Artificial intelligence mastered a lot of tasks in 2018. There are algorithms that win human debates, book dinners, eliminate checkout lines, tend gardens, spot plumbing leaks, and call for help when we trip and fall. But the machines aren’t completely taking over just yet. There’s at least one thing we’re sure even the savviest silicone noggin can’t do: put together Popular Science’s annual list of the year’s most pivotal, influential, and just plain awesome innovations.
Our 31st annual Best of What’s New list is the culmination of a year spent obsessing over, arguing about, and experiencing the newest technologies and discoveries across 10 distinct disciplines. Yes, there are eye-poppingly-bright TVs. Sure, there are video games that will suck us in for hours. And, naturally, there’s a car that, on the right road, will just drive itself.
Here, we dig deep, because some innovations don’t make a lot of noise, yet have the potential to make a real and lasting impact. A drug that blocks mind-numbing migraines or a fake egg that scrambles like the real thing are no less impressive than the fastest spacecraft ever to break free of earth’s atmosphere. Why? Because the effects of each of the feats will reverberate for years down the road.
And, while we have you, let’s all just take a moment to appreciate that this year’s collection includes a full-on jet pack.
Let’s not waste any time: There’s a jet suit in this year’s Best of What’s New list, yet somehow that’s not even what we dubbed the Innovation of the Year. That honor goes to a NASA probe that is, put simply, the fastest thing ever made by humans. Its destination? A little place known as the sun. There’s no doubting the sheer epicness of this year’s top Aerospace innovations; even the more-practical offerings—a floating virtual assistant for the ISS or an extra-safe helicopter—are so awesome you’ll find yourself casually bringing them up on your next first date or company holiday party. Everybody understands how cool space is.
In large part, the items on year’s list of the best new gadgets don’t change the world as much as they change the way we, as tech-loving super nerds, see it. This year’s Best of What’s New gadgets category includes leaps forward in both virtual and augmented reality, which were welcome reprieves from the increasingly hectic world of, well, actual reality. Other honorees help us combat common problems: Tougher glass prevents broken smartphone screens, and a sleep aid blocks noise but lets through crucial alarms. Perhaps most importantly, however, fidget spinners were officially nowhere to be seen in 2018. Rest in the clearance bin, little buddies.
Oculus Go by Facebook
Grand Award Winner A VR headset that stands alone Really good VR—the kind that can make your palms sweat when you stand on the edge of a virtual cliff—is hard to come by. Most people settle for lackluster experiences that rely on smartphones and suffer from blurry images and smudgy lenses. The Oculus Go is the first VR headset that can create real immersion experience all on its own, without the help of a high-end gaming PC that costs as much as your first car. The 2560-by-1440-pixel LCD actually has more pixels dedicated to each one of your eyes than the Oculus Rift. And the visor’s built-in speaker system adds to the sensory onslaught, pumping carefully timed audio that can trick your ears into thinking there’s really a zombie sneaking up behind you. Go also launched with more than 1,000 VR experiences, from peaceful meditation apps to riding impossible roller-coaster rides. The 16.5-ounce headset doesn’t feel like a phone accessory or a watered-down version of its predecessor. That’s because it’s neither. It’s a huge step in VR’s journey out of the niche gaming community and into the mainstream. Facebook
Liquid-cooled smartphone to handle high-end games The 6.4-inch AMOLED display on the Galaxy Note 9 packs more pixels per inch than even the new iPhone XS Max’s screen. Driving all those dots—and the accompanying Fortnite sessions—is where this massive device differentiates itself. A cooling system, which circulates water through multiple layers of conductive materials like copper and carbon fiber, pulls heat away from the processor (a top-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 845) and the graphics chip. The chilling effect helps the components avoid CPU slowdowns when temperatures rise. Samsung
A drone with zoom Flying a drone too close is an A+ way to miss sudden action happening downfield. The camera on the Mavic 2 has a 2x optical zoom lens, which allows pilots to change perspective ‘on the fly’ (get it?). Because holding shots steady gets exponentially harder when you zoom, computer vision helps the camera lock onto objects in the frame, and onboard stabilization pulls data from gyroscopes to keep the horizon straight. If something manages to get too close, collision-detection sensors on every side of the craft automatically tell the drone to hover in place before it can crash. DJI
The beginning of always-on smartphone HDR If you took a photo with a top-tier smartphone in 2018, your device actually captured multiple shots when you pushed the button—then used machine learning to mash them into a single, presentable image. This technique, known as multi-shot HDR, used to be optional, but now it happens with every photo. Phones can handle all that extra crunching thanks to new dedicated image processors like the Pixel Visual Core, which debuted on the Pixel 2 phones last fall. The chip pretties up your shots by replacing blown-out skies, lightening dark shadows, and reducing blur from your shaky hands, among other tweaks. All this editing happens in the same time it would have taken an older phone to snap one lousy shot. Google
Earplugs that let you hear emergencies Snoozing with earplugs or earbuds is a tempting way to drown out a snoring partner or endless street noise. Unfortunately, clogging up your earholes also means you could miss a fire alarm. Bose designed each of the sleep-friendly sounds (for example, staticky brown noise and running water) in its Sleepbuds with a gap in the audible spectrum. That gap is where smoke and CO2 alarms ring, so, in most instances and with the volume at a reasonable level, important notices should still wake you.. The plugs use a single balanced armature speaker, like what you’d find in a hearing aid, so they’re 20 percent smaller than typical in-ear headphones—much comfier for sleepin’. Bose
An action camera that stops shakes Few things ruin an action video faster than distracting—sometimes nauseating—camera shake. For the Hero7 Black, GoPro developed a feature called HyperSmooth, which digitally steadies footage without making it look unnatural and wobbly. The system relies on a buffer of pixels framing the camera’s sensor. When an onboard gyroscope and accelerometer detect shakes, it adjusts the active part of the sensor in real time. While the tech cuts out the ugly jitters, it doesn’t lock the horizon in place; if you lean into a turn, the footage goes along with you. GoPro
Few innovations thrill us more than the ones we drive. When you consider an electric supercar that snaps back your head with acceleration or a set of tungsten-coated brakes that’ll have you straining against your seatbelt faster than you can say “internal combustion engine,” it’s easy to conclude 2018 was a heckuva year for the road-going brilliance.
Echo Auto by Amazon
Alexa, take a ride with me Amazon’s smart speaker hits the road. Plop this flat, $50 rectangle on your dash, and its eight microphones will pick out your voice over music and road noise when you ask for news, music, directions, what’s next on your calendar, or any of Alexa’s other 50,000 tricks (and counting). The coolest part, though, is its ability to perform location-specific actions. The device can execute commands automatically as you reach a particular place. Get it to play ‘The Imperial March’—you know, Darth Vader’s theme—when you pull into the parking lot at work. Amazon
Because we rely on home products for the intimate and urgent matters of our everyday lives, we need these staples to serve us well. A true innovation for the house should either work better than its predecessor (Post-it’s super-strong sticky notes or Milwaukee’s cordless saw that outperforms the wireless kind) or fulfill a need we didn’t realize we had (keeping our coffee at the perfect temperature or instantly detecting plumbing leaks).
Post-it Extreme Notes by 3M
Grand Award Winner Unshakeable stickies 3M’s new Post-it Extreme Notes can cling to the surface of rough materials such as plywood and concrete. That’s thanks to a new adhesive made of tiny spheres, which give the glue extra stretch to better conform to uneven surfaces. The goo gets added help from flexible paper that’s coated with polymer layers, which make the notes water-resistant—and also more durable and less prone to smudging than plain stickies. Samples we tested stayed firmly stuck to a house’s exterior walls and windows, Tupperware in a freezer, and even a canvas cooler bag whose handles constantly tugged on the note. 3M
The first modular mattress The modular components of Bedgear’s M3 mattress—a chassis, springs that fit into it, a foam pad, and a cover—literally zip together so you can customize every part. New slumber buddy have back trouble? Swap in stiffer springs on their side to give them more support. The summer heat make you sweaty? Zip on a warmth-deflecting cover (Bedgear is developing cotton- and wool-based ones for chilly weather). The chassis also has ventilated panels to keep air flowing—without letting in allergens like dust mites. Bedgear
Smoke and grill simultaneously When you’re smoking a slab of bacon on a pellet grill, the meat can monopolize your cooking surface for hours. To keep preparing the rest of your meal while you wait, hook Camp Chef’s Sidekick onto the larger appliance as a bonus cooker. Its propane-fueled aluminum burner can produce 30,000 BTU to cook your food. Don’t limit yourself to the griddle that comes with the accessory: You can purchase additional options—such as a pizza oven or small-but-conventional grill—to sear, bake, and boil as well. Camp Chef
Climate control for your coffee Plenty of thermoses will insulate your drink, helping it stay hot or cold a little longer. Ember pioneered a ceramic mug that brings your java to the exact temperature you want, and keeps it there indefinitely—with a little help from a ‘coaster’ that’s also a charging pad. That nice-feeling ceramic is actually a coating that covers stainless-steel walls lined with thermometers and electronics, all powered by a battery in the base of the cup. You set the temperature via an app, which notifies you when the beverage hits just the right level. Ember
Quick detection for hidden leaks The sooner you detect and fix a hidden leak in your plumbing, the better off your house will be. So slap Flo on your main water supply line. Its sensors monitor your home’s H2O flow, pressure, and temperature, looking for changes that indicate the system might have sprung a pinhole leak. When it spots a problem, the connected device pings your phone so you can call the plumber early. If Flo detects a major issue, you can use the app to remotely shut off the water. Flo Technologies
Finally, a quiet air conditioner Air conditioners are noisy energy guzzlers. They run on alternating current, which means the compressor—and its loud churn—can only be either on or off. The Dual Inverter runs on direct current, which can vary the amount of power going to the chiller and better control its speed. This smooth variation keeps noise levels down to about 44 decibels (that’s library levels) and allows the machine to use 25 to 40 percent less energy than ACs of similar power. LG
A cordless saw that out-cuts the rest Milwaukee’s corded Sawzall is the go-to reciprocating slicer for chewing through multi-layer wooden doors, 5-inch iron pipes, and other hardy materials. Now a cord-free version, the M18 Fuel Super Sawzall, cuts even faster than the original (3,000 strokes per minute versus 2,800). The lithium-ion battery pack can fuel up to 150 cuts per charge and runs 50 percent cooler than its predecessor. The company’s hush-hush about exactly how it achieved these gains, but the saw’s motor, battery, and electronics—everything down to the magnets in the motor and the total amount of copper—got a complete overhaul. Milwaukee Tool
The best garden for black thumbs When you plant root veggies, leafy greens, or fruit in the SproutsIO soil-free indoor smart garden, it will create the ideal environment to grow your chosen crop. Pre-programmed ‘recipes’ automatically tailor the amount of water, nutrients, and light. You can also tweak these parameters to, say, modify the sweetness of your tomatoes. Thanks to this high level of control, the device uses two percent of the water that traditional outdoor gardens do, while encouraging plants to grow up to three times faster. SproutsIO
There are no tanks or firetrucks or massive surveillance initiatives among the items we’ve dubbed the best security innovations of 2018. That’s because safety happens by the inch, through a relentless effort to stop the simple vulnerabilities that can lead to major threats—on our doorsteps, overseas, and in our streets. Our honorees down malicious drones without risking collateral damage, help military vehicles transverse tough terrain, offer new ways for police to capture fleeing assailants, and prevent porch pirates from nabbing our packages. Even our old friend the combination lock got a snoop-stopping upgrade. All the better to protect us with, my dears.
Magnification Combination Padlock by Master Lock
Digit-masking lock Conventional locks can leave secret codes exposed to spying locker mates, so the Magnification Combination Padlock puts the numbers behind a clear, curved lens. Askance, the slope of the polycarbonate warps the dial so that snoopers can’t spy your digits. Straight on, it magnifies the font underneath from the equivalent of a 20-point typeface to a 28-pointer—making the numbers easier to see through your post-workout sweat haze. Master Lock Company
All the gadgets on our Best of What’s New list are groundbreaking, but they can’t all be fun. The lineup of innovations in entertainment, however, boasts more good-time gear than Infinity War had super heroes. This year’s winners include a pro-grade HDTV, speakers that double as modern art, and an ill-fated movie subscription service that shifted the way people go to the theater. But the star of 2018 was gaming. This year, we witnessed a game shatter platform barriers and a cardboard controller kit transform into a steering wheel we could use to dominate the lap times of our little ones.
Fortnite by Epic Games
Grand Award Winner The game that broke down platform barriers In August, 78.3 million people logged into Fortnite‘s cartoonish landscape—peppered with rideable golf carts and coveted treasure chests—to try and pummel friends or strangers in a last-player-standing battle royale. The game set the record for most concurrent players (8.3 million) and game-streaming eyeballs on Twitch (1.46 million). Those are in part thanks to the fact that the game is the first available to every tribe within the button-mashing clan: high-end PC gamers, console devotees, and mobile-phone tappers. To bring everyone together, developer Epic Games orchestrated massive in-game events, like a rift appearing in the sky or the arrival of a massive and mysterious cube, that help the game transcend whatever screen it’s on. Epic Games
A TV that doesn’t compress your content Lots of important data gets lost as the moving image makes the long journey from the high-end reference monitors in professional editing suites to the television in your home. Sony’s Master Series TVs use a dedicated picture processing chip called the X1 Ultimate to cut down on image degradation typically associated with encoding and decoding flicks. The processor analyzes objects on the OLED screen on a frame-by-frame basis and tweaks sharpness and color settings. The silicon is powerful enough to drive future 8K TVs, which will push the resolution limits of your puny human eyeballs. Sony
The STEM toy/video game mashup Most build-it-yourself engineering kits are project-based: fun to put together, but the finished product makes for better decoration than it does a toy. Not so with Nintendo’s Labo cardboard construction kit, which works around the Joy Con controllers for its Switch console. Simple cutouts convert humdrum gamepads into any one of dozens of mods, including a robot, a piano, and a fishing pole. Kids follow the build on the Switch’s 6.2-inch screen, and then use their creations to play mini games, such as a racing sim for the steering wheel kit. Nintendo
The video game controller for everyone Modern video game controllers are loaded with buttons and sticks that don’t work for every player. The Xbox Adaptive Controller, however, has a USB-C port and 19 3.5-millimeter, headphone-style connectors for attaching external devices that dramatically increase the pad’s accessibility. Each port lets players map specific controller functions to accessories that enable gamers with different physical abilities to play. For instance, users with limited hand and arm mobility could plug in a large joystick to handle movements and use a foot pad as the trigger. It can also pair with a standard Xbox One controller, so a co-pilot can play at the same time, making any game accessible to players of all capabilities. Microsoft
Headphones with a built-in cooling system The 7.1-channel virtual surround sound in these HP over-the-ear cans is fairly standard for a high-end gaming headset, but there’s more going on in this pair of cups: Each one has a thermoelectric device inside that cools the speaker grill plates to pull heat away from your ears during marathon sessions. A gaming marathon should leave your t-shirt stained with Mountain Dew, not ear sweat. HP
The mouse that secretly won an e-sports championship At the finals of the inaugural Overwatch League e-sports season, the London Spitfire team was secretly wielding Logitech’s ambidextrous gaming mouse. The peripheral’s 16,000 dot-per-inch sensor is more than four times more sensitive than a typical wireless mouse and can track 400 inches of movement per second. That makes it well-suited for the super-twitchy actions pro gamers use during events, where fractions of a second can separate winning and losing. The e-sports equivalent of an all-carbon Tour de France bike, the mouse weighs just 2.8 ounces, which lets players flick it across the pad with almost no resistance or strain on their wrists. Logitech
A router that prioritizes game data Milliseconds divide gaming winners from losers. Netgear’s XR500 router helps competitors shave crippling lag time off their streams. The device detects the type of web traffic passing through and prioritizes data packets it knows are coming from PC or console games—over, say, YouTube videos. If you’re willing to do some manual tweaking, it allows for changes like using a geo-filter to tap servers that are physically close to your location, which also speeds transfers. As streaming resolutions climb towards super-dense 8K content, this kind of prioritization will be crucial for maximizing overcrowded networks. Netgear
Hollywood effects for your video games Immersive computer games are all about details: the way light moves through clouds, a subtle reflection on a car bumper. Conventional rendering technology—known as rasterization—struggles to make these flourishes pop. New graphics cards from Nvidia fill in those small-but-crucial gaps with a technique called ray tracing, which is common in Hollywood special effects but new to gaming. The RTX cards keep track of millions of individual light rays as they interact with objects in virtual 3D environments. As a result, a shiny surface like a puddle reflects light just like it would in real life. Games that support the scheme are still limited, but watch the explosions bounce off the eyeballs of the Battlefield V characters and it’ll obvious that this is a new era for PC gaming. NVIDIA
The best gear gets out of your way. The items we bring with us outside—whether it’s on the trail or to our backyard patios—should work so well we forget we’re using them. The top shoes are the ones you don’t think about at all, but that painlessly support your miles-long schlep through the woods. This year’s best products in recreation—including a one-pound tent, a truly innovative sports bra, and a fire pit that keeps smoke out of your eyes—make our active lives more fun and comfortable.
Radius Zone Mosquito Repellent by Thermacell
Grand Award Winner No stink, no flame, no bugs Hanging out in your backyard means beers, barbecues—and bugs. In fact, by one estimate, parts of the United States could see above-average mosquito numbers this winter. Most options for keeping those flying menaces away can be unpleasant: Citronella candles produce a flame, which is hazardous during fire season and creates smoke. Butane-powered repellants burn fuel to keep the bugs away, so you can’t bring them on an airplane. Thermacell’s Radius Zone Mosquito Repellent deters the biters without combustion. In this 3.3-inch-tall device, a battery-powered heater warms a liquid containing metofluthrin, a synthetic mosquito-repelling chemical similar to one in chrysanthemums. Cranked up to 257 degrees Fahrenheit, the metofluthrin vaporizes, creating a 110-square-foot no-fly zone for skeeters. To keep the screen going, recharge the lithium-ion battery via USB every six hours or so—which you can do while the device is running. Replaceable metofluthrin cartridges last as long as 40 hours. Throw the whole small gizmo in your bag for your next out-of-state camping trip and enjoy staying bite-free. Thermacell
Low-smoke fire pit Fires are fun; smoke in your eyes is not. The FirePit all-but eliminates that irritating plume. A battery-powered, 3-inch fan on the outside of the 2.25-foot-long metal grill pushes pressurized air down three interior stainless-steel tubes and out 51 jets. The engineered airflow means that the logs (or charcoal, if you’re grilling) burn more efficiently, reducing smoke by about 80 percent. Control combustion speed and heat by adjusting the fan, which you can do with a button on the unit itself or via an app on a Bluetooth-connected phone. BioLite
Custom-fit hiking boots while you wait Hiking boots, like shoes, are usually mass produced: You find your size and hope the fit is comfy. But these trekking kicks are different. Tecnica designed the Forge with a moldable material called thermoplastic polyurethane in the footbeds and uppers, so an in-store technician can customize them to the shape of your paws in just 20 minutes. Heated to 180 degrees, the footbeds become more flexible. Then, with the insoles under your feet, the store tech applies an air-pressurized system that molds the material to you. They repeat the process with the uppers. The custom fit means fewer, if any, blisters on the trail. Tecnica
Ski ‘wax’ that lasts forever Because traditional wax wears off, weekend skiers should polish their planks before taking to the mountains—and racers before every competition—to get the best speed and glide. But Phantom is a new formulation that can be applied once for the life of the skis. The proprietary liquid consists of short chains of fluorocarbons that, after at least two hours of outdoor UV exposure (or 40 minutes at a store), permanently bond with the polyethylene on the ski’s bases. Skids with Phantom are faster than those with all-temperature waxes; only high-end, temperature-specific pro formulas still win out. Bonus: The liquid emits none of the fumes that waxes do, and it won’t leave nasty chemicals behind to trickle into the water supply. DPS
A motion-responsive sports bra Sports bras have come a long way. In 1977, jogger Hinda Miller sewed together two jockstraps to create her own undergarment. Even today, finding a bra that supports the breasts without discomfort is a challenge. In fact, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 17 percent of women avoid exercise altogether because they are unable to find a bra that gives the right amount of support. The PureMove bra provides both support and comfort by incorporating a substance called shear thickening fluid in key places: the straps and back. The stuff remains pliant when at rest, but firms up with movement. It’s the right amount of support only when you need it. Reebok
Countless new products and medications hit stores’ shelves and doctors’ prescription pads every year. Many are a result of small tweaks to already available treatments. A select few, though, totally change the game: A preventative migraine drug slashes monthly headaches in half, an injectable gene restores sight to those with a degenerative eye condition, and a better-designed sunscreen helps more people keep damaging rays at bay. These 10 medical advances represent how science, technology, and creative thinking can help us live longer, better lives.
Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 30 Moisturizing Lotion by Black Girl Sunscreen
Finally, sunscreen designed for dark skin Everyone who soaks up the sun needs skin protection. Yet, most sunscreens leave an undesirable white cast on darker skin that won’t fade until washed off with soap. Black Girl Sunscreen, though, is specifically designed for people of color. The FDA-approved product includes a blend of UVA- and UVB-fighting chemicals selected because their chemistry avoids that white residue. The lotion also contains multiple moisturizers to help prevent dry skin. Black Girl Sunscreen
Arrhythmia-spotting smartwatch Smartwatches can track your steps, count your pulse, and even guide you through a deep, relaxing breathe. Now, the Apple Watch has taken a giant leap forward in the medical sphere: The Series 4 can do an electrocardiogram (ECG) to measure the electrical activity of the heart—a test usually performed in a doctor’s office. When you hold a finger firmly on the digital crown, conductors in the back of the watch and the circlet measure your heart’s electrical pulses and display the rhythm on-screen. Apple’s ECG is greenlit to detect a type of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation (a condition in which the upper chambers of the heart tremble instead of beat, affecting blood flow). It’s not as powerful a test as those in doctors’ offices, and how well it stacks up against other arrhythmia detectors isn’t clear yet. However, its potential benefit to public health can’t be understated: In the future, if users can opt-in to sharing their data with research studies, it could help doctors identify early warning signs of the disease. Apple
Virtual assistants make phone calls on your behalf now. Google Assistant’s new Duplex technology can talk to real human people, which means you may never have to make a dinner reservation again. Elsewhere on our list of the top software innovations of 2018, there’s tech that’ll do fun things, like deliver a pizza to your spot in a public park, and programming that takes on seriously important things, like enable 911 dispatchers to find mobile callers way faster.
It’s an elegant way to avoid urban flooding: Lay down paving tiles that soak up rain and divert it from sewers to greenery. But that innovation, the Climate Tile, is just one of the problem-solving projects we’ve named the best engineering breakthroughs of 2018. There’s also a 3D printer slated to build affordable homes in impoverished areas, and a sea life sampler that lets biologists gather marine specimens without damaging their squishy bodies. Other “bests” are a bit more whimsical: a banana that grows in the cold, vegan scrambled eggs, and robots that turn backflips 60 feet in the air.