The 100 Greatest Innovations Of 2016
Secret Santas, take note
Each year, Popular Science picks the 100 greatest new innovations in science and technology to feature in our Best Of What’s New issue. These are the breakthroughs that will shape the future—and some may even make great Christmas presents.
Ossic X: The Sweet Sound of Virtual Reality
When it comes to virtual reality, video gets all the glory. But hearing in VR—as bullets whiz overhead and floors creak underfoot—is just as key. Heavyweights like HTC and Oculus are working hard on their audio engines, but a San Diego startup is taking multidimensional sound a step further. Ossic’s X over-ear headphones adapt to a listener’s anatomy, creating the most convincing 3D audio effects yet. First, sensors at the top of the ear cups measure your head size to precisely time audio delays between the ears. Four drivers surround each ear, simulating sound that comes from multiple directions. Finally, the Ossic X’s built-in head tracking uses an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a compass to match what you’re hearing to your every move. $299
Virtual Reality for Regular People
Sony Playstation VR Sam Kaplan
The strict requirements of high-def VR gaming require beefy PCs to use. The PlayStation VR makes the experience plug-and-play for Sony’s more than 40 million preexisting PS4 owners. Unlike cheapo phone-based systems (think Google Cardboard), the headset delivers full 1080p images to each eye and a wide 100-degree field of view. Titles like Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One are the closest you’ll get to sitting in an X-Wing. $400
The Easiest-Flying Drone
Parrot Disco Sam Kaplan
If you’ve thrown a paper plane, you can launch the Parrot Disco. Toss the 1.6-pound drone into the sky, and onboard sensors—gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, barometer, and GPS—navigate the fixed-wing craft to 150 feet, where it circles awaiting further command. Users set a course via remote control, and algorithms on board keep the drone on track. A top speed of 50 mph means you won’t be losing any races. $777
Green Screen, Sans the Green
Light-field cameras, which allow users to tweak parts of an image into focus, are increasingly common among consumer cameras. The 755-megapixel Lytro Cinema Camera brings the tech to pro filmmakers, making post-production effects easier than ever. Among the editing tricks it opens up: shifting focus, adjusting film speed, and removing and replacing any part of the background—no green screen required. Prices vary
A Game The Size Of The Universe
No Man’s Sky Hello Games
It took three years to code No Man’s Sky, but it will take you a lifetime to play. The science-fiction fantasy exploration game on PS4 and PC offers ungodly possibility. Its powerful rendering engine can generate 18 quintillion planets—99.9 percent of which you’ll never have time to visit. Your job: Try to see them all while discovering species, trading resources, and surviving the vast expanse of the final frontier that is space. Safe travels! $60
The Most Colorful Picture
LG Signature OLED TV Courtesy LG
Even the best 4K TVs can swallow up details in the darkest and brightest parts of the image. High-dynamic range (HDR)—a catchall term for video encoded with a billions-deep color gamut—brings those nuances into the forefront. LG’s Signature OLED TVs render colors better than any other. The sets support both the HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR standards, so viewers can count on seeing the full rainbow, no matter their content source.From $4497
The Smartest Robot Pet
Anki Cozmo Courtesy Anki
Not all A.I.-powered bots need to be virtual assistants: Some can just keep us entertained. Improving the robotic intelligence of playtime is Anki’s Cozmo. The baseball-size wheeled robot has a facial-recognition camera behind its friendly OLED eyes, allowing it to learn and recognize its near and dear. Sophisticated machine learning helps Cozmo’s personality evolve, while upcoming tools for developers will let them teach it a host of new tricks. $180
Projection On Any Surface
Sony Portable Ultra Short Throw Courtesy Sony
Sony’s 5-inch, laser-based projector turns surfaces into screens. Placed against a wall, the projector shoots up to produce a crisp 22-inch picture. Back up a foot, and that expands to 80 inches. $999
A Hemisphere Of Sound
Yamaha YSP-5600 Courtesy Yamaha
Most home surround sound is two-dimensional, pinging audio front to back and side to side. When it launched two years ago, the Dolby Atmos audio standard added height to the equation; this year, Yamaha’s YSP-5600 became the first to cram the spec into a single speaker. The sound bar’s 32 forward-firing drivers are joined by 12 upward-firing ones, which ricochet sounds off the ceiling like a helicopter flying overhead or birds in a tree. Or simply use the first 7.1.2 channel sound bar to play your favorite tunes off Spotify, Pandora, and more. $1,600
Onboard Axe Effects
Yamaha Transacoustic Guitar Courtesy Yamaha
The acoustic guitar is a perfectly self-contained instrument. No amps, no wires—and no fun for anyone who wants to produce live effects. The Transacoustic Guitar re-creates reverb and chorus, using built-in knobs to control the two. The movement of the strings vibrates an actuator inside the instrument, which alters the guitar’s sound on the fly—no electricity required—granting you on-stage rockstar prowess right in your lap. $999
The First 4K Blu-Ray Player
Samsung 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player Courtesy Samsung
Ultrahigh-def content is coming, and Samsung’s device is the first to handle it all. The player streams 4K video from Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon, along with, of course, playing physical UHD discs. $399
The End of the Language Barrier
The Internet connected us all—but what good is that if we can’t understand each other? Skype’s artificial-intelligence-based Translator is our digital Tower of Babel. It lets us talk to anyone, anywhere, regardless of mother tongue. Made available on Windows in late 2015, Translator uses layers of machine-learning algorithms. When a user speaks, the A.I., drawing on millions of speech examples, analyzes the words and transcribes them into text. The text is then scrubbed of “ums” and word repetitions, and run through a translator. The A.I. is self-learning; the more it “hears” a regional accent or slang, the smarter it gets and the better it functions. Callers can receive audio in eight languages and see transcripts in more than 50. Can you hear us now?
Intelligentx Brewing Company , The First A.I. Brewmaster
Humans have brewed beer for millennia. Intelligentx Brewing Company thinks artificial intelligence should take a shot. Its machine-learning algorithm reads beer recipes like any other brewmaster. But it also learns from you. After drinking one of the brewery’s four beer styles, you tell a bot on Facebook Messenger what you like, don’t like, or want more of, and the A.I. uses your comments to brew the next batch. More data, better brew.
WhatsApp Encryption , 1 Billion Safer People
In April 2016, more than 1 billion cellphone users gained the ability to outsmart the NSA or any third-party snoop when Open Whisper Systems released its WhatsApp end-to-end encryption protocols. Made for voice calls and texting (including photos, videos, and files), users verify their communication is encrypted by either scanning a machine-readable QR code or comparing a 60-digit code with their fellow security-obsessed communicant.
Numinous Games’ That Dragon, Cancer : A Game That Will Break Your Heart
When game developer Ryan Green’s son, Joel, was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 1, Green turned to his medium to work through it. The result is a soul-twisting video game that lets players experience the ups and downs the Greens went through during Joel’s four-year battle—the challenge of comforting a child in pain, the joy of story time, and the grief of dealing with his death. “My favorite moments are the moments where you can be with Joel,” says Green. “To play with him, hear him breathe, or hear him laugh, those moments I like the most.”
Snapchat Lenses : AR’s Big Moment
It wasn’t Pokémon Go. It was Snapchat’s Lenses—object recognition and real-time special effects that let you change your on-screen eye color, superimpose faces, wear animal “masks,” and place scenes around an image.
Microsoft and Univ. of Washington DNA Storage: The Densest Data
Instead of server farms, the entire Internet may one day be the size of a shoe box. That’s what researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington proved in July, when they encoded 200 megabytes of digital files into the building blocks of DNA—breaking the previous 20-megabyte record. They did it using a type of enzyme called polymerase, which makes copies of DNA in a programmable way and allows any part of the DNA string to be read.
Google Daydream Labs , Creating VR in VR
Daydream Labs lets developers animate and build virtual reality not on a flat computer screen, but for the first time inside VR itself. They can interact, socialize, offer feedback, and use hand controllers as their virtual creations rise up around them.
Boots with a Grip
Vibram’s Arctic Grip is a new type of rubber shoe sole that stops feet from slipping while walking or running on the most treacherous ice. Vibram designed the treads to mimic polar bear paws, which have tiny papillae and curved claws to increase friction (and thus traction) on ice. Arctic Grip—which debuted on shoes from six brands, including Saucony and Wolverine—uses an array of lugs crafted out of a unique ice-grabbing rubber compound to increase traction. When the wearer steps, the compound causes a split-second melt-then-freeze reaction; melting disperses the ice, and freezing against the textured sole creates more surface area for the lugs to grab onto. Styles from $150
The Safest Ski Helmet
Giro Avance MIPS Ski Helmet Sam Kaplan
Two milliseconds is all it takes to injure the brain in a collision. Giro’s Avance does more than any other helmet to protect our gray matter. The helmet utilizes Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS), a burgeoning head-safety technology. It allows the wearer’s head to move inside a helmet like a ball in a socket. An inner shell holds the head steady while the outer shell rotates. This movement deflects the forces that cause the worst brain injuries. For extra measure, Giro made the inner shell of premium foam to protect against successive impacts. $600
OnCourse Goggles: GPS for Swimmers
It’s tough for open-water swimmers to cut through waves in a straight line. OnCourse Goggles keep them on track, no surfacing necessary. To set a route, a swimmer sights a way-point and clicks a button to lock it into an electronic compass and shore up the path. Green, yellow and red LEDs in the corner of each eye provide direction. Green in both means on course, red in the right eye means veer left, and vice versa. $200 (est.)
BSX LVL Wearable Hydration Monitor: Dehydration Detector
Even professional athletes are terrible at staying hydrated. So BSX created the wrist-worn LVL, the first wearable to measure hydration in real time. Other wearables make surface measurements close to the skin, but LVL uses near-infrared light to peer beneath it and record changes in blood color, which are indicative of hydration levels. If the wearer is dehydrated, it alerts them with an on-screen message. Drink up! $199
Better Grip, Faster Swing
Axe Element Hyperwhip Baseball Bat Baden Sports
Round bats with round handles are as old as baseball. Now there’s a bat with a handle like an axe. Its ovular shape provides a better grip, and the tapered end protects from injuries when clobbering fastball after fastball. (Click here to find out what a pro thinks.) $225
Aircraft-Grade Golf Club
Callaway XR16 Driver Callaway
Callaway wanted a driver that could slice through the air like a jet, so it turned to Boeing. Tiny ridges on the XR16’s club head cut air resistance by 30 percent over Callaway’s next-best driver. Faster swings add distance to drives. $350
Hydra-Light PL-500 Saltwater Light and Charger: Beachside Power for Gadgets
There are no outlets at the beach, but there is plenty of salt water. The Hydra-Light turns seawater into juice for a lantern or USB-powered devices. In the reservoir, a magnesium alloy rod slowly oxidizes in salt water, releasing electrons in the process. A carbon-based cathode grabs and funnels those electrons to connected gadgets, providing more than 250 hours of power for illumination or charging electronics. $60
Wearable Shark Repellent
Muscles emit tiny electrical pulses as they contract. Receptors in a shark’s snout detect these minute signals when animals move through water, helping Jaws stalk its prey. Sharkbanz—a predator-repelling wristband—contains powerful magnets that scramble a shark’s ability to read these signals—almost like getting a bright light shone in your eyes. But don’t worry: It doesn’t hurt the animal. $65
The North Face Hyperair GTX Jacket: No-Sweat Rain Jacket
Waterproof jackets might keep rain out, but runners and cyclists still end up soaked—in sweat. The North Face and Gore-Tex have made an ultralight waterproof shell that breathes. The fabric has a microgrid backer that airs out perspiration. As sweat condenses, the grid lets it out as vapor. It also has a membrane that’s tight enough to make sure water beads on the outside. Once the storm passes, the jacket can be shoved into a pocket. $249
The Drone Catcher
The majority of the half-million drones registered with the FAA are harmless. Then there are the flame-throwing ones that star on YouTube. The SkyWall 100 shoulder-mounted net launcher is law enforcement’s best bet for grounding those malicious fliers. The gun, which uses auto-aiming software to lock onto targets up to 330 feet away, can fire three types of projectile nets: one that captures the drone, one with a parachute to lower it to the ground, and one that also jams the craft’s electronics. It can nab drones flying as fast as 23 miles per hour and weighing up to 6.6 pounds (twice a DJI Phantom 4).
In a recent demo for the U.S. Army, SkyWall hit targets in 10 out of 11 shots. Sorry, backyard commandos: This one’s only for professionals.
Knightscope K3: Autonomous Robot Mall Cop
Robotic guards already patrol empty lots at night, but navigating constantly changing indoor environments is trickier. The 4.3-foot-tall K3 robot uses multiple lidars (the laser range-finders on self-driving cars) and other sensors to build live maps and find its way around shopping malls, offices, and server farms. Soon this R2D2 of building security will get facial-recognition to compare suspects to a database of people it knows. For hire from $7/hour
Metasensor’s Sensor-1: Motion Sensors for Your Stuff
Most object trackers can help you find something you’ve already lost. The Sensor-1 lets you know when you’re about to lose it. Armed with an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, the quarter-size device alerts you to your gadget’s slightest movement. Connected to a phone or other device via Bluetooth, the trackers can catch snooping houseguests or stop laptop thieves while you’re getting a latte. $79
Scott Safety’s Scott Sight: Firefighter Super Vision
Hand-held thermal cameras have guided firefighters through smoke-filled buildings since the ’90s. Scott Sight moves the camera and display into a face mask, freeing first responders’ hands for more important things, like saving lives. $1,875
Roost Smart Battery: Not Just a Battery
Downed smoke detectors lead to almost 900 fire-related deaths a year. Roost’s Wi-Fi-enabled 9-volt battery will alert you when it’s about to die—no more annoying chirps. Plugged into any old smoke detector, Roost sends alerts to a companion smartphone app if the alarm goes off while you’re away. It can also talk to other smart-home gadgets, so it can carry out tasks like automatically unlocking the front door for firefighters. $35
Broadband Discovery’s Ronin, An Eagle-Eyed Checkpoint
Last December, New Orleans Saints fans passed between pylons embedded with security scanners that work faster and are more thorough than ordinary metal detectors. Adapted from military checkpoints, Ronin uses magnetic and pulse-induction sensors, which record minute changes in a magnetic field, to spot contraband and weapons. By reducing the need for pat-downs, Ronin could make lines at public venues move up to five times faster.
Red Balloon Symbiote Defense, Universal Anti-Virus
The more gadgets we put online, the more backdoors we give hackers into our data. The Symbiote Defense software protects anything—from printers to cars—regardless of their operating system. The program can spot malicious activity and remove threats continually. Developed with support from DARPA and Homeland Security, Symbiote debuted on HP printers this past fall, and more devices will roll out next year.
DARPA and Office of Naval Research: Sea Hunter, The Military’s First Drone Ship
The Sea Hunter warship is probably big enough for a human crew, but it doesn’t need one. It’s the armed force’s first ship designed to autonomously patrol the sea in search of submarines—a task too vast and tedious for even a ship full of trained human sailors. Sea Hunter‘s custom navigation algorithms ensure the 132-foot-long craft obeys maritime right-of-way rules to avoid collisions with other vessels. If a two-year trial is successful, the Navy might consider developing drone ships for other tasks, such as deactivating unexploded mines.
Qualcomm Snapdragon Sense ID, Unhackable Print Scanner
Hackers have shown they can trick common biometric scanners with faked fingerprints. The SenseID sensor makes that nearly impossible. It ultrasonically scans a fingerprint’s depth, reading a detailed 3D map of every nook, cranny, and pore.
A Tunnel Through The Alps
In 1999, the Swiss government broke ground on the most ambitious tunnel-building project in history. The dual-tube Gotthard Base Tunnel, which opened in June, follows a route that has a long history of schlepping people and goods over the Alps—it just happens to do it as deep as 1.5 miles below the icy massifs. Thanks to the precision of boring machines with 29.5-foot heads, engineers excavated 31 million tons of rock (60 percent of which was recycled into the tunnel’s lining) to dig the 35-mile train passage, ushering in an era of efficient travel between points in Europe. Passengers can rocket from Zurich to Milan in three-and-a-half hours (down from just over four), and the shift of freight from roads to rails could put a real dent in air pollution. All aboard!
Foster + Partners’ Zayed National Museum: Underground Oasis
To beat the heat in the United Arab Emirates, this museum’s galleries will be subterranean. Meanwhile, towers inspired by falcon wings will allow rising hot air to escape, while drawing cooler air into the structure.
Mack Rides Pulsar: Next-Level Waterpark
Artificial log flumes in theme parks are so yesteryear. So, a German ride-design firm has brought the waterworks to a natural setting. They drained (then refilled) a lake to lay the foundation for a U-shaped roller coaster that rockets into the water at 60 miles per hour, creating a tsunami-like wave that drenches riders. Thrill-seekers swoop through the U twice before the force of the splash slows down the car.
Gensler’s Shanghai Tower: An Extra-Green Skyscraper
The bigger the building, the harder it gets to efficiently heat and cool the interior. So architects gave the world’s second-tallest skyscraper, which opened this year in Shanghai, a double-walled facade that “acts as a thermos, keeping occupants warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” according to project director Grant Uhlir. The twisty shape creates room for 21 “sky gardens” that reflect the natural landscape and purify the internal air.
Penn State CRISPR-Cas9 for Food: ‘Shrooms with Shelf-Life
Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste, often due to spoilage. A plant pathologist at Penn State used the versatile gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to design a button mushroom that resists browning, might have a longer shelf life, and could ultimately cost the same as regular old ’shrooms. Though the product is not yet on sale, the tech behind it skirted USDA regulation last spring, paving the way for future gene-edited groceries.
ThyssenKrupp MULTI Elevator: Elevators That Go in Any Direction
Elevator shafts often take up half of a skyscraper’s footprint, and the steel cables that carry them up and down limit how high the cars can travel. These constraints can be a major buzzkill for forward-thinking architects, who might want to design taller and wider. Enter MULTI, an elevator system that levitates—vertically, horizontally, and diagonally—atop tracks embedded with powerful magnets. Scheduled to begin testing in Germany early next year, MULTI will allow for indefinitely taller, wider, and more creatively designed towers.
Columbia + Univ. of Iceland: CarbFix, A Speedy Way to Store C02
Capturing carbon from the atmosphere is an alluring solution to our climate woes, but we need to figure out how to store it quickly and permanently. CarbFix —a system currently in use at one power plant in Iceland—dissolves greenhouse gases in water, and then pumps them into nearby basalt-laden volcanic rock, where both convert into limestone within a few years. The ocean floor is rich in basalt, so the method could scale worldwide.
MIT + Caltech: Advanced LIGO, A Microphone for the Universe
LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, first ran a decade ago to detect gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime, some of which date to the Big Bang. This year, an upgraded system called Advanced LIGO, which is much more sensitive, confirmed one of Einstein’s biggest predictions—on its first run. Observing these waves lets scientists plot the history of the universe and spot events like supernovas.
TEB Technology Transit Elevated Bus: Traffic-Straddling Bus
It remains to be seen if China’s straddling bus—which scoots over the same roadways as cars, on tracks embedded in the pavement—is practical. But it’s a bold idea for cities congested with traffic and pollution.
Biologists want to make artificial organs. But to do that, they need a deep understanding of how muscle cells—like those in the heart—talk to one another. So scientists at Harvard created the first truly hybrid robot animal. The nickel-size stingray has a gold skeleton covered in a stretchy polymer to which rat muscle cells are attached. Pulsing light makes the ray “swim.” It could help us learn how to build a heart that’s half-muscle, half-machine.
M. Ludvik SkySlide: Quake-Proof Glass
A slide that hovers 1,000 feet above Los Angeles might seem like mere novelty, but the process used to make the glass could lead to stronger, more energy-efficient buildings. Architects used code from NASA to structurally analyze the design, then employed a new form of chemical strengthening to make glass that’s as strong as steel. “We could create naturally lit structures with very low carbon footprints,” says SkySlide engineer Michael Ludvik.
Koenigsegg FreeValve: New Life For The Gas Engine
For more than a century, the internal combustion engine has relied on the ungainly camshaft. This spinning rod with variable lobes sits atop the engine, where it opens and closes intake and exhaust valves during the combustion cycle. But the camshaft has a limited range of motion, so its control over the valves is imprecise. This is the root of engine inefficiency. In April, Swedish supercar-maker Koenigsegg debuted the world’s first camless engine—the FreeValve—on a Chinese Qoros concept car. FreeValve forgoes the camshaft for electro-hydraulic-pneumatic actuators. They attach right to intake and exhaust valves, so engineers can control combustion within each cylinder. The design gets more power—imagine a four-cylinder getting 250 horsepower, sans turbo—and greater fuel economy out of otherwise standard engines. Cams, may you rest in peace.
McLaren 570S: A Drivable Supercar
You don’t need an airfield to open up the McLaren 570S. A 562-horsepower engine hits 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds (and tops out at a modest 204 mph), while its carbon-fiber cabin keeps the ride stiff on tight turns. $184,900
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV: The EV for Everyone
Affordable electric vehicles have struggled to break the 200-mile-range barrier. General Motors (no, not Tesla) is getting there first. It all comes down to the battery: The Bolt’s 288-cell, 60-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion powerhouse is heavy in nickel, which boosts energy density and extends range to 238 miles. Liberal use of aluminum in the hood, doors, tailgate, and suspension keep the car from getting weighed down. $37,495
Foolproof Infant Seat
Nearly half of all infant car seats are improperly installed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. 4moms’ rear-facing seat makes installation idiot-proof. The base contains 20 sensors, including accelerometers and gyros, that work with motors to level the seat and tighten the straps. As long as the carrier is snapped onto the base, it will continually recheck the fit. It’s also comfy: The ergonomics are on par with top baby carriers. $500
2017 Audi SQ7 TDI: Full Turbo, No Waiting
Powerful as it is, a turbocharger lags before kicking in; it’s asleep until exhaust builds up to spool its turbine, blasting pressurized air into the engine. The Audi SQ7 TDI uses a 7-kilowatt electric motor to spin its turbine. Inspired by Formula 1, the system hits 70,000 rpm in less than 0.25 seconds. For now, the electric-powered compressor (EPC) is Europe-only. We can’t wait for it to leap the pond. $100,000 (€89,900)
Airbus APWorks Light Rider: 3-D Printed Motorcycle
Helping offset the heavy battery in the APWorks Light Rider is a fully 3D-printed body. The prototype bike’s skeletal aluminum frame cuts the weight to a svelte 77 pounds—a 30 percent dip on conventional manufacturing weight.
2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R: Lightest Feet on a Car
Mustangs once shared parts with burly pickup trucks. Now, the classic pony wears ultralight carbon-fiber wheels. The 19-inch rims on the Shelby each weigh some 15 pounds less than regular aluminum wheels. Less weight speeds acceleration, and greater rigidity improves handling. Don’t worry about lightenin’ ’em up: They’re insulated with a ceramic coating similar to the space shuttle’s. $63,995 (wheels $3,433-$4,053 each)
HERE HD Live Map: The Most Detailed Map
Autonomous cars need maps that plot every lane marker, guard rail, and speed-limit change ahead. The dynamically updating HD Live Map from HERE—a spinoff of electronics-giant Nokia—has already logged 1.8 million miles in the U.S. and Europe. The company’s fleet of cars maps roads to an accuracy of 10 centimeters—three to five times better than GPS. Next year, HERE will start adding data from real drivers into the mix.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class: Car Talk
When cars chat with each other, they won’t look like Pixar characters. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) will be standard within a decade, letting cars share alerts—some fool who ran a red light ahead—over encrypted radio signals. Mercedes isn’t waiting. The E-class sends traffic updates via 4G to a cloud server, alerting E-class drivers headed in that direction in seconds. It’s a Benz-only network—but one that helps make roads safer. $53,075
Tesla Autopilot: Your Robot Driving Buddy
A fatal crash this spring cast a shadow on Autopilot. But when used properly (see next page) no system maneuvers better in highway traffic. The hardware is simple: a camera, bumper-mounted radar, and 12 front-and-rear ultrasonic sensors. The genius is the software: Over-the-air updates and input from the fleet help the system hone its skills, such as automatic lane changes. $3,000-$3,500 option on Model S & model X
Light Hammer, Heavy Hitter
Estwing Al-Pro Framing Hammer Photo by Sam Kaplan
House framers can drive hundreds of nails a day. For them, a heavy hammer means more fatigue—and possibly more missed hits (and injuries). Estwing’s new Al-Pro Framing Hammer lightens the load. Designers crafted the shaft out of aircraft-grade aluminum, making it half the weight of its pricier titanium competitors, and letting workers hit longer without getting worn out. The team also filled the head with steel shot, which dampens vibration from blows and allows for maximum force in every swing. Not to cripple the tool’s nail-pulling ability with a softer aluminum claw, Estwing opted to make the teeth out of sturdy steel. All this adds up to a lifetime hammer for the day-rate pro—as well as for the weekend home-improvement wannabe. $130
NWI Cubit: Math-Whiz Measuring Tool
The hardest part of picture hanging is finding a wall’s center. Cubit calculates it for you. Slide it along any surface to find exact middle—or if you’re the asymmetrical type, a third, or any “look-at-me” variation. $72
The Safest Table Saw
Bosch Reaxx Courtesy Reaxx
Humans are careless. Machines are here to help. Bosch’s Reaxx 10-inch job-site table saw retracts its blade if it detects the presence of a wayward human appendage. A low-voltage current runs through the blade, and if the system detects a disruption—indicating human flesh—the blade retracts to mitigate potential injury. The blade is not damaged, which was an issue with previous injury-preventing technology. $1,499
A Battery for Every Tool
DeWalt Flexvolt Battery Photo by Sam Kaplan
Cordless power tools are handy. But each requires a unique voltage, leaving DIYers with a lot of bricks. DeWalt’s self-regulating battery is the only one you’ll need. It recognizes the DeWalt tool it’s mated with and delivers the correct voltage. It even regulates output for older DeWalt tools. The batteries max out at 60 volts, and a pair can create a new class of 120-volt cordless tools—like table saws—or dial down for less power-thirsty tools. $149
Nelson Solar-Activated Facade: Energy-Saving House Exterior
Goodbye expensive energy bills. Made of wood and glass, Nelson’s home exterior can both warm a home and cool it. In winter, the sun’s rays pass through a glass facade and warm an internal layer of louvered wood, which traps the heat to create a thermal buffer against the nighttime cold. In summer, when the sun is higher in the skys its rays strike these angled wooden slats, which create a shading effect for the home, keeping it cool.
Sherwin Williams Paint Shield: House Paint That Kills Disease
Why should house paint just look pretty? Now it can protect you and your family from invaders. Sherwin Williams’ new Paint Shield kills 99.9 percent of staph, MRSA, E. coli, VRE, and Enterobacter aerogenes—the type of microscopic bad stuff that can make you sick, and even kill you. The paint does this by way of a quaternary ammonium compound (the same substance used in many home cleaning products). The first EPA-registered microbicidal paint, it remains effective for years. Sleep tight and don’t let the Enterobacter bite. $85 per gallon
A Fridge That Helps You Shop
Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator Courtesy Samsung
You can’t recall if you ate that last artisanal pudding. That’s okay because the Family Hub refrigerator can help you remember. It has three internal cameras that spy on your supplies (or lack thereof). Tap an app, and there’s a picture of your shelves. $6,000
Bacteria Zapping Air Purifier
Most air purifiers trap airborne particulates, leaving them stuck in filters where they can escape or breed into lung-hacking spores. Molekule annihilates them. The cylindrical aluminum-clad device uses low-energy ultraviolet light and a nano-coated filter in a process called photoelectrochemical oxidation—basically zapping bacteria, allergens, dust, and pollutants into their base elements. That means bacteria and viruses can’t breed in your machine. No bacteria is small enough to safely pass through Molekule’s defenses. Breathe deep and easy. $799
Lighting Science HealthE Genesis Photo by Sam Kaplan
Light affects your body’s circadian rhythm, which in turn dictates your energy level, sleep cycles, and overall health. The HealthE Genesis lamp keeps things in sync with a super-precise lighting spectrum that can fluctuate based on the time of day or night. It keeps your biology so well in time that NASA is installing a custom version of it on the International Space Station to regulate astronauts’ sleep with precision. $175
A Mug That Brings the Heat
Ember Courtesy Ember
Temperature will influence a coffee’s flavor. A few degrees off, and your precious pour-over might as well be a street-corner bodega brew. The Ember mug gets taste right every time, because phase-change materials (a substance akin to candle wax) embedded in its walls deliver precise temperature control—from an optimal 120 to 150 degrees—set by a handy dial on the base. Taste that, bodega coffee man. $149
A vaccine for dengue
Dengue—a virus most commonly transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito—infects some 400 million people yearly. It causes high fever, severe headaches, vomiting, and sometimes death. About 40 percent of the world’s population is at risk, and as the climate warms and travel increases, that risk will only climb. This year, the World Health Organization started recommending the first vaccine to prevent dengue, and inoculations have begun in hot zones like Brazil and the Philippines. Four viruses cause dengue, so developing a vaccine that protects against all four took researchers 20 years to do. If 20 percent of the population gets vaccinated, dengue cases could drop 50 percent within five years. Controlling dengue could also reduce the $9 billion the disease costs global economies each year.
Easy Opioid Maintenance
During treatment for opioid addiction, missing one or two doses of withdrawal meds can trigger a relapse. Once under the skin, where they stay for up to six months at a time, four matchstick-size Probuphine implants deliver a constant dose of buprenorphine, an opioid derivative that in small, steady doses combats withdrawal symptoms. The device is currently FDA-approved for patients in active recovery from opioid addiction.
A virus that fights cancer
Scientists have long known that viruses could trigger the immune system to attack cancer, but modifying the viruses without affecting our resistance to them has taken time. In late 2015, IMLYGIC became the first FDA-approved viral cancer drug. Green-lit to treat melanoma, the modified herpes virus is injected into a tumor, where it may ignite an immune response to the cancer.
A Disappearing Cardiac Stent
Metal stents—small tubes that unclog and heal blocked arteries—are a mainstay in cardiac surgery. But because that metal stays around indefinitely, plaque can rebuild around it. Absorb is a fully bioabsorbable stent that does the same healing work, but it dissolves when it’s finished. Made of polylactide—a biodegradable polymer also used in dissolving sutures—the device proved to be on par with its metal counterpart in clinical trials.
A Friendlier Thermometer
Withings’ Thermo Withings
Home oral thermometers take up to three minutes to get readings. Thermo takes only two seconds. Sixteen infrared sensors take more than 4,000 readings from the temporal artery—all without touching the skin. $85
Most Dexterous Robot Surgeon
The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) can suture one of the trickiest areas of the human body: the intestines. A sensing system in STAR’s surgical tools feels and reacts to tiny pulls and pressure changes, upping the robot’s precision. When sewing a pig’s intestine, which is as flexible as a human’s, STAR spaced its sutures more evenly than both human and human-assisted robotic surgeons—a sign of a procedure well-done.
Sun damage, wrinkles, discoloration: These inevitable markers of age could soon be hidden—or even prevented—with an invisible elastic polymer. Second Skin, or XPL, can be placed directly on the skin as a coating, where it mimics the properties seen in younger skin, such as elasticity. It could also be used as a vehicle for delivering drugs (like eczema meds) or cosmetics (like sunscreen) so that they wouldn’t rub off during the day.
A Pocket Gluten Detector
People with celiac disease normally have to take a cook’s word on whether their meal is truly gluten-free. Nima lets them test the food for themselves. Antibodies on the card-deck-size device’s test strips react to gluten levels as low as 20 parts per million, the gluten-free limit set by the FDA. In the future, the company plans to expand its ingredient detection to include other common food allergens, such as peanuts. $199
A Prickless Glucose Test
People with insulin-dependent diabetes stick their fingers up to 10 times a day to check their blood sugar. The FreeStyle Libre system eliminates the painful finger pricking. A small, round sensor on the upper arm contains a tiny filament that, when inserted just under the skin, continually monitors glucose. Patients use a smartphone-size scanner to check their levels. Those who used the system were in a state of low blood sugar 38 percent less often.
There are two versions of the FreeStyle Libre. A professional one, the FreeStyle Libre Pro, meant for use under a doctor’s supervision, was FDA-approved in September. A consumer version, the FreeStyle Libre, is currently being reviewed by the FDA.
A Low-Cost Zika Test
Zika’s biggest threat is its potential to cause birth defects, yet expectant mothers might not know they’re infected. Conventional lab tests take days and require facilities unavailable in rural areas. Researchers at MIT created a paper-based test that gets results within three hours. When exposed to a Zika-containing blood sample, yellow dots on the paper turn purple. Researchers think the same approach can rapidly diagnose other diseases, like malaria.
The anesthetic shot is often the worst part of a tooth filling. Kovanaze does the same work in the form of a nasal spray. Two squirts in the nostril on the side of the offending tooth make the filling pain-free.
Simpler IV Control
In developing countries or military outposts, nurses often count IV fluids drop by drop to ensure medicine flows into a vein at the proper rate. Infusion pumps common in hospitals are expensive, large, and require electricity. The DripAssist is a stripped-down, compact infusion monitor that runs on a single AA battery. Attached near the bag end of an IV tube, the 5-inch device monitors flow for a fraction of the cost of hospital pumps. $395
NASA Juno: Journey to the Center of a Gas Giant
On July 4—540 million miles from the nearest Independence Day barbecue—the solar-powered Juno orbiter began circling Jupiter’s poles, passing 2,600 miles above the planet’s clouds. “No spacecraft has ever orbited this close to Jupiter, in the heart of the radiation belts, where the magnetic field is this strong,” says project scientist Steve Levin. Protected from that radiation by a titanium vault, Juno’s scientific instruments—including a radiometer to study atmosphere and a particle detector to measure magnetic fields—will allow scientists to peer beneath the gas giant’s clouds. Over the next year and a half, Juno’s observations will tell scientists how much water is on Jupiter and whether the planet has a solid core. This could reveal how the solar system, including Earth, formed. The mission is also taking the highest-resolution images of Jupiter in history.
Bigelow Aerospace Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM): Inflatable Space House
In May, astronauts attached the BEAM habitat to the exterior of the International Space Station and then expanded it. Made of an internal skeleton and layers of Kevlar-like fabric, Bigelow’s pod is small and light—easy packing for space trips.
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works SPIDER: An Airship-Fixing Robot
Before an airship gets inflated, humans have to painstakingly inspect its body for leaks. To shave days off that process, Lockheed Martin Skunk Works wanted this “pinhole check” to happen during inflation. Its solution: a SPIDER (self-propelled instrument for damage evaluation and repair). The autonomous robots magnetically attach to the blimp and crawl over its body, detecting and patching holes with an onboard repair kit.
SpaceX Falcon 9: Rocket Sticks the Sea Landing
The ability to reuse a rocket’s first stage—the part that traditionally falls into the ocean—could cut the cost of a launch by a factor of 100, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. In April, after four failed attempts, the Falcon 9 rocket landed safely on a drone ship. The winning combination: more liquid-oxygen propellant for increased thrust, and a thruster-controlled landing—as opposed to its former, and less-successful, parachute method.
Perlan Project Inc Airbus Perlan Mission II: Gliding to the Edge of Space
A better understanding of the stratosphere could lead to improved weather and climate models. To gather data without releasing engine emissions that could muddy air samples, scientists are sending the Perlan 2 glider. After a test to reach 55,000 feet, they aim to sustain flight at an altitude of 90,000 feet by 2017. These findings could also help Airbus design aircraft that fly more efficiently in thin air—like, say, in the atmosphere of Mars.
Zapata Industries Flyboard Air: High-Flying Hoverboard
This spring, French daredevil Franky Zapata smashed the record for longest hoverboard flight, traveling 7,388 feet. The jet-powered Flyboard Air can stay aloft for 10 minutes at a time, reaching over 100 mph and an altitude of 10,000 feet. Next, explosive-detection firm Implant Sciences Corporation, which is merging with Zapata Industries this year, will adapt the technology for applications like all-terrain rescue and supply delivery.
Aerion Corporation AS2: Supersonic Returns
The AS2 supersonic business jet promises quiet, efficient travel at about 1,000 mph, nearly twice the speed of other commercial jets. It will hit the market in 2023—jet rental service Flexjet already preordered 20. (Find out how the AS2 works here.)
Facebook Aquila: Internet Via Drone
Facebook got one step closer to its goal of universal global Web access in July with its 96-minute test of a full-scale Aquila drone. To stay in the air for long periods, the plane has a massive 137-foot wingspan and a long, lean sub-1,000-pound body. Aquila’s final incarnation will be solar-powered and capable of spending three months aloft as it beams broadband access to an area up to 60 miles wide.
German Aerospace Center HY4: Hydrogen-Cell Four-Seater
All-electric planes lack the power of gas-guzzling craft, which means they can carry only limited passenger weight. So in designing the four-seater HY4 airplane, which made its first flight in September, the German Aerospace Center supplemented the battery with a hydrogen fuel cell. It also split the passenger compartment in two to carry more weight. The zero-emission result has a 620-mile range—much greater than a purely battery-powered plane.
Draper MAJIC: Astronaut Jetpack
Precise work is difficult in zero gravity, where small motions like twisting a wrench can send humans flying. To stabilize astronauts, Draper attached four (one for each dimension, plus a backup) softball-size control moment gyroscopes (CMGs)—spinning wheels mounted on gimbals that counteract torque—to its Mobility-Augmenting Jetpack with Integrated CMGs (MAJIC). Draper hopes to develop a space-ready version within a decade.
Project Fi: The United Nations of Mobile Networks
Inconsistent service is the great Achilles’ heel of our ultra-connected lives. In urban canyons, signals can be fickle; abroad, staying online can be fruitless and costly. Google’s Project Fi, an experimental cellular network that rolled out this past spring, fills in those connectivity gaps. Instead of relying on one carrier’s towers, Project Fi connects to the strongest signal from among T-Mobile, Sprint, US Cellular, and a number of international partners. When the connection from one of Google’s 1 million trusted Wi-Fi hotspots is stronger, the call—or webpage or video stream—will go from cellular to Wi-Fi completely uninterrupted. Google hopes other carriers will one day adopt similar service-jumping schemes, but for the time being, data-hungry consumers can try it out on one of the company’s flagship Nexus phones. From $20 Per Month
Moto Z: Swappable Phone Features
If you’ve ever wished your phone had more memory, a massive zoom lens, beefier battery life, or improved speakers, the Moto Z makes it possible—all without having to buy a new phone. Any of five accessories, called MotoMods, magnetically attach to the back of the Android handset. The phone’s 0.2-inch-thick design manages to keep heft down—even when it has a Pico projector modded to its back. $624 (mods from $60)
Acer Switch Alpha 12 Courtesy Acer
Many ultrathin laptops pack a punch but have no room for fans, leading to overheating. So Acer turned to liquid cooling in the Switch Alpha 12, a laptop-tablet hybrid with Intel’s latest processors. As the system heats, so does coolant moving through a circular pipe; as the liquid condenses, the CPU cools down. In tests, the underside of the computer remained a comfortable 85 degrees after 30 minutes of video playback. $510
Jibo: An A.I. Bot for the Countertop
Query-answering virtual assistants are nothing new. (Right, Siri and Alexa?) But an A.I. that can recognize who’s talking, swivel in response, and emote with humanlike features is rare. Add on top of this the ability to take messages, video chat, shoot family photos, and serve up calendar reminders, and you have Jibo. A developers’ kit allows third parties to create skills for the foot-tall device. Welcome to the era of the social robot. $749
Pebble Core: Apps On Your Keychain
When dashing out the door for a quick run or to grab some eggs, the Pebble Core, announced in May and launching in January, lets you leave your phone behind. Equipped with cellular, GPS, 4 gigs of storage, and the ability to play Spotify songs stored on the device, the 1.5-inch dongle keeps the essentials in tow. Fire up Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to hear the weather, get a news briefing, or to summon an Uber or Lyft to whisk you away. $99
In-Ear MP3 Player
Samsung Gear Icon X Courtesy Samsung
Samsung’s wireless, heart-monitoring fitness earbuds are a completely self-contained music system. Four gigabytes of onboard storage hold your workout playlist—go for a run without your smartphone. $140
Eora 3D : Portable 3D Scanning
DIYers looking to copy parts have had a tough choice: Buy an expensive industrial scanner or settle for a low-res scan of stitched-together photos. The Eora 3D is a quality, compact scanner that connects a phone via Bluetooth. The soda-can-size device uses a laser to capture 8 million depth readings, while the phone’s camera takes over 1,000 images. Eora 3D’s app merges both into formats compatible with CAD software and 3D printers. $319
Wi-Fi For Huge Houses
Securifi Almond 3 Courtesy Almond
Most wireless routers struggle to deliver consistent, fast Wi-Fi to every corner of our McMansions. The Almond 3 can blanket an entire 5,000-foot house with powerful Wi-Fi. With one unit set up as a base and establishing the network, two additional Almonds act as Wi-Fi extenders. The router also doubles as a smart-home hub, communicating with connected devices like lights and thermostats. $399 (set of three)
The world is a noisy place. And traffic, jackhammers, planes, and trains aren’t only annoyances, they can also do real harm to your eardrums. The Here One earbuds let listeners tune out the noise. Paired with a smartphone app, the ‘buds allow users to raise or lower specific sounds from the environment around them and better hear exactly what they want. Turn down the roar of the subway and crank the Kanye to 11. $299
Lenovo Phab 2 Pro: A World-Altering Phone
Augmented-reality apps have had a breakout year, but as satisfying as it is catching Pikachu, experiences can fall flat. The Phab 2 Pro phone uses new software from Google, called Tango, to give AR extra depth. Three imagers (a 16-megapixel sensor, infrared sensor, and fisheye lens) let your phone create a 3D map of the world—for apps that produce engineering schematics or superimpose video-game worlds onto the actual one. $500
Canon 1DX Mark II Sam Kaplan
Recording 4K video means filming at frame rates that outpace most memory cards. The 1DX Mark II is Canon’s first consumer camera that keeps up. Support for the new CFast 2.0 card means capturing video at a blazing 350MB per second. $5,999