In science and technology, there are moments, and there are movements. An iPhone with a trypophobia-triggering camera? That’s a moment. An app that live streams a protest from the streets to the entire world? That’s a movement.
Every year, the Popular Science staff looks back on the previous 12 months to identify the 100 products and innovations that stood most above the fray. At the end of a decade, with 1,000 hand-picked winners logged, we’re able to single out the stories that most re-defined our pale blue dot—and beyond.
Smartphones loomed large in the past 10 years, shaping entire industries and lives. But they can’t hog all the credit for pushing the world forward in the 2010s. A Google-Amazon arms race to dominate AI-enabled home products made us comfy chatting with machines. The fight against climate change scaled up with wind-caching turbines and bloody, delicious non-meat. And space exploration made a comeback as an internet-televised phenomenon, with new rockets, rovers, and ripple-reading machines from NASA and SpaceX.
Going into the 2020s, there will be more white whales (ahem, a driverless car without a rap sheet), big-tech throwdowns (like the one raging between Facebook and anyone who’s paying attention), and brain-melting global challenges (the Arctic is literally melting as greenhouse gases choke up the atmosphere). But before the clock resets, let’s take a moment to revisit the 20 technology movements that best marked this decade.
This was the decade of the consumer drone: The wee aircrafts are now used for wedding shoots, toilet paper drops, duck surveys, you name it. While DJI currently dominates the market, credit for the craze rests with Parrot’s AR Drone, which took off three years before any of its close competitors. The quadcopter ran off a smartphone, making it a cinch to pilot for a new generation of flying hobbyists.
The Burj Khalifa, which looms 2,716.5 feet over Dubai and has a whopping 4,000-ton spire, introduced a radical new approach to designing skyscrapers: Its hexagonal core supports three wings that buttress each other, creating a tripod that maximizes internal space by eliminating thick load-bearing walls. The design has drawn both cultural recognition and tourism to the United Arab Emirates, but it will also transform skylines—starting in Saudi Arabia, where the 3,280-foot Jeddah Tower is slated to open next year.
When NASA sunsetted the shuttle program in 2011, it turned to a California startup to ferry cargo to the International Space Station—again and again and again. The 230-foot Falcon9 rocket, which completed it maiden flight in 2010, features a reusable first stage (the lower bit with the nine engines) that can return to a landing pad or a drone ship. Flying that expensive hardware multiple times allows SpaceX to fling things into orbit (or beyond) for the relatively low cost of $62 million per mission, making it a leader in the new private space race.
At first, the iPad seemed amazing but extraneous. It was just a big phone, right? (Yes, actually. Earlier tablets failed because manufacturers had just tried shrinking a PC.) But using the same multi-touch gestures and App Store as the iPhone created an intimate gadget for posting to social media, watching movies, or reading magazines. It spoiled us. Today, the iPad has the computing heft to replace a laptop, and drives an entire ecosystem of non-computer-computers that help us do everything from check-in at the doctor’s office to pay for our morning latte.
Since its launch, Curiosity has remained the largest, most advanced rover ever sent to Mars, where it’s spent more than seven years assessing the planet’s habitability. Beyond seeking microbial signs of life, its study of the Red Planet’s climate has provided crucial data for future human missions. Along the way, the SUV-sized six-wheeler also became a social-media sensation, fueling our collective sense of wonder and interest in space exploration. The Mars 2020 rover riffs on its design and adds new instruments to expand our hunt for, what else, aliens.
Whenever an electric vehicle (EV) hits the market, someone’s bound to brand it a “Tesla-killer.” So far, though, no one’s managed to take down the king. Seven years after its debut, the Model S remains the benchmark: It’s still the quickest (the P100D hits 60 mph in 2.3 seconds), and it still offers the greatest range (as much as 370 miles). More so, it’s proven there’s a public demand for EVs, giving rise to thousands of charging stations in Whole Foods and Walmart parking lots across the nation, and goading other automakers into finally investing seriously in the technology.
For decades, researchers believed only a cure would end the HIV epidemic. That changed with the discovery that Truvada, used since 2004 to treat the disease, can prevent it, too. The medication combines two compounds that keep the virus from replicating, and a daily dose can drive the contagion level low enough to make transmission nearly impossible. Like many breakthrough drugs, Truvada is still navigating the path to ubiquity and affordability. But widespread use as either a treatment or a preventative measure (called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP) could fundamentally change care regimens—and perhaps reduce the stigma associated with the disease.
The paradox of wind power is it relies upon, well, the wind blowing. No wind, no power. GE solved that problem by putting a battery in a turbine to store extra electricity during strong gusts for use when there’s barely a breeze. Drive through the vast flatlands of Texas or Oregon and you’ll see mile after mile of them, generating juice for tens of thousands of homes. Still more provide clean energy in Europe and Asia, where renewables are replacing coal and giving us some hope of combating climate change.
Before the Rift floored everyone at the Consumer Electronics Show, virtual reality was something long promised but never delivered. Oculus was the first headset to immerse consumers in other worlds. Sure, the picture was just OK, and it could make you nauseous, but the experience provided a tantalizing glimpse of virtual moonwalking, shootout-having, military-training realities to come. Though VR hasn’t replaced or even really encroached on people’s screen time, the Rift led the way for HTC and every other company trotting out a rig. And from a hardware standpoint, the Oculus line remains the technology’s leading edge.
Perhaps no single app has proven the power of the people better than Waze. By viewing each of its 50-million-or-so users as a data node, the navigation app produces some of the most richly detailed readouts of roads as they are, not as they were planned. What sets Waze apart is its ability to receive information both actively (by, say, tagging accidents or hazards) and passively (analyzing real-time speed data to determine where there might be traffic). It’s the network effect—in full effect.
There are well over 100 million Alexa-powered devices in the world, from smart speakers to refrigerators—even toilets. Every one of them is descended from The Echo. At first, Amazon’s digital genie didn’t do much more than play music, recite calendar events, turn on lights, and order kitty litter refills. But the system has been rapidly propagating and learning—say something like “Alexa, goodnight” and it can flip your smart locks, dim the lights, and play white noise—as some grasp for greater adoption (hello, Google Assistant) and others have come and gone (sorry, Cortana and Bixby).
Before Facebook Live, there was Periscope. When Twitter snapped up and launched the real time-streaming app, analysts pontificated about how it (and the similar platforms that would inevitably follow) would change media. But in the end, a tool that made broadcasting everything from Black Lives Matter protests to the Syrian refugee crisis to a sit-in by members of the United States House of Representatives would also change the world.
For years, the idea of artificial intelligence felt disconnected from everyday life; for some of us, it still might. By making Watson’s cognitive-computing abilities available to everyone from app developers and cancer researchers to fashion designers and Sesame Street producers, IBM helped the machine’s powerful silicon brain do more than just win Jeopardy!; it made the mind-bending concept of a computer than can think into something concrete.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) allows scientists to plot the history of the universe and spot events like supernovas. The carefully calibrated observatories in Washington and Louisiana detect ripples in spacetime that date as far back as the Big Bang, and provide astronomers and physicists with a new way of studying the cosmos. Already, the instrument has confirmed Einstein’s theory of relativity and recorded the collision of two black holes. No less impressive: LIGO has captivated people the world over, making them curious about esoteric subjects like the nature of space and origin of, well, everything.
Citing a Facebook product for its leadership in privacy feels a bit like talking out of both sides of your mouth. That’s true. But, to be fair, WhatsApp did set the standard (and expectation) that we have the right to keep our communication private. Today, the app’s 1.6 billion users can talk, text, and video chat without fear of snoops. And with Zuck & Co. bringing the same end-to-end encryption technology to all of the social media giant’s messaging platforms, the government is getting worried about losing its ability to peek at your correspondences.
Kymriah ditches radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery in favor of using the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. The first regimen of its kind approved by the FDA, the human gene-edited treatment modifies specialized white blood cells called T cells. The mod gives them a receptor that lets them locate and attack malignant cells. Just one treatment is all it takes, too. Although developed for a type of leukemia known as ALL, Kymriah and drugs like it could one day treat many other cancers.
Eliud Kipchoge wore a bespoke pair of these sneakers to reach the longstanding zenith of competitive running: a sub-two-hour marathon. The foam in the midsole of the crazy-light kicks sandwiches a curved carbon-fiber plate, which creates a spring-like effect that returns a significant amount of the energy expended with every stride. That boosts your efficiency by an average of 4 percent, a margin that provides a big (some say unfair) competitive advantage. How much longer the shoes remain competition-legal is an open question, but they’ve got Nike’s rivals sprinting to catch up.
As Sony and Microsoft stuffed more computing power into consoles, Nintendo finally found the happy medium between TV-connected oomph and portability. The Switch features a 6.2-inch screen straddled between two removable controllers, making it perfect for Zelda campaigns on the train (it’s better than anything you’d play on a phone) or impromptu Mario Kart multiplayer battles at home. The graphics aren’t as mind-blowing as the bigger machines, but who cares when you can tackle triple-A titles on the go? Certainly not the 37 million people who own one.
Fortnite is, above all else, one hell of a game. But it’s also a thriving virtual world where millions of people gather on the reg. Mostly to kill each other in epic last-player-standing battles royale, and sometimes to attend Star Wars-themed parties or concerts by the likes of Marshmello. The best players win millions competing in tournaments, make viral videos playing alongside A-listers like Drake, and, in some circles, boast more notoriety than professional athletes. The game is free, cross-pollinates across every platform (that’s mobile, console, and PC), and is a true window into the future of gaming—where the line between real and digital life continues to blur.
Saving the planet requires eating fewer cows and more plants. But when you’re craving a hamburger, only beef—or rather, the iron-containing heme molecule—will satisfy. Those little bits are a big reason meat tastes, well, meaty, so Impossible 2.0 mixes loads of them with plant-based oils and proteins to craft a perfectly fatty, gluten-free treat. The result is a burger so convincing, it’s even captured the fast-food industry’s attention: Burger King, White Castle, and the Cheesecake Factory have it on their menus, hinting that a beef-free future may be possible after all.
Correction: The article previously misidentified the Curiosity rover in a photo. The image has now been updated to show the correct Mars craft. Thanks to our readers for the tip.