Growing up, I loved magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science for the cover illustrations of future tech and the many inventions that would change our lives. In recent years, websites like Modern Mechanix (blog.modernmechanix.com) have preserved the old covers and articles, showing that while there have been tremendous and very real technical advances, there has also been techno-fantasy and science fiction mixed with the genuine progress.
In the 1980s, the computer industry spawned a novel spinoff on techno-fantasy—one a bit less innocent than those delightful magazine imaginings. Vaporware was the name given to new projects that were announced to fanfare but were subsequently never realized. Sometimes the reason may have been unrealistic projections and estimates of schedules and resources, but in other cases an announced product or development may have been intended just to prop up stock price. A 1990 report by a group of tech companies complained that vaporware had damaged industry credibility.
Vaporware has since spread to other industries and it’s on the fringes of motorcycling. There are no hard rules as to what defines vaporware, but if a new development or design trips your BS meter, you may be looking at vaporware. It takes three forms: projects where there is no hardware built but plenty of realistic images; projects where there is some hardware that is graphically “enhanced” to appear more finished or developed; and projects that have functional hardware but are unrealistically marketed and promoted.
The first form, no hardware but lots of “detail,” is easy to find. Go to Google Images and type in “concept motorcycles.” Often it’s quite difficult to know where computer graphics stop and real metal starts, and that’s the point.
Kickstarter, a successful online funding platform for creative projects, demands that “design and technology projects… must show a functional prototype. Projects developing new hardware or products are also prohibited from using product simulations (and/or) photorealistic product renderings.” Kickstarter is saying, in effect, that illustration has become so good and easy to produce that it now confuses what’s real and what’s not.
The second form of what I’m calling motorcycle vaporware are cases where there is some hardware built, but the presentation materials—technical illustrations, simulations, and detailed specifications—are the result of unrealistic projections. The electric motorcycle field, in which I have some experience, is rife with these kinds of “vaporings,” where wishful thinking may honestly cloud rational thinking.
Finally, there may be techno-fantasies where the “techno” is fully real, but the marketing is a fantasy. In my analysis, that’s the case with the Segway scooter. Its initial marketing said that it would revolutionize personal urban transportation. Although the product works, the Segway remains a novelty. Some of the various one-wheel “motorcycles” currently seen on the web are similarly “real,” but unusable except as novelties.
In a good example of the power of computer graphics to deceive, a Motorcyclist staffer saw this illustration of the Mission R electric bike combined with my RADD front suspension and thought it was real. On reading the e-mail accompanying it he realized: Photoshop! The picture was a what-if, an illustration of what such a bike might look like, and clearly labeled as a Photoshop job.
Those magazine covers with drawings and paintings of future tech that I pored over decades ago were crudely illustrated compared to what can be done now. Today’s technical fantasies can be incredibly realistic, making it a bit strange when we lose sight of the hard line between hardware and vaporware.