Video calls have been with us for a while. Except, they were rarely used. IME, people sometimes had Skype calls with relatives abroad and that's about it. And then, COVID happened. Suddenly, Zoom skyrocketed, with Google Meet not far behind. The reason is obvious.

Now, the time of lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings is over, the incentives to do video calls are (AFAICT) more or less the same as pre-COVID, and yet video calls persist. They became a completely routine way of doing business meetings, academic seminars and occasional social events. Why? AFAICT it's just the initial adoption barrier: once everyone did lots of video calls, and realized they are actually pretty convenient, they just kept using them.

So, here's a fun question: What other things are like video calls in the pre-COVID era? That is, the technology exists (more or less: maybe the UX needs some trivial improvements), the use-cases exist, only nobody uses it just because they're unaware or because it's not a "normal" thing everyone does. Given something to create initial adoption (like COVID did for video calls), everyone would start using it and never go back.

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there’s a thing called a “bed wetting alarm” that helps with night-training (little kids learning to not pee in their sleep). As far as I can tell, everyone who actually uses one seems to think it works really well and was really happy they did so. It’s simple and inexpensive. But nobody uses it as Plan A for night-training, or even Plan B, or even Plan C. People seem to only use these things as a last resort when they’re absolutely desperate. Like, I suggested it to my wife and she said something like: “oh, it’s totally fine that night-training takes a while, our kid is still young, don’t worry, you shouldn’t feel like you’re desperate”. And then I brought it up to my mother, and she said the same thing. And then I brought it up to the pediatrician, and she said the same thing. None of them offered any actual reason not to buy the damn alarm. Worse than that, it was as if it didn’t even occur to them that offering such a reason might be warranted. The whole experience was surreal.

I used the alarm as a little kid. It annoyed me, but I recognized that it was fair, since all I had to do was stop wetting the bed and it'd stop waking me up. It did help me learn.

I'm not familiar with that system but it may be they're not looking at it through a lens of "doing it the most efficient way" and see the benefit in allowing the children time to learn it by themselves, even if it's less efficient.
(I often catch myself thinking about the most efficient way to do something and then realize that's not the point for that situation.)

A big one that comes to mind is embryo selection for intelligence.

Brain implants and/or genetic modification via viral vector for improvement of brain function (e.g. treating intractable depression). 

Infrared dispersing paint/materials for roofs in hot climates.

CLARITY for room-temperature-stable brain tissue preservation that allows for repeatable non-destructive imaging.

The 'Silver Lining' ocean water cloud spraying for reflecting sunlight over tropical oceans in order to reduce global warming.

Biochar. Burning cellulose-rich agricultural wastes into charcoal, generating energy and sequestering carbon (the inorganic charcoal lasts tens of thousands of years in soil without breaking down, unlike just composting the cellulose which causes it to lose carbon to CO2). The resulting charcoal can then be impregnated with ammonia for a slow-release fertilizer which delivers fertilizer more efficiently to crops and thus reduces the total amount of fertilizer needed.

Treating burying used plastics in deep well-designed landfills as a good thing for the environment, because it's an efficient way to do carbon sequestration.

Having a country that not only doesn't limit, but actively recruits and sponsors immigration (including granting full citizenship rights without requiring previous citizenship be revoked) from anyone who scores above threshold on an IQ test or has a track record of impressive academic or entrepreneurial achievement and is at least a decade below retirement age. They are valuable users to be acquired! Countries should vie for these like apps vie for users! 

Land Value Tax

Approval Voting (or, failing that, then at least Ranked Choice voting)

Better dam infrastructure management, like letting high-turbidity flows pass through during heavy precipitation events to reduce sediment deposition behind the dam.

and many more not coming to mind right now. This is kind of a pet peeve of mine. So many good ideas out there that I have no idea how to get the world to start using.

I think a lot of these technologies are very promising, but in most/all cases, I don't think they're analogous to Zoom, in terms of being available right now, for no money, to the average person, able to be used at will, and offering a highly favorable risk/reward ratio.

  • Embryo selection and brain implants/genetic modification are still relatively immature technologies, and are perceived by many as having serious moral problems (I disagree with this perspective, but it's very common AFAICT).
  • I don't know how common cool roof products are, but they've been in commercial use for 20 years. They're just not perfect for many use cases: they can increase bills in cooler climates, they can promote mold growth via increased condensation on roofs, they can increase the severity of heat islands when a lot of roofs have cool roof coatings, and they cost $.75-$3 per square foot, with the average US house having a 1700 square foot roof (so a $1275-$5100 investment). In the hottest most humid parts of the US, an annual AC bill is about $525 (source), so it might take 2-10 years to pay off even in the hottest parts of the country.
  • CLARITY is very cool tech that I hadn't heard of before, but there's,
... (read more)
4Nathan Helm-Burger5mo
Yeah, that's fair. I didn't adhere well to the question, I mostly used it as an excuse to rant about ideas-I-wish-would-be-adopted.
Also fair! I learned about some interesting new technologies, so thanks :)

Treating burying used plastics in deep well-designed landfills as a good thing for the environment, because it's an efficient way to do carbon sequestration.

This. People seem totally confused when I say that plastic bags were not an environmental problem in developed countries because they were usually deposited in land-fills and this CO2 neutral.

Developed countries ship a lot of their trash overseas and don't deposit it in deep well-designed landfills on their own territory. 
3Nathan Helm-Burger5mo
Then that waste stream doesn't count. That's why I had to be specific about the goodness of well-designed landfills.    On the flip side, a lot of recycled plastic gets shipped elsewhere, and ends up just getting dumped in a low-quality landfill if it's not valuable enough to actually bother recycling, so recycling isn't a guaranteed fix to the issue either. If you care, you just have to look up your municipality's waste stream practices in detail. 

Brain implants and/or genetic modification via viral vector for improvement of brain function (e.g. treating intractable depression).

Wait this sounds really cool.

>Can I get this personally?

I wish! Very limited clinical trials only at this point. And that's after like 20 years of needless delay after we had the basic tech and knowledge to do it. Medical research moves so frustratingly slow.

here's a link to a news post about a recent advance:

Checklists. It seems obvious that they work, but I almost never get a literal piece of paper with boxes to check, even where doing so would be simple and cheap, especially compared to the potential costs of skipping some step and doing it wrong.

There are many ways to do checklists wrong, though. They can easily lead to bureaucracy is not applied correctly. Maybe that's why many people got burned by them. Checklists must be short. 

Agreed, I read at least part of The Checklist Manifesto, and they are super helpful and underrated. Even for processes which seem most amenable to a checklist (clear steps that don't change much), a checklist is still often missing.

Full agree. I use checklists all the time in research, and there is a big difference between an actual checklist and an almost-a-checklist research protocol. They are easy to make, available to anybody right now, and way neglected.

I'm interested in hearing more about almost-a-checklist protocols and what's up with them.
A lot of protocols are written in recipe format: a list of steps, and maybe a list of reagents. A lot of individual steps are actually compound, and there are extra steps that are useful and important but not written (ie check if you’re low on reagent X and order more if so). It’s easy to lose your place in the protocol (did I add buffer Y already?), to skip implicit steps (did I already mix the buffer in?), or to leave things out (ie the middle bit in a single instruction). You can add check boxes to such a protocol, but it’s easy not to think of that.

What is distinctive to me about Zoom is that the technology was:

  • Mature
  • Cost no money
  • Was widely available and fairly intuitive for the average person to use
  • Had no regulatory barriers or moral issues
  • Can be used in full form by mutual agreement among one or a few people (technically, you can approval vote on anything with your friends, but the central use case is for elections and so it would not count for this criteria)
  • Saved a lot of money and time
  • Had an immediate payoff
  • Played relatively well with the existing format of meetings
  • Appealing largely to people in the developed world with high access to information about useful new products and services
  • Potential daily users in the hundreds of millions

I think your analysis is correct that it really was just a cultural normalization step that was preventing us from adopting it at mass scale.

I also think that technologies with all these properties are very rare. In fact, I am about 75% confident that no other equivalently long-neglected technology or product exists that also has all these properties. In other words, my one-word answer is "None."

I am a poor recent grad, so I can't stake a lot of money on this. But just to make it fun, I'll donate $10 to the Against Malaria Foundation if anybody can propose a technology that is "like Zoom pre-COVID" in terms of being neglected while having all the attractive properties I list above (by my lights, but I'll be somewhat generous in interpreting proposals - digging up technologies that are fairly compatible with this framework is more important to me than hanging on to my $10).

I'm not counting checklists or landfills because they are already mentioned here and because I think the benefit to the average person probably still isn't that great in most cases.

Electric bikes are vastly under-utilized even in European cities where they are safe and effective to use:

  • Mature: bike more than 100 years old, electric motors and batteries also mature.
  • Cost no money: saves a ton on money over a car
  • Was widely available and fairly intuitive for the average person to use: everyone can bike
  • Had no regulatory barriers or moral issues: clearly not illegal nor immoral to ride a bike.
  • Saved a lot of money and time: saves also time because there is no need for separate exercise.
  • Had an immediate payoff: you gain from day 1
  • Played relatively well with the existing format of meetings transportation
  • Appealing largely to people in the developed world with high access to information about useful new products and services: high traffic congestion is common there
  • Potential daily users in the hundreds of millions: even more, around a third of all persons are potential daily users

The only barriers are perceived risk (not clear if the risk of an accident is higher than the benefit from physical exercise in my opinion, it could well be net positive depending on where you live) and that you look "childish" and kind of weird if you bike to work.

I think electric bikes are a pretty good candidate! I own one and it was transformative for biking around Seattle.

  • The ability to trivially climb a hill to get a block away from the main arterial and bike on a little-trafficked road was a huge safety enhancement
  • It deals with even Seattle's huge hills with ease
  • You can go 20 mph, which is often faster than cars, especially during rush hour
  • They are no riskier than a regular bike, and given my point about getting off busy roads, they can even be safer if used well

On reflection, I think my reason for thinking they are not quite comparable to zoom is the following:

E-bikes can be two things: a replacement for a car or bus, or a replacement for a manual bike. As a car/bus replacement, there is a clear tradeoff: they are a whole extra vehicle you must purchase, they are less safe, they are slower in many cases. As a bike replacement, there is also a tradeoff: they are more expensive than many manual bikes, they are very heavy, they become much worse than a manual bike if the battery dies, and they may at least be perceived as riskier or having fewer health benefits.

If I ask a bike-user or a car-user "why don't you use an e-bike for the thing... (read more)

3Caridorc Tergilti5mo
I also asked ChatGPT, here are the six best ideas that it had (excluding electric bikes, as it was already my idea ;P) (cherry picked by me over 21):   Both of them are very reasonable, online education is accessible, almost free, and makes it possible to study even while holding a full time job, from a quick glance a great deal of your requirements are satisfied.  Digital wallets I am less sure about, I never used one, but they look really convenient and easy to use, but I would need more info on how secure they are before starting to use them. Overall, I think all of these ideas kind of fit your point.
This is a nice use case for ChatGPT! In most of these cases, I think that where they don't quite meet my criteria is in terms of the cost-benefit issue or the neglectedness part. Online education is pretty widely used by individuals, exactly as we would hope. It's neglected as a way to signal educational attainment, but that's a problem that can only be handled at the level of corporate or university governance by recognizing Coursera certificates on CVs or building a university around online offerings. Digital wallets seem to have taken off pretty much in step with awareness and size of the user base. Wearable health and home energy management systems don't seem neglected and they face cost-benefit questions. Collaborative writing and editing are already widely used, as are online language learning platforms. I'll throw in another $1 for creative brainstorming for a total of $4 awarded and $6 to go, but I want to save the rest for ideas more stringently meeting my criteria if any can be found.
4Caridorc Tergilti5mo
In my opinion Wearable health is highly neglected because older people are less tech savy than young people, so they use it less than younger people, but they would also benefit much more from the technology. If a 20 year old wears a smart watch that measures and records heart-rate it is almost only for fun, if a 60 year old does it, it could prevent and inform about important issues, but the 20 year old is much more likely to actually use it than the 60 year old.
I think that's a pretty good point, and it tracks with Steven Byrnes' insight about bedwetting alarms. Zoom costs no money, but the most it saves is time and annoyance. It might save lives occasionally, but there's potential for wearable health to save lots of lives and prevent many disabilities. The cost-benefit ratio might be better than zoom's, and yet people may neglect it excessively because it's socially weird to do things like monitor your heartrate - or, when it's available, your blood glucose - routinely using consumer electronics. As with the bedwetting alarm, we have this idea that we should only be using "interventions" like these when there's already a clear problem, rather than as a way to prevent a problem or hasten a solution, and that seems to stem from social norms ("is this really such an emergency?") rather than a rational judgment about costs and benefits. That said, one of my criteria was "Had an immediate payoff," and I think that neither the bedwetting alarm nor wearable healthy typically do have an immediate payoff (unless you were replacing an existing invasive glucose monitor with an Apple Watch noninvasive monitor, once that tech becomes available). With zoom, all people were missing was the suggestion "why don't we have this meeting on zoom" and the perception that "if we do, it will be seen as normal by all participants." With wearable health, you have the added component of "I'm not even sure all this fuss and self-monitoring will even pay off in the long run in terms of better health outcomes, but I have to pay the money and attention costs right now." The delayed and uncertain cost-benefit analysis in individual cases is the reason that wearable health doesn't meet my higher "stringency bar" for being comparable to zoom, even though I agree with you that there are probably a lot of users who'd benefit from it and who are neglecting it primarily for the reason that it's not normalized.
1Noah L.5mo
I believe this in some domains applies to micro-mobility in general.  

I upvoted for karma but downvoted for agreement. Regarding Zoom, the reasons I had not used it more extensively before COVID were:

1. Tech related:  from experience with Skype in the early days of video conferencing when broadband internet was just starting to roll out, video conferencing could be finnicky to get to work. Latency, buffering, dropped connections, taking minutes to start a skype call (usually I would call relatives on my regular phone first to get the Skype call set up, and then we'd hang up our regular phones once the video call was sta... (read more)

These are good points. Regarding lectures, insofar as Zoom was a risky gamble that worked out better than expected, I still think an appeal to social norms is appropriate. In a world full of meetings, lectures and conferences, why wasn’t there enough experimentation to figure out that Zoom was an acceptable 80% solution rather than an unacceptable 50% solution without COVID to force the issue? Your point about tech is a reasonable explanation, although it would turn the OP on its head. If Zoom was maturing as a technology right when COVID hit, then it might not have been “stuck” on early adoption, just made to appear that way by coincidence. We remember the sudden surge of demand, but forget that only a year or two before, video conferencing was much worse. Maybe we’d still have seen Zoomification of lectures and meetings even if there had never been COVID as Zoom’s technology matured in 2019. This would fit with my fundamental perception that it’s extremely rare for a potentially world-changing technology to be stuck long term on early adoption due exclusively to social norms. Usually there’s a collection of issues: high costs, governance problems, moral qualms, technological shortcomings, a small market, and so on.
Why wasn't there enough experimentation to figure out that Zoom was an acceptable & cheaper/more convenient 80% replacement to in-person instruction rather than an unacceptable 50% simulacra of teaching?  Because experimentation takes effort and entails risk.   Most experiments don't pan out (don't yield value).  Every semester I try out a few new things (maybe I come up with a new activity, or a new set of discussion questions for one lesson, or I try out a new type of assignment), and only about 10% of these experiments are unambiguous improvements.  I used to do even more experiments when I started teaching because I knew that I had no clue what I was doing, and there was a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick to improve my teaching.  As I approach 10 years of teaching, I notice that I am hitting diminishing returns, and while I still try out new things, it is only a couple of new things each semester.  If I was paid according to actual time put into a course (including non-contact hours), then I might have more incentive to be constantly revolutionizing my instruction.  But I get paid per-course, so I think it is inevitable if I (and other adjuncts, especially) operate more as education satisficers rather than education maximizers.  Considering that rewards are rarely given out for outstanding teaching even for tenured faculty (research is instead the main focus), they probably don't have much incentive to experiment either.  I do know that some departments at my college were already experimenting with "hybrid" courses pre-COVID.  In these courses, lectures were delivered online via pre-recorded video, but then the class met once a week for in-person discussion.  I still think that is a great idea, and I'd be totally open to trying it out myself if my department were to float the idea.  So why am I still not banging down the door of my department head demanding the chance to try it out myself?  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," "Don't rock the boat," there are a

Here are some examples that aren't free to adopt, but don't cost much extra compared to business-as-usual when it comes time to build or buy something similar, and/or pay for themselves over time.

Waste gasification to make hydrogen, or syngas, or fuels, or chemicals. Renders hazardous and/or non-recyclable material into a valuable commodity at net profit, while freeing up landfill space. Starting to pick up steam slowly, finally. (And before you toss this in the "not available to individuals" bin, there are companies making and selling models that fit in a pickup truck and are scaled to provide a few kW of electric power to a household, farm, or small business. If I had one I'd never have an electric bill and would produce almost 90% less trash by volume).

Having air-source heat pumps for more efficient heating and cooling, or combining heating/cooling infrastructure to save space. People still think this is only viable in a limited set of climates, but that's much less true than it used to be. Becoming more valuable as more people get home solar panels and otherwise cleaner sources of electric power, and as movement away from oil and gas for heat continues.

Drawing/annotation/virtual whiteboard in video calls. If my work laptop had a touch screen and stylus I'd use this all the time.

Prefab construction, especially for houses. Labor is expensive, centralized production is more efficient in labor and materials, quality monitoring and continuous improvement are much more reliable in a factory, and it's mostly zoning/permitting/inspection rules + popular perception of the low quality of existing "mobile homes" that hold this back. See things like log  home kits, some of them are really well designed, full size houses with all different floor plans and high quality materials.

Composting toilets, especially in dry climates.

yes to drawing and annotation.  This has been an itch of mine ever since I got into web dev over a decade ago.  The same way the mouse allowed us to designate "this thing" to the PC without having to literally name it, we could communicate the same way to each other on the web potentially

Routine practice of certain schemas, such as rerouting from negative motivation to the isomorphic positive representation of the same contents.

Very interesting, could you elaborate or give some links?

I wrote a short post on my favorite technique, but lots of therapy modalities talk about similar ideas.

There are a few solutions that have increased capital costs while providing both more convenience and reduced CO2 emissions. 

  1. Orbital Systems Shower - Using sensors that measure how dirty water happens to be + Nanotech filters to reuse 90% of the showering water. In those areas where saving water is important, that framework is much better than the status quo.
  2. Energy recovery ventilation in residential buildings. There are installation costs, but the air quality including CO2 is better. Fewer fossil fuels need to be burned for heating.

Less capital costs:

  1. Automatically open/closing blackout curtains.
  2. InstantPot

Medicine (in desperate cases it makes sense for consumers, but it's more a matter of research):

  1. Given that treatments based on peptide that exist in the normal human blood stream can't be patented, there seems to a bunch of substances that work but aren't used in medical practice.
  2. Phage therapy. Given that you want to use a lot of different phages is different situations approving a single phage doesn't bring you far and as a result it's hard to make the business model work in the current regulatory environment. 


Agreed with all of those. Would love a recirculating shower. Would especially love having a system for recycling sink/shower graywater for toilet flushing and clothes washing machine use. (Additional context: I currently live in an RV and so have extra reasons for wanting to conserve water and power.) 

One issue I have with my InstantPot is that the learning curve for using it well seemed harder than it needed to be. I'm a pretty good cook already all things considered, and am very aware of the underlying physics and chemistry of what a pressure cooker... (read more)

Glasses-free 3D displays.

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When I was a kid (in the 90s) I recall video calls being mentioned alongside flying cars as a failed idea: something which had been technically feasible for a long time, with many product-launch attempts, but no success. Then Skype was launched in 2003, and became (by my own reckoning) a commonly-known company by 2008. My personal perception was that video calls were a known viable option since that time, which were used by people around me when appropriate, and the pandemic did nothing but increase their appropriateness. But of course, other experiences may differ.

So I just wanted to highlight that one technology might have several different """takeoff""" points, and that we could set different threshholds for statements like "video calls have been with us for a while, except they were rarely used" -- EG, the interpretation of that statement which refers to pre-1990s, vs the interpretation that refers to pre-2020s.

The shower water recycle idea is something that I have already bought and tried. They sell these units for those who want to have a shower while camping. They are quite inexpensive and actually would pay for themself with a month of my typical shower usage. So, for this one, it's better than not costing anything: it actually has large potential as a cost saver.

Perhaps this is somewhat off topic, though I have found my robovac to be a great piece of technology. Here again by any reasonable measure of the value of my time the robovac has to be considered a negative cost purchase. 

Remote work/school also seems in this category.