolutionary new control mechanism didn't catch on.
9. DigiScents iSmell
Our electronic devices have typically been pretty good at stimulating the senses of sight and hearing, and occasionally use vibration to attend to the sense of touch as well. But what about the other two? Having a PC you can taste is probably a ways off, but a few years ago one company tried to introduce a peripheral that would let you smell the Web in all its glory. DigiScents raised a staggering US$20 million in 1999 to bring the iSmell to market. A curved tower that plugged into your PC, the device contained a "database of smells" that it would mix oils to create and release in response to code from websites and emails. They debuted it at CES but iSmell never made it to market, alas.
Top gif image: SafeType ergonomic keyboard. Credit: Image created from ErgoInDemand/YouTube.
[Source: PC Magazine. Top image added.]