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Ahead Of Their Time: CueCat

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Ahead Of Their Time is a recurring feature by Rollin Bishop focusing on technology from the past that came a little too early for it to be effective, for whatever reason.

These days, folks are used to living in a connected world. As in, a variety of objects ranging in size, purpose, and construction can also have prompts that lead to or interact with online components. This isn’t shocking to anyone with a smartphone, for example, but things weren’t always this simple, and connecting physical goods to digital bits wasn’t always as ubiquitous. As recent as the early 2000s, a device called CueCat did this and yet totally bombed.

The CueCat, or :CueCat, was a cat-shaped (get it?) device that functioned as a barcode scanner. These weren’t just normal barcodes, though, these were special "cues" that only the CueCat could decode. The CueCat itself was useless without being plugged into a computer via USB or, more often at the time, through the PS/2 keyboard port. The "cues" that the scanner read translated into Internet URLs. Read the code, visit a website, basically.

If this sounds familiar, that's because it should. There are any number of different ways for physical objects to interact like this with the Internet from specific URLs to popular augmented-reality games like Ingress. Possibly the most prevalent of these is the QR code, which actually predates the invention of the CueCat but really took off afterward. Unlike the CueCat, QR codes don’t rely on proprietary devices to function, and the rise of smartphones — which can easily capture and translate QR codes — only made them more prevalent.

As for the CueCat, it’s remembered at best as a goofy invention with little use and at worst as an incredible marketing failure that was just one of the many steps to doom for RadioShack, an investor in the company behind CueCat. There’s also CueCat.com, which is apparently run by Dave Mathews, one of the inventors of the CueCat. Mathews notes that untethered concepts, like the Cross-developed pen, were in production, but the floor fell out from under the project before anything further could be realized. He essentially blames the eventual rise of smartphones for the replacing whatever niche CueCat had tried to carve for itself.

But even if that all was too little, too late, the CueCat ultimately had the right idea despite being mocked relentlessly since release. There’s any number of uses for Internet-tied contextual links. Want to learn more about a piece of art from a trusted source? Scan the code at the museum. Want to figure out exactly where you can buy a certain piece of merchandise without having to do any searching? Scan the code. Want to unlock special stories or content about something you’re already enjoying? Scan the code. The idea itself isn’t terrible; it’s just the implementation that folks didn’t care for in the end.

Ultimately, the CueCat remains a laughingstock in popular consciousness. The servers behind the device’s functionality were taken down in January 2002, and since then every single one of the devices has been more or less a glorified paperweight left without its intended function. There’s third-party uses for those that really care, but most folks aren’t looking to find a use for the abandoned CueCat these days.

Photo: CC BY 2.0/Si1very | Flickr

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