The Concept Car

We’re living in the future. Self-driving cars, wrist-worn medical tracking devices, a cell phone with modular parts and pizzas delivered by drones. It’s all here. Except it’s not. The tech industry is slowly awakening to the magic of the concept car.

Long before Google, Apple or Samsung toyed with our dreams, car companies rolled out spectacular dream machines that ignited the imagination. Bubble glass tops, cars powered by gas turbines, cars with 6 wheels, flaps for breaking and joysticks instead of steering wheels. The ideas were only limited by what could be dreamt up.

The press would swoon. The public would ogle. Kids would dream. That was the point and everyone knew it. Clearly labeled as concept vehicles, these cars were rolling adverts of a manufacturer’s design might.

The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone was Harley Earl’s last creation. Pictured above, the car featured a rocket-inspired body, forward-mounted exhaust pipes, and a bubble top canopy that automatically opened with sliding electronic doors. It even had radar operated crash avoidance system, with the radar sensors mounted in twin “nose-cones” on the front of the car. It was from the future. In 1959.

Yet the Cyclone, like countless other concept cars, never hit the production line. And no one expected it to. Concept cars allow vehicle manufacturers to gauge reaction and free its designers from the mundanity of designing the next econ-car. Still today concept cars are an important part of an automaker’s design process — a process that consumer electronic makers would be wise to resurrect.

Early on, consumer electronic makers toyed with concept products as well. They would haul them out to trade shows and keynotes. The press would swoon. The public would ogle. Kids would dream. Then, vaporware. The product never hit the market so the trade-mags and message boards would dig into the company, causing it to rethink showing prototypes.

Yet, companies still doodled and built products never intended to hit the market. This is, of course, part of the process. Engineers and designers have to spitball, but these products are rarely shown to the public now. A company cannot risk a concept gadget marring its image by being labeled as a company that dreams and doesn’t launch.

Concept gadgets still exist, but they’re not clearly labeled like their vehicle counterparts. Google is the master at this. It’s one of the few companies with┬áthe gusto needed to put it all out there. Google Glass, self-driving cars, Project Ara — all concept gadgets that other device makers would have likely kept internal until they were ready. Google has secrets, too, but it’s more transparent about future products than any other hardware maker.

Samsung never intends to release its Simband wearable device. That’s the point. It’s a reference platform, designed to forecast things to come. Samsung likely progressed this platform as far as it could internally. Now it’s sink or swim. Trial by fire. It’s up to devs and the public to demand more.

Sites like Quirky, Kickstarter and Indiegogo took off partly because they gave power to the user. No longer were products hidden behind a veil of secrecy, only displayed when ready. Many larger hardware makers use these sites not for sales, but to get feedback early enough to affect the final product. Razer took to social media and crowdsourced much of the design and function of its gaming tablet. Imagine if Samsung or Microsoft instituted a similar system.

Apple has continuously turned to the jailbreaking community for its iPhone innovations. Countless iPhone features have been jacked from ideas and concepts perfected by third-party developers with nary a credit given. But deep within Apple’s development labs, there are surely pie-in-the-sky concepts and gadgets that would inspire these same devs to expend their cycles working towards a more meaningful world rather than building something other than a more functional lockscreen or homescreen widgets.

The gadget world needs concept cars. We, the press, and you, the public, need to lighten up and allow these giant companies a little more wiggle room. Their halls are littered with fantastic versions of future products that will never get the attention that they deserve. The press would swoon. The public would ogle. And kids would dream and then one day, grow up, and design the next generation of the unimaginable.