This week, we unveiled our 20th-annual Best of What’s New-our year-end list of the 100 greatest innovations in the world of science and technology. In honor of 20 glorious years of picking the best of the best, we’ve decided to take a look at some previous recipients of our top tech honors.
Yes, some of it looks a little dusty these days, but it’s still possible to trace many of this year’s cutting-edge winners back to their ancestors from the past two decades; as they say, innovation begets innovation. Dig the Jawbone Bluetooth headset, a winner this year in the gadgets category? Check out the monstrosity that started it all. Excited that consumer-level holographic storage is just around the corner? Might want to scope our 1992 prediction. From the 3-D camcorder bound to revolutionize home movies to the V-22 Osprey (finally flying 19 years after we first covered it), join us in looking back at 20 years of innovation. As for the next 20, this year’s picks are only the beginning.
Click here to launch the gallery of past winners.
Sure, PC gaming existed before Myst, but the landmark first-person adventure game instantly raised the bar after taking the world by storm in 1994. The best-selling computer game of all time for almost the entire decade (The Sims overtook it in the late ’90s), Myst counted among its many lures standout imagery and renderings. Today, graphics intrigue us as much as ever- witness DirectX 10, a winner this year in the computing category. As Windows Vista’s 3-D rendering system, Direct X 10 shifts more of the heavy number-crunching to the graphics processor for previously impossible detail.
A dot-commer’s dream and the bane of bus-riders everywhere, Bluetooth hit the market with a bang in 2000. Today, while the general principle remains largely the same, technology and design continue to evolve. The Aliph Jawbone, a winner this year, records the surrounding ambient noise when its wearer isn’t talking and then removes it when conversation begins, leaving your audience with only the crystal-clear sound of your voice.
Plastics, My Boy
A truly biodegradable plastic has been a long time coming. In 1990, we featured the first type of its kind. Developed by the British chemical giant ICI, polyhydroxybutyrate-valerate retained plastic’s indefinite life span in ordinary situations but decomposed in a matter of weeks when exposed to certain microbes (like the ones found in landfills). Nowadays, Metabolix picks up where ICI left off, with a stronger and more versatile biodegradable plastic made with E. coli (no kidding).
Several years after the boon of car-seat warmers, one company figured out a way to keep them cool, too. The first climate-control seat, introduced in 2000, incorporated a dual-polarity thermoelectric device that changed temperature by switching currents. This year, BMW takes the theory a step further: Metallic pigments are embedded in leather during the tanning process to reflect the sun and reduce the seat temperature up to 36 º F. Let’s hope the times continue to be kind to sticky thighs.
Not So Nickelodeon
The first digital-video recorder had the idea down pat when it was introduced in 1999. An in-box hard drive allowed users to pause live broadcasts for up to 30 minutes and record eight hours of video. Seven years later, Moxi adds further innovation to the now-ubiquitous DVR, streaming HD video from one TV to another through the coaxial cables already installed in your home.
Weighing in at two pounds and sporting a massive antenna, the NAV 1000’s design may have left something to be desired, but the first commercial GPS unit was a technological marvel. Syncing with three satellites, the device continuously updated its user’s position and launched an entire market. Eighteen years after this received a BOWN award, the technology is the de facto navigational standard. Today the Bushnell Onix400 displays real-time weather fronts and layers them over your hiking route, pulls aerial photos of the surrounding terrain, and receives satellite radio.
In the 1980s, 3-D captivated us just as much as today. This dual-lens video camera that shot scenes from two slightly different points of view won our admiration back in 1988. Although the camera has disappeared into the mists of history (the novelty of watching the kids unwrap presents in three dimensions probably wears off pretty quickly), the technology is still as enthralling as ever. For a look at a 3-D TV that might (really) revolutionize the genre this time around, check out Samsung’s impressive new 3-D DLP HD sets.
Computer users have been predicting the death of the hard drive for years now, and even in 1992 we envisioned a better way. Tamarack Storage was among the first companies to offer proof that holographic memory–in which pages of tiny holograms store information by encoding crystals with laser beams–might someday become practical. Tamarack’s storage device “may be able to store more than 10 gigabytes of data in a crystal smaller than a sugar cube,” PopSci explained. Fifteen years later, we’re still waiting for holographic storage to truly hit the mainstream, but the Inphase Tapestry, a 2007 BOWN winner, represents a leap forward. It uses durable 300-gigabyte discs barely larger than DVDs, but for now its price tag of $18,000 means it’s for pros only. Consumer versions are expected soon.
Keeping Up with the Soccer Moms
What a long way the minivan has come. In 1995 we touted Chrysler’s latest mom-mobiles as “handsome and drivable,” marveling over their styling and performance. Today, Chrysler still leads the pack, with vehicles that are downright sleek and packed with such amenities as satellite television and seating that can swivel around so the family can face one another. Truly a living room on wheels.
Though not quite “as easy to use as a pencil and paper,” the Newton was nevertheless a marvel and years ahead of its time when it debuted in 1993. Cementing Apple’s already firm role as an innovator and industry leader, the Newton led a reformation, spawning the PDAs, smartphones and UMPCs that are so entrenched in our lives today. Nabbing a Grand Award in 1992, its trajectory paralleled that of its descendant and this year’s Grand Award winner in the gadgets category, the iPhone.
Eyes Off the Road
The first car computer sported a 1,200-word vocabulary and followed verbal orders– changing radio stations, providing directions, and reading e-mail subject lines with ease. Eleven years later, the Sync system picks up the slack, pairing with MP3 players and cellphones and then pulling up songs, phone numbers and addresses on your command.
Eleven years after we hailed an Antarctic meteorite as “strong evidence” of life on Mars, the search for life outside Earth rages on. Moving beyond our solar system, these days the Corot space telescope images distant solar systems clearer than ever before, tracking minute eclipses in the hopes in discovering Earth-like planets that may support life.
A sad choice, given subsequent events, the first production electric car piqued our interest in 1996 and garnered a Grand Award. GM’s EV1 sported an aerodynamic all-aluminum frame and previously unknown efficiency. A 70- to 90-mile range and promising performance (0-60 mph in roughly eight seconds) should have spelled success, but the car never made it off its leasing structure, and the program was official shuttered in 2003. Now electric cars seem to be having a renaissance, with GM entering the fray once again. Its plug-in hybrid concept, the Volt, fully charges in six hours and has a 640-mile range. Let’s hope increased consumer demand and environmental need helps the revolution catch on the second time around.
The Quiet Revolutionary
Who says a family car can’t lead an automotive revolution? Honda’s Accord garnered a win in 1993 thanks to a “sporty exterior” and a range of power and efficiency improvements. Fourteen years later, and we’ve still got a soft spot in our hearts for the vehicle. The ’08 Accord gets our vote for leading the way in zero-emissions standards, upping fuel efficiency, and integrating innovative pedestrian-safety features.
When satellite radio arrived in 2001, we called it “the biggest advance on the airwaves since FM stereo.” Six years later, we’re just as keen. This year’s award went to XM’s latest breakthrough: a color receiver that tracks what’s playing on three stations simultaneously, letting you be the DJ.
Few military craft gain as much attention at the V-22 Osprey has over the years. We gave the heliplane an award way back in 1988, expecting a flight within the year and predicting that “as much as 66 percent of short-haul traffic” on busy air corridors would be relieved by Osprey-like planes by 1995. Our forecasts were off on this one, but the V-22 got another award from us, this year, after finally entering service. Welcome (at last).