The 100 greatest innovations of 2017
The year's most transformative products and discoveries.
WE COULD BRAG. We could say our 30th annual list of the most transformative products and discoveries required trucks full of experts, hours of toil, and countless friendship-ending debates. That’s true, but you just want the good stuff. So read on.
A robot just made me french fries. Delicious, they cooked for four minutes less than the instructions dictated. One minute less, they’d’ve been soggy. A few more, burnt. An eagle-eyed artificially intelligent oven made the timing and temperature calls. My contributions: Arrange fries on tray, slide tray into oven, acquire ketchup. (Invent ketchup drone?)
The smart cooker on this list, which we’ve nicknamed the Millennial Oven, perfectly follows the trajectory of innovation over the past 30 years. It’s built around bedrock technologies—convection cooking, image recognition, microprocessors, compact cameras, wireless radios—but elevated by the addition of an anyone-proof interface.
We’ve seen this story time and again since 1988, the year Popular Science editors first anointed 100 products as the Best of What’s New. The cultural shift over those years is remarkable.
Thirty years ago, science and tech were the domains of enthusiasts: audiophiles, mechanics, and IT gals MacGyvering together the components for makeshift local networks. Today, specialized ideas—like printing wirelessly or blasting into space—have rocketed into the mainstream. Because of that shift, by today’s standards, many of the first BOWN winners are just plain wonky.
Two classes of product dominated those early years. First, you have the stuff that makes the other stuff work, the underlying technology: proof-of-concept wireless internet, early neural-network computers. Then you have devices defined by nuanced improvement or a single attention-grabbing feature, which, if we’re honest, most folks neither wanted nor understood.
Consider Panasonic’s PV-4826 VCR from 1988. A combination video-cassette recorder and answering machine, the $470 (that’s $938.30 in 2017 money) deck let owners call in to program recordings using touch-tone key codes. Useful? Yes. Cool? Sure. Kludgy as hell? Most definitely.
Fast-forward (sorry) 30 years, though, and the ability to remotely cue recordings is still impressive, a feature you’ll find only on more-advanced set-top boxes. These days, we access our DVRs over cable, DSL, or fiber-optic hookups instead of phone lines; we set programs via app instead of touch-tone, and record Game of Thrones onto hard drives instead of magnetic tapes. Even cord-cutters tap the same back-end technologies to stream or download a binge-bender’s worth of episodes from Amazon, Netflix, or YouTube.
For the person doing the watching, the difference between then and now lies in the smoothness of the process. It would take until the late ’90s for technology to finally work well—and to do so for everyone. Palm Pilots and iMacs and Motorola StarTACs weren’t objects people put up with in their offices or homes because they had to; they were things folks wanted to and could use, free of excruciating early-adopter nonsense. Technology was subculture-turned-zeitgeist, with nowhere to go but everywhere.
Think of this tidal shift as the ascension of the user experience or the democratization of innovation. But the sum total of the past three decades is the same: It’s up to us to perfect products, or to decide when perfection is achieved. It’s borne out again and again, no matter the field of endeavor. Where NASA once dominated space, we now have private enterprises like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin. Where AIs once did their thinking only in university labs, we now interact with the simple interfaces of voice-recognizing Google assistants and face-detecting security cameras as casually as we’d chat with a coworker. And we sprinkle this once-rarified gear throughout our homes and offices as casually as radios and lamps.
Technology, once impenetrable, has become the wrecking ball that breaks down barriers. We can down malicious drones. We can teach our kids to build robots. We can blast ourselves to Mars. And, while we’re at it, we can make the capsule pretty damn comfy.
Cells that cure cancer—Kymriah
Tumors are sly. To survive, the cells bypass our immune systems by retaining similarities to healthy cells. But they also have differences. Over the past decade, researchers have targeted these unique traits to re-enlist the body’s department of defense. Immunotherapies train our own systems to detect those distinct variances. This year, that effort took a huge leap: The FDA approved Kymriah, the first human gene-edited therapy for cancer.
The treatment modifies a patient’s T cells (specialized white blood cells) to add a receptor that locates the malignant ones so the killer T’s can attack them. In trials, 83 percent of patients were in remission after three months. One reason Kymriah works so well is that it’s the most customized method to date: The modified cells are specific to both the patient and their disease. Rubber-stamped to kill a type of leukemia in young people, Kymriah and drugs like it could one day treat many other cancers, changing medicine’s approach to the disease for good.
Lessening breast-reconstruction pain—Aeroform Tissue Expander System
When a woman undergoes breast reconstruction, surgeons stretch the existing tissue by injecting saline into implanted bladders—a painful process that demands doctor visits, needles, and analgesics. The Aeroform lets women control the process at their own, more-tolerable pace. Patients use a wireless controller to signal a CO cartridge to release air that stretches a silicone implant, bit by bit.
A smart slice for a big cure—CRISPR-edited Embryos
CRISPR, the DNA-editing tool, took a deep cut into disease remedy this summer. Oregon Health and Science University researchers became the first in the U.S. to attempt to tweak human embryos’ DNA to fix a genetic disease (a mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart condition). It’s a milestone, but more research is needed before the edited human eggs can grow into babies.
Untethered breast pump—The Willow Pump
Breast milk may be the healthiest infant nutrition, but busy moms often don’t have hours to sit tethered to corded pumps to stockpile the sustenance. Willow is a compact, cordless breast pump that fits under a woman’s bra. Instead of flowing into a bottle, the milk fills disposable plastic bags that fit inside the breast-shaped pump. Best of all, the device is quiet enough for a woman to use while on a conference call.
A breakthrough for a rare illness—Brineura
Batten disease is one of a group of rare genetic disorders in which defective enzymes in the brain cause severely impaired neurological functioning. Replacement enzymes had been too big to cross through the brain’s protective membrane. With Brineura, surgeons bypass that hurdle by inserting a port into a child’s head and infusing the enzyme. The technique may be used to treat many similar disorders
Video-game rehab—Rapael Smart Glove
After someone has a stroke, a doctor’s main goal is to get the patient walking again, so hand dexterity often takes a back seat. The Rapael Smart Glove helps prioritize it by turning the process into a game. Paired with an Android app, the sensor-laden glove tracks movement as the user practices real-life tasks, like squeezing an orange. The system displays instant range-of-motion feedback, which boosts learning.
Easy peas-eating—Liftware Level
Injuries and diseases that affect mobility, like spinal-cord damage and Huntington’s, can make the act of eating a struggle. Motion sensors in the Level signal the utensil end—either a fork or spoon—to rotate, so the entire piece remains horizontal, no matter how the handle shakes.
Collaborative diagnostics—Philips IntelliSite Pathology Solution
Pathology is a frustratingly analog branch of medicine. Pathologists must slice, stain, and view tissue samples under a microscope. Sending specimens to second-opinion MDs takes days or weeks. Philips IntelliSite Pathology uses a high-resolution scanner to convert prepared specimens into digital images that are as detailed as those under a scope. This allows doctors to quickly send cases to consulting colleagues.
Drug-free headache relief—gammaCore
The vagus nerve is a powerful bundle of fibers. The body’s longest cranial nerve, it weaves itself from the brainstem and down through the abdomen. Stimulating it alters nerve functioning in helpful ways, like stopping cluster headaches, which cause excruciating pain. gammaCore is the first noninvasive vagus stimulator for patient use. The device excites the nerve with electrical pulses to calm the headaches.
At-home seizure tracker—SPEAC System
Managing epileptic seizures requires info on when and how often they occur. That’s hard to acquire because 85 percent of seizures happen at night and the patient must remember the rest. SPEAC is the first non-EEG seizure monitor. It adheres to a person’s bicep and detects changes in muscle activation, which an algorithm analyzes to indicate an episode. The user’s doctor reviews the data and tweaks treatment.
Safer MRIs for preemies—Embrace Neonatal MRI
Transporting a premature infant to a basement-dwelling MRI is often not worth the risk of removing a baby from its room, so many doctors forgo scans. The Embrace device sits safely in the NICU. Unlike typical MRIs, the unit encloses its magnetic field within itself. Doctors and staff can stand next to the machine and use metal instruments while it’s running. If needed, they can reach the infant in less than 30 seconds.
Personal sun tracker—My UV Patch
Most people don’t apply ample sunscreen, and even if they do, they often forget to reapply. My UV Patch is a wearable decal that signals when rays are getting through. Photosensitive dyes change from a dark blue to a lighter one with more sunlight. It adheres to the skin for up to five days and is free with related La Roche Posay products.
A real console, really mobile—Nintendo Switch
While Microsoft and Sony compete to see who can fit more computing power into their machines and app developers look for places to cram microtransactions, Nintendo has built a system that bridges the gap between home and on-the-go play. The key to the Switch is a 6.2-inch, capacitive HD touchscreen sandwiched between a pair of removable controllers. The setup has its own battery and storage, so you can play Zelda on your lunch break just like you would in your living room. Each motion-sensitive Joy-Con can act as an independent controller for impromptu Mario Kart multiplayer battles.
An automated record press—WarmTone record press
Vinyl albums are selling better than they have since the early ’90s, so it’s about time the production process caught up. This $195,000 machine presses a disc in about 24 seconds. If a problem pops up, it can automatically diagnose and quickly address it, a far cry from the finicky performance of its vintage forebears.
The alpha OLED—Signature TV W
Unofficially known as the “wallpaper” TV, this 65-inch display is just 2.5mm thick and weighs 17 pounds. You can mount it on any wall primarily using magnets. It’s compatible with multiple standards for high-dynamic-range picture, so you can enjoy colorful content from Blu-ray or Netflix. All the guts needed to power the screen live in a Dolby-Atmos-equipped sound bar you can place up to 6 feet away.
Replace the cord—Hulu with live TV
In the age of “micro bundles,” replacing cable with a heap of individual subscriptions can end up costing you more than your pre-cord-cut bill. For $40 monthly, Hulu with live TV offers original programming, more than 50 live channels, a catalog of on-demand TV and movies, as well as local programming (in some areas) streamed over your broadband connection. It’s wrapped in an interface designed to be surfable.
Whoa, look at that screen—Predator 21 X
The gaming laptop, pushed to wonderful absurdity: It packs a seventh-gen Intel Core i7 processor, a pair of ultrapowerful NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 graphics cards, and a mechanical keyboard with a touchpad that flips to become a number pad. All that power manifests itself through a 21-inch, 21:9 aspect-ratio curved display with eye-tracking technology to maximize immersion without dipping into virtual reality.
Cans tuned to your ears—Even H2 Headphones
The first step of setting up these over-the-ear headphones is a 90-second listening test to create a graph of your hearing called an audiogram. You listen to music from eight different segments of the audible spectrum in each ear at increasing volume to map how sensitive you are to different frequencies. A custom sound profile—which you can see in the companion app— tunes sound response to each individual ear.
The screen is a speaker—Acoustic Surface
Edge-to-edge screens are the hot look for high-end TVs, so room for a speaker grate is out of the question. Sony solved this design problem in its Bravia OLED A1E 4K HDR TV by embedding four actuators behind the display to create visually imperceptible vibrations—in other words, sound. The distance between actuators can create localized audio, so sound can move across the display to match the action.
Concrete that absorbs echoes—MA770 Speaker
Concrete speakers are great for combating rattle-inducing vibrations, but the trade-off is typically unwanted echo. This 35-pound Brutalist monolith has a tapered shape and is made from a proprietary blend of concrete with polymers in the mix to dampen the reverberations. Sound comes courtesy of a pair of 4-inch woven Kevlar long throw woofers and a 1.5-inch titanium tweeter embedded in the cabinet.
Mainstream mixed reality—Lenovo Explorer
Two motion-tracking cameras on the front of Lenovo’s Explorer headset place virtual objects into a real-world setting. Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system has already started implementing mixed reality for things like virtual field trips, even adding 3D drawing tools to MS Paint. Paired with a keyboard, it can be a virtual workspace. Or, add motion-sensing controllers for immersive gaming.
The high-def harbinger—Dell 8K Monitor
The 7,680-by-4,320 resolution on this ultra-sharp 31.5-inch display is like having four small 4K monitors crammed into one screen. That’s enough pixels to view four full-width browser windows with room left over, or watch four shows at once to quadruple the efficiency with which you can take in those YouTube cooking tutorials. With a total digital dimension of 33.2-megapixels, you’re going to need a bigger background photo.
Easy-fly drone—DJI Spark
Piloting a drone is still too difficult, but DJI gave its most consumer-friendly flying machine options to lessen the learning curve. You can use simple hand movements to give it commands, like waving to make it fly away or holding out your hand to make it land in your palm. A suite of preprogrammed shooting modes can complete complex aerial maneuvers with one button press, which will up the production quality of your airborne movies.
Huge coaster, one thin rail—Raptor Track
When passengers finally board one of Rocky Mountain Construction’s new “raptor track” coasters next spring, they’ll climb into single-seat cars, open air on either side as they whip around turns and loops at speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Instead of riding atop a pair of tracks, riders of thrill sleds like RailBlazer or Wonder Woman Golden Lasso will sit astride a 15-inch-wide steel rail, making it feel almost as if they’re riding on the track itself: no janky rocking back and forth—just smooth, precise speed.
Amusement-park engineers get a sweet experience too because the single-rail design uses less steel; it’s less expensive, needs fewer supports, and can fit into a fraction of the precious real estate that a coaster of a similar length and height (1,800 feet long and 113 feet tall) would typically need. Downside? The line to cop a ride. Only eight people will fit into the first trains, but the designers plan to build a moving loading system that keeps the ride (and queues) flowing smoothly.
A fax machine for DNA—DBC
Need a virus facsimile, STAT? The Digital-to-Biological Converter can print genetic code based on digital instructions sent from anywhere. It’s still a prototype, but as errors get worked out, the inventors hope that hospitals will print off personalized medical treatments for patients or mass-produce vaccines to combat outbreaks. On a much more distant timeline, it could one day send organisms to another planet.
Train tracks that float—East Link bridge
Rails need to stay straight, but floating bridges bob and sway with the water beneath. Not a good match? Not a problem for Sound Transit’s new project. On this bridge—which will be completed in 2023—steel platforms and flexible bearings will let light-rail tracks stay in line. By 2030, 50,000 commuters a day will ride 148,000-pound trains at full speed across the water from Seattle to Mercer Island, Washington.
Replicating robot arms—Panda
At less than $12,000, this robot arm is cheaper than most of its assembly-line competitors and is dexterous enough that it can assemble clones of itself. It’s a co-robot, which means it also plays well with humans: A collision detection system can tell when a stray arm or finger enters the bot’s workspace, and will promptly stop working when we fragile humans get in the way, reducing workplace disasters.
First floating wind farm—Hywind Scotland
Five turbines bob in the nearly 400-foot-deep waters off the coast of Scotland, generating enough power to meet the needs of around 20,000 homes. This floating-wind-farm project is close to shore, but the design means that turbines could one day live farther out to sea, where the winds are stronger—and the farms are less visible from land. That’s a win-win for people who like clean energy but want to keep their sweet ocean view.
A translucent roof that closes like a camera—Mercedes-Benz Stadium Roof
Eight 500-ton steel-boned “petals” sit above the main seating bowl in Atlanta’s newest stadium. Covered in a durable translucent fabric, the petals unfurl 200 feet over the field, shielding fans and players from inclement weather, opening or shutting like a camera aperture in as quick as nine minutes.
Sea-dwelling snake bot—Eelume vehicle
Repairing underwater infrastructure—especially in cold conditions—is rough on humans. It’s a great gig for a robot snake though. Tested in frigid Norwegian fjords, this slithery modular device spends all its time underwater. By 2020, operators hope to station these tool-wielding robo-reptillians on the seafloor near cables or oil equipment and mobilize them quickly to I.D. and fix problems such as leaky valves.
A clean way to recycle lead—AquaRefining
Lead-acid batteries help you start your car. They back up server farms, and are 100 percent recyclable. But the hot process of smelting old lead into new batteries is fossil-fueled and dirty. Aqua Metals’ new AquaRefining method dissolves the Pb using a room-temperature electrochemical system that’s free of smelting’s harmful emissions. It also produces purer, higher-quality lead than traditional methods.
Machine-bred bug army—Debug
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes can infect humans with diseases from chikungunya to Zika. Debug seeks to stop them by releasing a small army of bacteria-infested A. aegypti. When the male skeeters, raised by Debug’s automated system, mate with wild females, the resulting eggs won’t hatch, reducing the mosquito population. We’ll see if it works: Debug is releasing 20 million of the little guys near Fresno, California.
3D-printed parts for all—Production System
At an industrial scale, 3D printing with shiny alloys isn’t the next big thing. It’s just big. And big-ticket. Now companies can forgo the seven-figure monster machines for something smaller and faster. This new six-figure production system uses an inkjet-like technology to turn powder and a binding agent into whatever cold, hard widget you might desire—up to 100 times faster than the laser methods used in current systems.
Synthetic spider silk for consumers—BoltSpun Neckties
Grown in vats of yeast and spun into strands by a machine, these strong, light, and arachnid-inspired threads finally hit the market. A limited-edition run of ties marked the first commercially available synthetic spider-silk clothing. Eventually these protein-based fibers could be a renewable alternative to the petroleum-derived fabrics that dominate more than 65 percent of the world’s textile market.
Skis that fold in half—Ibex Tactix
Extreme skiers who climb steep, chairlift-less slopes only to swoosh back down them contend with a unique problem: The long skis they’ve strapped to their backpacks make the ascent even more dangerous because the planks can get in the way of a swung ice ax or catch on an obstacle. Slovenian ski-maker Elan solved this difficulty by creating skis that do something simple but awesome: They fold in half without compromising performance. The key to the system is the 2-foot-long aluminum-alloy base plate that swivels out of the way to let the skis fold, and locks them solid and flat when they’re extended. Folded, they take up only about 3 feet on adventurers’ backs. Or, for the resort and après-ski crowd, they’ll fit easily inside the trunk of a normal car.
Slugger for hitting one long—CAT7 Connect Bat
Most bats approved for college and high-school leagues feature only an inch-wide sweet spot—that ideal location where the ball will rocket off fastest. Marucci machined this one with walls of varying thickness; each section, including the large center of percussion in the middle of the barrel, is calibrated to give the ball just the right trampoline effect. A vibration dampener keeps the impact from stinging your hands.
Off-grid cell network—goTenna Mesh
Smartphones are powerful devices but need one pesky thing: infrastructure. This candy-bar-size gizmo liberates your handset from its dependency on cell towers. Bluetooth-pair one with your phone, and then beam messages over UHF radio waves to friends miles away who are also carrying the gadget. Because each antenna acts as a node in a mesh network, your range expands with each goTenna Mesh in the vicinity.
A tougher, greener shoe—Nike Flyleather
Making sneakers out of leather is wasteful: About one-third of a cow’s hide can end up in the trash. To stretch this resource, Nike pulps the waste and reconstitutes it on a gauzy fabric substrate; the resulting recycled material is lighter and more abrasion-resistant. Plus, the company can add structural layers to engineer shoes in a way not possible with first-pass hide—and the carbon footprint is 80 percent lower.
Wool that glows—Road Runner hoodie
Merino wool is a great athletic fiber: It keeps you comfortable in warm or cold weather. But textile engineers sweat while trying to get the cloth to hold a bright, saturated hue instead of a dull, sheepish one. To make this wool hoodie fluorescent, Voormi worked to chemically devise a custom dye formulation that jibed with the material, and also precisely wove in polyester fibers to add even more eye-catching neon pop.
Emergency rope releaser—Escaper
A series of sewn loops made of strong, lightweight fiber grip a rope tightly when they are weighted but relax when they are not. So when you’re done rappelling down a face, tug several times to liberate your line from its anchor up top. Another plus: If you’re in a tight spot, you can descend a single rope length instead of a doubled-up one, meaning you can cover twice the vertical distance.
Wings for your feet—Zoom Vaporfly 4%
New foam in these kicks’ midsole sandwiches a curved carbon-fiber plate, giving joggers up to a 4 percent boost in running economy. Based on shoes custom-built for three pros trying to break the two-hour-marathon mark, maybe they’ll help you crack a 10-minute mile.
Faster snowboard bindings—Step-on bindings
Five years in the making, this new binding system is a novel alternative to the traditional strap-in approach. Using them is easy: Slide your heel into a connection point at the back, then click into loops on both sides of the toes. The result is a light, comfortable apparatus that’s almost as responsive as the high-performing straps and buckles—but happily won’t compel you to sit down in the cold snow to strap yourself in.
Down that’s sleek, not puffy—Evertherm jacket
A lightweight down jacket, with its duck-feather-filled pouches, can let the cold seep in at the stitches between the baffles. Eddie Bauer’s new garment solves that problem with a unique sheetlike fabric inside it. To create the insulation, Italian company Thindown bonded standard feathery clusters with a small amount of polyester to form a layer that keeps the jacket evenly toasty yet svelte.
A nearly smokeless fire—Bonfire solo stove
The smelly, smoky memory a campfire leaves on your clothes is the least fun part of an evening otherwise spent eating s’mores. The Bonfire’s venting system draws in air through the bottom to feed the flames, and also allows some to travel inside the double walls and ignite in jets from holes up top. The result is that this portable stainless-steel fire pit consumes its fuel so efficiently that there’s little ash or eye-stinging vapor.
More-accurate ammo—Nerf Accustrike darts
Nerf took its trademark foam darts into the wind tunnel and came out with a new vented tip that spurs them to spin as they cut through the air. That, plus redistributed weight, allows them to fly with a straighter, more-consistent trajectory. Designed to work with multiple blaster models, they might just boost your marksmanship.
Shock and awe—Alta Motors Redshift MX
Derek Dorresteyn and Jeff Sand didn’t found Alta Motors to create a green dirt bike. They set out to make a fast one: a race bike. Building a race engine is a pain. You often have to take it apart multiple times to dial in maximum speed. Because Alta opted for an electric motor instead of the usual petrol-fueled symphony of whizzing metal, engineers could tune for top performance with software—lines of code instead of elbow grease. This moto doesn’t even need an oil change after a race. But that motor, which puts out 40 horsepower and 120 foot-pounds of torque, is only the first lap of innovation on the Redshift. The bike’s frame is a work of industrial art: Coolant flows through channels cast into the metal instead of clamped-on hoses. The 350-volt battery pack, which nets about 40 minutes of racing (or two-plus hours on the trails), boasts a honeycomb construction that helps it take shocks of up to 50 G’s. That’s way beyond what you can survive; anything more is literally overkill.
Tires that make crushed ice—Hakkapeliitta 9
Sometimes the rubber wants to meet the road, and the road is like “nope”—because the pavement is covered in ice. That’s why this winter tire digs in with two different types of steel studs. The middle ones are triangular, with a beveled edge that increases grip during acceleration and braking. The shoulder-mounted spikes are Y-shaped; their increased surface area grabs slippery asphalt expertly in corners.
Is little Janey asleep? Does Baby Alfred need more Cheerios to dump all over the floor? These are questions parents could answer without risking wrecks thanks to a new interior camera system available on Honda’s Odyssey minivan. A ceiling-mounted wide-angle lens beams the backseat action to the front’s touchscreen. Grownups can even zoom in on any of the five seats if they suspect an occupant of being a real jerk.
Shape-shifting supercar—2018 Ford GT
The paradox of speed: Your machine should grab the pavement in turns but slice through the air on the straights. To answer these competing needs, the Ford GT changes shape. A cam inside its rear wing can rotate, fattening the spoiler’s profile for more aerodynamic grip. When going for max miles per hour, the wing retracts and the cam rotates again so it doesn’t stop the air slipping by at up to 216 miles per hour.
Breathing fire into the Demon—SRT Power Chiller
It’s not the gas but the oxygen that goes boom in your engine; stuff more air into your cylinders, get more power. To achieve the SRT Demon’s crazy acceleration, Dodge’s necromancers of speed flow the breeze over what is essentially an air-conditioning compressor before the supercharger crams the air into its V-8. Colder air holds more oxygen, creating a bigger boom and, eventually, 840 glorious hell ponies.
Shocks that throw blocks—A8 active suspension
Audi’s new flagship sedan can brace for impact. When some yahoo is about to plow into its side, sensors pick up the impending impact and raise an alert. Then, electric motors attached to the suspension lift the crashward side, directing the force of the collision at the car’s doors and floor—the body’s strongest parts.
From office to off-road—Colorado ZR2
Other factory off-piste pickups are huge, but you can park the ZR2 in a regular garage. Engineers tested it on nine of the roughest courses in the country, including the boulder hell known as the Rubicon. The truck owned. How? A custom suspension, with F1 origins, utilizes three sets of valves: Two make the shocks perform better when the truck tackles rough terrain; the other softens ’em up for smooth roads.
Keeps your eyes on the road—Nuviz
One problem with a motorcycle’s dash-board: You have to look down to see it—a bad idea when you’re hurtling across the countryside on two wheels. Nuviz brings the dials and screens to eye level. The helmet-mounted device’s head-up display projects an image on your eye shield of your speed, a map, and even turn-by-turn directions. It also has an action cam that’ll capture stills and videos from your ride.
Safe-driving enforcement—Do Not Disturb While Driving
Distracted driving killed 3,477 people in 2015; Apple’s new mobile OS will try to keep road warriors focused. If you turn it on, Do Not Disturb While Driving will detect that your phone is in a moving car—either because it’s connected to the vehicle, or by tracking nearby Wi-Fi waves as you cruise. The screen stays black, notifications go quiet, and anyone hitting you up gets an auto response. (Get it?)
A gas engine that can act like a diesel—Skyactiv-X
Diesel engines squeeze the air and fuel in their cylinders until pressure makes the pair combust on its own; gas mills, meanwhile, fire spark plugs to create those torque-birthing explosions. This system, set to debut on the 2019 Mazda 3, blends the two, and gets up to 30 percent more MPG. It keeps the air-fuel ratio light on the petrol so it won’t self-ignite, but, in certain situations, it’ll squirt a skosh of extra fuel into the chamber and set it ablaze with the spark plug. That flame raises the pressure in the cylinder so the main supply of air and fuel more efficiently burns itself up.
Toy story—Fidget spinners
If someone showed you a fidget spinner at the beginning of 2017, it would have seemed weird and exotic. By now, you—and the rest of the world—are sick of these little hunks of plastic and ball bearings. During its rise and fall, the humble spinner made some fascinating waves. Chinese factories rushed to ramp up production, drawn in by how cheap and easy the little time-wasters are to make. Street vendors and independent sellers on platforms such as Amazon and eBay sold them by the thousands; apps sprung up to simulate the spinner experience; YouTube videos of spinner tips and reviews racked up hundreds of millions of views. Teens loved them; most school districts hated them. Freshman business students will study their trajectory for years to come. In the end, no product had a bigger impact on 2017 than these simple tchotchkes.
A coding toy with endless options—Boost Creative Toolbox
Thanks to STEM toys like this friendly robot, Vernie, it’s getting less and less shameful for fifth-graders to eclipse your coding skills. The LEGO Boost system lets kids from 7 to 12 years old code simple programs in an app that controls creations like our pal Vernie, a guitar, a cat named Frankie, and even a forklift-style construction vehicle. The robotic pieces—like the small motor and the infrared sensor—are compatible with standard Lego bricks. That allows kids to toss the instructions and build the rolling robotic dragons and lunar rovers of their dreams.
A phone knows your face—Truedepth camera
Edge-to-edge smartphone screens don’t leave room for fingerprint scanners, so Apple developed a facial-recognition system to replace them. FaceID employs infrared imaging tech and AI to map 30,000 points on your face and create a mathematical model of your mug. It can use that info to unlock your phone or for fancier tricks like mimicking your expressions with animated emojis—yes, even the poop one.
Committee of cameras—Light L16
With two built-in cams, a smartphone can imitate a much more serious camera, but Light has packed 16 imaging sensors—each with its own lens—into a device that fits in a jacket pocket. The L16 fires up to 10 of its cameras every time you push the button, which enables photography magic, such as fixing focus during editing, canceling out digital noise, and mashing up smaller photos into massive 52 MP images.
Adaptive wireless—Plume WiFi
Plug in these Wi-Fi pods around your house, and they bathe your home in wireless connectivity. Plume uses an adaptive cloud-based system that analyzes your space and optimizes the flow of data. So if you’re watching YouTube while someone streams Netflix in the same room, it might divert your data to a different module that’s farther away but has more bandwidth for your content.
A mirrorless camera for pros—Sony A9 camera
The high-end pro market was the last stand for DSLR supremacy, and Sony’s flagship camera crashes that party. It can shoot 20 full-resolution 24-megapixel images per second with autofocus. That beats the baddest DSLRs around.
A power pack for any gadget—Pro 20 bundle
This 20,000 mAh power bank has two USB ports, a standard wall socket, selectable voltage, and 11 internal temperature sensors to prevent overheating and significantly decrease the odds that you’ll fry your devices while juicing up. The direct DC port feature charges most mainstream laptops and bigger gadgets like DSLRs or drones with increased power efficiency. You can monitor its vitals on its OLED display.
Magically charging mouse—Logitech G Powerplay
Most mouse pads do little more than collect crumbs and grime, but Logitech’s generates an electromagnetic field that charges its high-end gaming mouses such as the G903. No docking, no battery swaps—just scrollin’ scrollin’ scrollin’. The pad comes with two different surfaces: hard plastic and cloth, so it won’t slow down your Overwatch skills. Plus, the top of the mat has an LED you can customize to match your avatar.
The physical app store—Essential Click Connector
Two power connectors look like a vampire bite on the back of Essential’s first smartphone. What you can’t see is the clever way they seamlessly move both power and data when an accessory is attached. The platform will be open to other manufacturers that want to use its standard for modular accessories. It also means add-ons are less likely to become obsolete when you switch phones.
A camera you want to wear on your face—Snap spectacles
The marquis feature of Snap’s Spectacles is the intentionally conspicuous design that shouts, “Look, I’m on Snapchat!” The second most important is a built-in camera that funnels your point of view to your Story in 10-second bursts of circular video. Spectacles started as a publicity stunt, which required users to find secret vending machines to get a pair, but now they’re widely available to anyone, even the unhip.
A home firewall that stops the bad guys from recruiting your stuff—Rattrap
Your smart home is a danger to everyone. Every lightbulb, security camera, and baby monitor connected to the internet can easily become one drone in a massive hacking army. Botnet exploits, like 2016’s Mirai or this spring’s BrickerBot, force thousands of devices to ping the same website and bombard it to death; Mirai, for instance, downed Twitter and Spotify. The $249 RATtrap is a home firewall that stops the bad guys from recruiting your stuff. Connected via Ethernet to your router and modem, it keeps network devices from interacting with malicious entities by halting the flow of data between you and suspicious websites. IOT Defense’s globally deployed sensors constantly scan the internet at large to track down new threats and learn patterns of nefarious behavior. Hourly updates—for now, each unit comes with a lifetime subscription—mean your own RATtrap gets savvier all the time. Protecting your network isn’t just about guarding your own information anymore; gadgets are primed for infection, and herd immunity is the only way to stop the spread.
See every side of the story—3D bag scanning
Airport X-rays create flat images, in which weapons can hide behind other objects, but a CT scanner’s 3D 360-degree views virtually unpack luggage. The TSA recently challenged manufacturers to miniaturize the hulking machines that have sniffed checked bags since 2001—while also making them quieter and cheaper. Lanes are already online in Phoenix and Boston, greasing the wings for a nationwide rollout.
Password pecker—Burner Breaker
Some phones are too dumb to let slip their secrets. Flip-phone or candy-bar “burners” often hold messages and information crucial to police cases but are so primitive that software designed to tease out clues can’t interface with them. Burner Breaker is a compact brute-force password bot. It can enter up to 14,400 combos a day, cracking most devices in hours. That means fewer hand cramps for police. Fewer cold cases too.
It knows a friendly face—Nest Cam IQ
Nest’s 8-megapixel sensor doesn’t actually upload the full 4K video it captures to the cloud, but instead uses that massive resolution to zoom into any chunk of its 130-degree view. The result: a cam with images crisp enough to let you ID intruders. An optional subscription gives you tools like the ability to flag familiar faces in the accompanying app—so you won’t get alerts every time the kiddos run screaming across the playroom.
Keep hackers off of your wheels—NYU Uptane
Don’t let nefarious coders take you for a ride. Late-model cars are basically just engines wrapped in computers. Those computers need updates, but malicious code hidden in software can leave you driving a couple tons of compromised steel. Hackers could track you, or even steer you off the road. Uptane—an open-source software protocol—checks incoming instructions for correct cryptographic signatures before accepting any downloads.
Drone’t even think about it—DroneDefender
Insurgent groups increasingly use drones as scouts and tiny bombers, so Homeland Security has turned to the DroneDefender. With a trigger pull, the rifle-shaped antenna severs the command connection between robot and controller from up to 1,300 feet away. It can also disable satellite links, forcing targets to land. Any soldier can bust airborne enemies in less than a second. It’s already been spotted with troops in Iraq.
Cyberspace gets physical—Internet Atlas
“The internet” is a simple name for a complex piece of infrastructure—a morass of wires, servers, and fiber optics—that’s deceptively fragile. The Internet Atlas maps it. The topography reveals choke points where attacks could cut connections, and how damage to one company’s server might ripple out. Researchers can even spot where natural threats like rising seas might trash the tubes.
You disabled my battleship—LRASM
The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM, or “la-rasm”) is bad news for whichever vessel commanders tell it to pursue. Currently under construction and set to deploy in 2018, the self-steering warhead uses radar and infrared sensors to track prey. It can also switch to striking a second-choice target at the last moment. It has a range of more than 200 nautical miles and devotes two-fifths of its 2,500 pounds to armament payload.
A harder drive—ORWL
The ORWL PC is the world’s first physically secure computer. The $1,699 machine won’t boot up unless it gets a tap from its users matching key fob, signaling it to awaken. ORWL puts itself back into full lockdown mode if the widget moves more than 30 feet away, protecting your device from prying eyes when you leave it unguarded. A plastic mesh protects the hard drive from more-literal hacking attempts; if anyone cracks that shell, your data goes bye-bye.
Rocket to the Red Planet—SpaceX Falcon Heavy
With 28 engines firing together in a coordinated, cacophonous symphony of rocket fuel, the Falcon Heavy lifts off with 5 million pounds of force—more than any ship since the retired ’70s-era Saturn V—and twice the payload weight of any other modern spacecraft. Those thrusters equate to three space-cargo-hauling Falcon 9 rockets and will tote tens of thousands of pounds of satellites, a solar sailing spacecraft, and eventually two lunar tourists. The side boosters burn first and land back on Earth, while the center engine makes the final push out of the atmosphere. The more hardware SpaceX can recover, including that last stage, the cheaper (and cheaper) the flights become. Success in these early missions will prove that this is the ship with the horsepower, reliability, and price point to shuttle humans to Mars.
A flying luxury car—Vision Jet
A single, seamless carbon-fiber frame makes the $2 million Cirrus Vision Jet sturdy enough to sport a panoramic 180-degree windshield. From their spots behind the cockpit, up to five passengers can enjoy almost unimpeded views at 28,000 feet from their luxury-car-like seats. The 30.7-foot plane’s single top-mounted engine won’t bother them either; its placement away from the cabin in the middle of the V-shaped tail, separate from the spin-resistant wings, reduces internal noise. In case of emergency, a parachute stashed in the nose can float everyone down to safety. Yes, it has cup holders.
Autopilot for drones —DARPA FLA
Drones don’t see objects; they see pixels. The Fast Lightweight Autonomy program teaches them to recognize doors as openings or trees as obstacles so they can navigate without humans or GPS. The system retrofits crafts with cameras and sensors, which guide them at up to 40 miles per hour through dense forests or warehouses. Without ground-to-drone contact, the bad guys will have trouble hijacking ’em.
Over-the-pole plane tracker—Space-Based ADS-B
As long as planes have existed, they’ve been virtually unaccounted for when they fly more than 200 miles offshore. Air-traffic controllers track planes via ground-based receivers, called ADS-Bs, that pick up signals from transponders inside aircraft. By launching those receivers skyward on 81 satellites, 40 of which went up this year, Aireon will deliver the first unimpeded view of crafts flying over seas and poles.
A steerable balloon —Stratollite
Balloons’ buoyancy makes studying Earth from the edge of space simple. The trouble is, they float away. World View’s solar-powered Stratollite has a dual-balloon system that takes advantage of air currents to stay put. It’ll dip down into one gust for a few miles, then rise into an opposing breeze to move back. Up to 220 pounds of weather sensors and radio transmitters can hitch a ride—no pricey rocket fuel required.
Storms develop fast and every minute can matter, so the GOES-16 satellite scans high-risk areas every 30 seconds. Five times speedier than prior sats, it gathers lightning-flash data and other information that forecasters haven’t had before.
Droooone swaaaarm!—UTAP-22 MAKO
Like a militarized fleet of ducklings, Mako drones fall into formation behind their leader. These 20-foot-long combat craft track and mirror a manned fighter jet’s movements. In battle, the mini flyers are expendable companions (armed with bombs and missiles) and can release even smaller versions Russian-nesting-doll-style to overwhelm enemies’ targeting defense systems.
A gentle cargo landing—Dream Chaser
Pods that ferry loads from the ISS today splash down in the ocean, where they float and wait for retrieval. The Dream Chaser will deliver cargo autonomously, straight to commercial strips. The smooth lander pulls 1.5 G’s versus the standard 4-plus, so sensitive experiments will arrive intact. At liftoff, the ship’s wings fold inward, allowing its 30-foot-long body to tuck inside the nose cone of a NASA Atlas V rocket.
The few carbon-rich asteroids circling our sun might hold the precursors to life on Earth, little changed over the millenniums. That’s why the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft blasted toward them late last year. The 20-foot-long explorer has spent the intervening time positioning itself for a gravity-assisted slingshot around our pale blue dot. Next year, it will sidle up to the asteroid Bennu and extend its arm to collect samples.
Finally, a comfy space suit—Starliner Space Suit
Lightweight boots with sneaker-like soles (designed by Reebok) plus knitted nylon-mesh joints let astronauts in the Starliner easily maneuver and stretch to reach distant control switches. A soft hood and zippers that loosen the torso fabric when standing, or tuck it away when sitting, add comfort. And conductive leather on the gloves allows deep-space snapchats and touchscreen interaction.
Smartest. Cooker. Ever.—June Intelligent Oven
Web videos, meal-delivery services, and smart appliances are trying to lure reluctant cooks (ahem, millennials) back into the kitchen with promises of quick, easy meals. Among the latter is the $1,495 June, an intelligent convection cooker that makes crucial decisions for you. Pop in a tray of food, and a camera built into its ceiling recognizes the grub. Based on what it sees, the oven heats to a preset temperature and sets an automatic timer; for tricky proteins like chicken breast and salmon, a digital thermometer double-checks doneness. Six carbon-fiber elements maintain a uniform temperature within the oven to avoid hot-spot surprises or soggy bottoms. When it launched this past December, June had 50 different foods in its recipe bank, including vegetables like broccoli and frozen faves like french fries, but it’s learning new skills all the time. It’s already added 15 new foodstuffs, including bacon and burgers.
Untippable tape measure—Sidewinder Tape Measure
Tape measure, teeter no more: Craftsman’s Sidewinder lies flat. While the spool sits at the same orientation as it does in traditional versions, the ruler twists 90 degrees before exiting the plastic casing. This allows the body of the gadget to remain parallel to the floor as the tape, available in 16- and 25-foot lengths, unrolls.
Moldings, drywall, flooring, and other home improvements rely on quick-setting glue to fix objects in place while you get ready to fasten them. And DAP’s DynaGrip Heavy Duty Max sets up to five times quicker than other sticky stuff. Within one hour of application, the glue can support nearly 60 pounds per square inch, 13 times more than the typical construction adhesive. And it also holds in colder, wetter weather conditions.
Super-duper smoker—Smoker Cabinet
There are few meals as dependent on consistency as smoked meat, cooked for hours at a steady, low heat. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet’s Smoker Cabinet (which costs a searing $13,495) has a multi-pronged attack to hold temps. A computer-regulated fan stokes the fire as needed, and a 7-pound column of charcoal burns from the bottom up, so it can smolder for 16 hours without a reload; all the while, a chunk of wood in a basin burns, adding smoky flavor.
Power up your water supply—Hydroshot
A garden hose can’t handle higher-pressure cleaning tasks like blasting mold off window sills. Drawing from a hose, bottle, or bucket, the motorized pump in WORX’s battery-powered 3.7-pound cleaner pressurizes liquid to a grime-bombing 320psi —five times the strength of a hose—without a power washer’s bulky base. The Hydroshot needs only half a gallon per minute, as opposed to a hose’s 4 to 6 gallons.
Instant water filter—Brita Stream Pitcher
Stop waiting for water to slowly drip into your Brita’s reservoir. Instead of trickling liquid through two tanks, the Stream Pitcher’s filter sits directly in front of its spout so the H2O can purify as you pour.
Mighty multitool—Gerber Center-Drive
No matter their myriad appendages, most multitools share one chafing similarity: an awkward grip that makes twisting a pain. To deliver maximum torque, Gerber gave the Center-Drive’s bit driver a slightly curved stem so, when open, it aligns with the center axis of the gadget like a single-purpose tool does.
Simplify your smart home—POP Smart Button
Don’t bother adjusting your smart home’s lights and speakers individually: Stick a 2.4-inch Pop Smart Button on the wall to do that for you. During setup, the app detects smart devices on your Wi-Fi network, then programs them to respond to button presses. Add a special remote, and you can create coordinated programs like a “movie night” mode that turns on the TV, dims lights, and sets temps to the ideal snuggling degree.
A mask that lets you breathe better—SoftSeal mask
Most safety masks have a big flaw: gaps at the edges, which allow dust and debris easy passage into your lungs. A silicone seal around the perimeter of DDME’s SoftSeal mask molds the barrier comfortably to your face so its four layers of filters—which block smoke, ash, fine air-pollution particles, and larger allergens, along with living pests such as bacteria, mold, and viruses—can protect you properly.
This AI flushes out trolls—Perspective
Hate and harassment flourish in online comment sections. To keep these digital forums open, Jigsaw—a division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet—built Perspective, a machine-learning system that scores readers’ written thoughts from 1 to 100, based on how likely they are to be toxic. You may have noticed that since June, more articles on The New York Times’ website allow people to post their opinions. That’s because the Times—which contributed millions of annotated comments to train the system—employed Perspective to help its human moderators handle the remarks more efficiently. By year’s end, editors hope to have opened up 80 percent of all articles for (non-toxic) discussion.
Bot that knows your voice—Google Assistant
In April, the Google Assistant became the first virtual persona with the ability to differentiate people—as many as six—based on their voices. After training it (via a Google Home device) to learn what makes your vocal sounds unique, ask it to read your schedule. You’ll hear only your own appointments, not your partner’s.
Unseen security guard—Invisible recaptcha
Proving you’re a human online can be a pain in the bot. Who wants to deal with a string of numbers or letters—or even a checkbox—when you’re just trying to fill out a form? In March, Google cut us all a break with its Invisible Recaptcha service. Working in the background, this gatekeeper uses risk analysis and machine learning while you do nothing. If it gets suspicious, the system might still make you take a captcha test.
Your smile’s the ticket—Face recognition
In June, passengers jaunting off to Aruba from Boston with JetBlue could keep their boarding passes and passports tucked away—that’s because the carrier started accepting flyers’ faces as ID. A camera at the gate snaps a photo of each participating traveler, and then a U.S. Customs and Border Protection algorithm matches it against a photo of the traveler’s visage on file, giving each voyager the green light (or not).
When AI is the dating coach —Smart photos
Choosing your Tinder profile photo used to be angst-inducing, but now a machine-learning algorithm can do it for you. The system rotates which picture leads, figuring out the popularity of each based on people’s responses. With image recognition, Tinder can even determine how an individual swiper might react to a certain photo, meaning it can custom-select a specific selfie to present to a potential date.
Made for the future, and past—Horizon Zero Dawn
The developers behind this gorgeous, post-apocalyptic video game designed it to take advantage of the Sony PlayStation 4 Pro’s copious processing power, but also ensured that it still shines on older consoles. On Sony’s latest gaming machine and a 4K monitor, you’ll get high-res visuals and HDR colors, but even on a standard PS4, you’ll still enjoy smoother gameplay and more details as you hunt giant machines.
Knocking JPEG off its throne—MPEG
Since 1992, JPEG has quietly ruled as the prevailing photo-compression standard. But that might change with the high-efficiency image file format (HEIF), which Apple baked into iPhones running iOS 11 and Macs operating High Sierra. Not only can HEIF store multiple shots and audio in a single file, photographs will take up less space and pack in more colors. With a greater range of hues, skies will appear smoother.
Best of What’s New was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Popular Science.