The 100 greatest innovations of 2016
Secret Santas, take note
Each year, Popular Science picks the 100 greatest new innovations in science and technology to feature in our Best Of What's New issue. These are the breakthroughs that will shape the future—and some may even make great Christmas presents.
Ossic X: The Sweet Sound of Virtual Reality
When it comes to virtual reality, video gets all the glory. But hearing in VR—as bullets whiz overhead and floors creak underfoot—is just as key. Heavyweights like HTC and Oculus are working hard on their audio engines, but a San Diego startup is taking multidimensional sound a step further. Ossic's X over-ear headphones adapt to a listener's anatomy, creating the most convincing 3D audio effects yet. First, sensors at the top of the ear cups measure your head size to precisely time audio delays between the ears. Four drivers surround each ear, simulating sound that comes from multiple directions. Finally, the Ossic X's built-in head tracking uses an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a compass to match what you're hearing to your every move. $299
Virtual Reality for Regular People: Sony Playstation VR
The strict requirements of high-def VR gaming require beefy PCs to use. The PlayStation VR makes the experience plug-and-play for Sony's more than 40 million preexisting PS4 owners. Unlike cheapo phone-based systems (think Google Cardboard), the headset delivers full 1080p images to each eye and a wide 100-degree field of view. Titles like Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One are the closest you'll get to sitting in an X-Wing. $400
Parrot Disco: The Easiest-Flying Drone
If you've thrown a paper plane, you can launch the Parrot Disco. Toss the 1.6-pound drone into the sky, and onboard sensors—gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, barometer, and GPS—navigate the fixed-wing craft to 150 feet, where it circles awaiting further command. Users set a course via remote control, and algorithms on board keep the drone on track. A top speed of 50 mph means you won't be losing any races. $1,300
Lytro Cinema Camera: Green Screen, Sans the Green
Light-field cameras, which allow users to tweak parts of an image into focus, are increasingly common among consumer cameras. The 755-megapixel Lytro Cinema Camera brings the tech to pro filmmakers, making post-production effects easier than ever. Among the editing tricks it opens up: shifting focus, adjusting film speed, and removing and replacing any part of the background—no green screen required. Prices vary
No Man's Sky: A Game The Size Of The Universe
It took three years to code No Man's Sky, but it will take you a lifetime to play. The science-fiction fantasy exploration game on PS4 and PC offers ungodly possibility. Its powerful rendering engine can generate 18 quintillion planets—99.9 percent of which you'll never have time to visit. Your job: Try to see them all while discovering species, trading resources, and surviving the vast expanse of the final frontier that is space. Safe travels! $60
LG Signature OLED TV: The Most Colorful Picture
Even the best 4K TVs can swallow up details in the darkest and brightest parts of the image. High-dynamic range (HDR)—a catchall term for video encoded with a billions-deep color gamut—brings those nuances into the forefront. LG's Signature OLED TVs render colors better than any other. The sets support both the HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR standards, so viewers can count on seeing the full rainbow, no matter their content source. From $7,999
Anki Cozmo: The Smartest Robot Pet
Not all A.I.-powered bots need to be virtual assistants: Some can just keep us entertained. Improving the robotic intelligence of playtime is Anki's Cozmo. The baseball-size wheeled robot has a facial-recognition camera behind its friendly OLED eyes, allowing it to learn and recognize its near and dear. Sophisticated machine learning helps Cozmo's personality evolve, while upcoming tools for developers will let them teach it a host of new tricks. $180
Sony Portable Ultra Short Throw: Projection On Any Surface
Sony's 5-inch, laser-based projector turns surfaces into screens. Placed against a wall, the projector shoots up to produce a crisp 22-inch picture. Back up a foot, and that expands to 80 inches. $999
Yamaha YSP-5600: A Hemisphere Of Sound
Most home surround sound is two-dimensional, pinging audio front to back and side to side. When it launched two years ago, the Dolby Atmos audio standard added height to the equation; this year, Yamaha's YSP-5600 became the first to cram the spec into a single speaker. The sound bar's 32 forward-firing drivers are joined by 12 upward-firing ones, which ricochet sounds off the ceiling like a helicopter flying overhead or birds in a tree. Or simply use the first 7.1.2 channel sound bar to play your favorite tunes off Spotify, Pandora, and more. $1,600
Onboard Axe Effects: Yamaha Transacoustic Guitar
The acoustic guitar is a perfectly self-contained instrument. No amps, no wires—and no fun for anyone who wants to produce live effects. The Transacoustic Guitar re-creates reverb and chorus, using built-in knobs to control the two. The movement of the strings vibrates an actuator inside the instrument, which alters the guitar's sound on the fly—no electricity required—granting you on-stage rockstar prowess right in your lap. $999
The First 4K Blu-Ray Player: Samsung 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Player
Ultrahigh-def content is coming, and Samsung's device is the first to handle it all. The player streams 4K video from Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon, along with, of course, playing physical UHD discs. $399
Microsoft Skype Translator, The End of the Language Barrier
The Internet connected us all—but what good is that if we can't understand each other? Skype's artificial-intelligence-based Translator is our digital Tower of Babel. It lets us talk to anyone, anywhere, regardless of mother tongue. Made available on Windows in late 2015, Translator uses layers of machine-learning algorithms. When a user speaks, the A.I., drawing on millions of speech examples, analyzes the words and transcribes them into text. The text is then scrubbed of "ums" and word repetitions, and run through a translator. The A.I. is self-learning; the more it "hears" a regional accent or slang, the smarter it gets and the better it functions. Callers can receive audio in eight languages and see transcripts in more than 50. Can you hear us now?
Intelligentx Brewing Company, The First A.I. Brewmaster
Humans have brewed beer for millennia. Intelligentx Brewing Company thinks artificial intelligence should take a shot. Its machine-learning algorithm reads beer recipes like any other brewmaster. But it also learns from you. After drinking one of the brewery's four beer styles, you tell a bot on Facebook Messenger what you like, don't like, or want more of, and the A.I. uses your comments to brew the next batch. More data, better brew.
WhatsApp Encryption, 1 Billion Safer People
In April 2016, more than 1 billion cellphone users gained the ability to outsmart the NSA or any third-party snoop when Open Whisper Systems released its WhatsApp end-to-end encryption protocols. Made for voice calls and texting (including photos, videos, and files), users verify their communication is encrypted by either scanning a machine-readable QR code or comparing a 60-digit code with their fellow security-obsessed communicant.
Courtesy That Dragon Cancer
Numinous Games' That Dragon, Cancer: A Game That Will Break Your Heart
When game developer Ryan Green's son, Joel, was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 1, Green turned to his medium to work through it. The result is a soul-twisting video game that lets players experience the ups and downs the Greens went through during Joel's four-year battle—the challenge of comforting a child in pain, the joy of story time, and the grief of dealing with his death. "My favorite moments are the moments where you can be with Joel," says Green. "To play with him, hear him breathe, or hear him laugh, those moments I like the most."
Snapchat Lenses: AR's Big Moment
It wasn't Pokémon Go. It was Snapchat's Lenses—object recognition and real-time special effects that let you change your on-screen eye color, superimpose faces, wear animal "masks," and place scenes around an image.
Microsoft and Univ. of Washington DNA Storage: The Densest Data
Instead of server farms, the entire Internet may one day be the size of a shoe box. That's what researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington proved in July, when they encoded 200 megabytes of digital files into the building blocks of DNA—breaking the previous 20-megabyte record. They did it using a type of enzyme called polymerase, which makes copies of DNA in a programmable way and allows any part of the DNA string to be read.
Google Daydream Labs, Creating VR in VR
Daydream Labs lets developers animate and build virtual reality not on a flat computer screen, but for the first time inside VR itself. They can interact, socialize, offer feedback, and use hand controllers as their virtual creations rise up around them.
Vibram Arctic Grip
Vibram's Arctic Grip is a new type of rubber shoe sole that stops feet from slipping while walking or running on the most treacherous ice. Vibram designed the treads to mimic polar bear paws, which have tiny papillae and curved claws to increase friction (and thus traction) on ice. Arctic Grip—which debuted on shoes from six brands, including Saucony and Wolverine—uses an array of lugs crafted out of a unique ice-grabbing rubber compound to increase traction. When the wearer steps, the compound causes a split-second melt-then-freeze reaction; melting disperses the ice, and freezing against the textured sole creates more surface area for the lugs to grab onto. Styles from $150
Giro Avance MIPS Ski Helmet: The Safest Ski Helmet
Two milliseconds is all it takes to injure the brain in a collision. Giro's Avance does more than any other helmet to protect our gray matter. The helmet utilizes Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS), a burgeoning head-safety technology. It allows the wearer's head to move inside a helmet like a ball in a socket. An inner shell holds the head steady while the outer shell rotates. This movement deflects the forces that cause the worst brain injuries. For extra measure, Giro made the inner shell of premium foam to protect against successive impacts. $600
OnCourse Goggles: GPS for Swimmers
It's tough for open-water swimmers to cut through waves in a straight line. OnCourse Goggles keep them on track, no surfacing necessary. To set a route, a swimmer sights a way-point and clicks a button to lock it into an electronic compass and shore up the path. Green, yellow and red LEDs in the corner of each eye provide direction. Green in both means on course, red in the right eye means veer left, and vice versa. $200 (est.)
BSX LVL Wearable Hydration Monitor: Dehydration Detector
Even professional athletes are terrible at staying hydrated. So BSX created the wrist-worn LVL, the first wearable to measure hydration in real time. Other wearables make surface measurements close to the skin, but LVL uses near-infrared light to peer beneath it and record changes in blood color, which are indicative of hydration levels. If the wearer is dehydrated, it alerts them with an on-screen message. Drink up! $199
Axe Element Hyperwhip Baseball Bat: Better Grip, Faster Swing
Round bats with round handles are as old as baseball. Now there's a bat with a handle like an axe. Its ovular shape provides a better grip, and the tapered end protects from injuries when clobbering fastball after fastball. (Click here to find out what a pro thinks.) $225
Callaway XR16 Driver: Aircraft-Grade Golf Club
Callaway wanted a driver that could slice through the air like a jet, so it turned to Boeing. Tiny ridges on the XR16's club head cut air resistance by 30 percent over Callaway's next-best driver. Faster swings add distance to drives. $350
Hydra-Light PL-500 Saltwater Light and Charger: Beachside Power for Gadgets
There are no outlets at the beach, but there is plenty of salt water. The Hydra-Light turns seawater into juice for a lantern or USB-powered devices. In the reservoir, a magnesium alloy rod slowly oxidizes in salt water, releasing electrons in the process. A carbon-based cathode grabs and funnels those electrons to connected gadgets, providing more than 250 hours of power for illumination or charging electronics. $60
Sharkbanz: Wearable Shark Repellent
Muscles emit tiny electrical pulses as they contract. Receptors in a shark's snout detect these minute signals when animals move through water, helping Jaws stalk its prey. Sharkbanz—a predator-repelling wristband—contains powerful magnets that scramble a shark's ability to read these signals—almost like getting a bright light shone in your eyes. But don't worry: It doesn't hurt the animal. $65
The North Face Hyperair GTX Jacket: No-Sweat Rain Jacket
Waterproof jackets might keep rain out, but runners and cyclists still end up soaked—in sweat. The North Face and Gore-Tex have made an ultralight waterproof shell that breathes. The fabric has a microgrid backer that airs out perspiration. As sweat condenses, the grid lets it out as vapor. It also has a membrane that's tight enough to make sure water beads on the outside. Once the storm passes, the jacket can be shoved into a pocket. $249
Courtesy OpenWorks Engineering
Openworks Engineering Skywall 100: The Drone Catcher
The majority of the half-million drones registered with the FAA are harmless. Then there are the flame-throwing ones that star on YouTube. The SkyWall 100 shoulder-mounted net launcher is law enforcement's best bet for grounding those malicious fliers. The gun, which uses auto-aiming software to lock onto targets up to 330 feet away, can fire three types of projectile nets: one that captures the drone, one with a parachute to lower it to the ground, and one that also jams the craft's electronics. It can nab drones flying as fast as 23 miles per hour and weighing up to 6.6 pounds (twice a DJI Phantom 4).
In a recent demo for the U.S. Army, SkyWall hit targets in 10 out of 11 shots. Sorry, backyard commandos: This one's only for professionals.
Knightscope K3: Autonomous Robot Mall Cop
Robotic guards already patrol empty lots at night, but navigating constantly changing indoor environments is trickier. The 4.3-foot-tall K3 robot uses multiple lidars (the laser range-finders on self-driving cars) and other sensors to build live maps and find its way around shopping malls, offices, and server farms. Soon this R2D2 of building security will get facial-recognition to compare suspects to a database of people it knows. For hire from $7/hour
Metasensor's Sensor-1: Motion Sensors for Your Stuff
Most object trackers can help you find something you've already lost. The Sensor-1 lets you know when you're about to lose it. Armed with an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer, the quarter-size device alerts you to your gadget's slightest movement. Connected to a phone or other device via Bluetooth, the trackers can catch snooping houseguests or stop laptop thieves while you're getting a latte. $79
Scott Safety's Scott Sight: Firefighter Super Vision
Hand-held thermal cameras have guided firefighters through smoke-filled buildings since the '90s. Scott Sight moves the camera and display into a face mask, freeing first responders' hands for more important things, like saving lives. $1,875
Roost Smart Battery: Not Just a Battery
Downed smoke detectors lead to almost 900 fire-related deaths a year. Roost's Wi-Fi-enabled 9-volt battery will alert you when it's about to die—no more annoying chirps. Plugged into any old smoke detector, Roost sends alerts to a companion smartphone app if the alarm goes off while you're away. It can also talk to other smart-home gadgets, so it can carry out tasks like automatically unlocking the front door for firefighters. $35
Broadband Discovery Systems
Broadband Discovery's Ronin, An Eagle-Eyed Checkpoint
Last December, New Orleans Saints fans passed between pylons embedded with security scanners that work faster and are more thorough than ordinary metal detectors. Adapted from military checkpoints, Ronin uses magnetic and pulse-induction sensors, which record minute changes in a magnetic field, to spot contraband and weapons. By reducing the need for pat-downs, Ronin could make lines at public venues move up to five times faster.
Red Balloon Symbiote Defense, Universal Anti-Virus
The more gadgets we put online, the more backdoors we give hackers into our data. The Symbiote Defense software protects anything—from printers to cars—regardless of their operating system. The program can spot malicious activity and remove threats continually. Developed with support from DARPA and Homeland Security, Symbiote debuted on HP printers this past fall, and more devices will roll out next year.
DARPA and Office of Naval Research: Sea Hunter, The Military's First Drone Ship
The Sea Hunter warship is probably big enough for a human crew, but it doesn't need one. It's the armed force's first ship designed to autonomously patrol the sea in search of submarines—a task too vast and tedious for even a ship full of trained human sailors. Sea Hunter's custom navigation algorithms ensure the 132-foot-long craft obeys maritime right-of-way rules to avoid collisions with other vessels. If a two-year trial is successful, the Navy might consider developing drone ships for other tasks, such as deactivating unexploded mines.
Qualcomm Snapdragon Sense ID, Unhackable Print Scanner
Hackers have shown they can trick common biometric scanners with faked fingerprints. The SenseID sensor makes that nearly impossible. It ultrasonically scans a fingerprint's depth, reading a detailed 3D map of every nook, cranny, and pore.
Philip Schmidli/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Alptransit Gotthard Base Tunnel, A Tunnel Through The Alps
In 1999, the Swiss government broke ground on the most ambitious tunnel-building project in history. The dual-tube Gotthard Base Tunnel, which opened in June, follows a route that has a long history of schlepping people and goods over the Alps—it just happens to do it as deep as 1.5 miles below the icy massifs. Thanks to the precision of boring machines with 29.5-foot heads, engineers excavated 31 million tons of rock (60 percent of which was recycled into the tunnel's lining) to dig the 35-mile train passage, ushering in an era of efficient travel between points in Europe. Passengers can rocket from Zurich to Milan in three-and-a-half hours (down from just over four), and the shift of freight from roads to rails could put a real dent in air pollution. All aboard!
Courtesy Zayed National Museum
Foster + Partners' Zayed National Museum: Underground Oasis
To beat the heat in the United Arab Emirates, this museum's galleries will be subterranean. Meanwhile, towers inspired by falcon wings will allow rising hot air to escape, while drawing cooler air into the structure.
Courtesy Mack Rides
Mack Rides Pulsar: Next-Level Waterpark
Artificial log flumes in theme parks are so yesteryear. So, a German ride-design firm has brought the waterworks to a natural setting. They drained (then refilled) a lake to lay the foundation for a U-shaped roller coaster that rockets into the water at 60 miles per hour, creating a tsunami-like wave that drenches riders. Thrill-seekers swoop through the U twice before the force of the splash slows down the car.
Andy Brandl/Getty Images
Gensler's Shanghai Tower: An Extra-Green Skyscraper
The bigger the building, the harder it gets to efficiently heat and cool the interior. So architects gave the world's second-tallest skyscraper, which opened this year in Shanghai, a double-walled facade that "acts as a thermos, keeping occupants warm in the winter and cool in the summer," according to project director Grant Uhlir. The twisty shape creates room for 21 "sky gardens" that reflect the natural landscape and purify the internal air.
Penn State CRISPR-Cas9 for Food: 'Shrooms with Shelf-Life
Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste, often due to spoilage. A plant pathologist at Penn State used the versatile gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9 to design a button mushroom that resists browning, might have a longer shelf life, and could ultimately cost the same as regular old 'shrooms. Though the product is not yet on sale, the tech behind it skirted USDA regulation last spring, paving the way for future gene-edited groceries.
ThyssenKrupp MULTI Elevator: Elevators That Go in Any Direction
Elevator shafts often take up half of a skyscraper's footprint, and the steel cables that carry them up and down limit how high the cars can travel. These constraints can be a major buzzkill for forward-thinking architects, who might want to design taller and wider. Enter MULTI, an elevator system that levitates—vertically, horizontally, and diagonally—atop tracks embedded with powerful magnets. Scheduled to begin testing in Germany early next year, MULTI will allow for indefinitely taller, wider, and more creatively designed towers.
Courtesty Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Columbia + Univ. of Iceland: CarbFix, A Speedy Way to Store C02
Capturing carbon from the atmosphere is an alluring solution to our climate woes, but we need to figure out how to store it quickly and permanently. CarbFix —a system currently in use at one power plant in Iceland—dissolves greenhouse gases in water, and then pumps them into nearby basalt-laden volcanic rock, where both convert into limestone within a few years. The ocean floor is rich in basalt, so the method could scale worldwide.
MIT + Caltech: Advanced LIGO, A Microphone for the Universe
LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, first ran a decade ago to detect gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime, some of which date to the Big Bang. This year, an upgraded system called Advanced LIGO, which is much more sensitive, confirmed one of Einstein's biggest predictions—on its first run. Observing these waves lets scientists plot the history of the universe and spot events like supernovas.
TEB Technology Transit Elevated Bus: Traffic-Straddling Bus
It remains to be seen if China's straddling bus—which scoots over the same roadways as cars, on tracks embedded in the pavement—is practical. But it's a bold idea for cities congested with traffic and pollution.
Image courtesy of Karaghen Hudson and Michael Rosnach
Harvard Robotic Stingray: The First Cyborg Animal
Biologists want to make artificial organs. But to do that, they need a deep understanding of how muscle cells—like those in the heart—talk to one another. So scientists at Harvard created the first truly hybrid robot animal. The nickel-size stingray has a gold skeleton covered in a stretchy polymer to which rat muscle cells are attached. Pulsing light makes the ray "swim." It could help us learn how to build a heart that's half-muscle, half-machine.
M. Ludvik SkySlide: Quake-Proof Glass
A slide that hovers 1,000 feet above Los Angeles might seem like mere novelty, but the process used to make the glass could lead to stronger, more energy-efficient buildings. Architects used code from NASA to structurally analyze the design, then employed a new form of chemical strengthening to make glass that's as strong as steel. "We could create naturally lit structures with very low carbon footprints," says SkySlide engineer Michael Ludvik.
Koenigsegg FreeValve: New Life For The Gas Engine
For more than a century, the internal combustion engine has relied on the ungainly camshaft. This spinning rod with variable lobes sits atop the engine, where it opens and closes intake and exhaust valves during the combustion cycle. But the camshaft has a limited range of motion, so its control over the valves is imprecise. This is the root of engine inefficiency. In April, Swedish supercar-maker Koenigsegg debuted the world's first camless engine—the FreeValve—on a Chinese Qoros concept car. FreeValve forgoes the camshaft for electro-hydraulic-pneumatic actuators. They attach right to intake and exhaust valves, so engineers can control combustion within each cylinder. The design gets more power—imagine a four-cylinder getting 250 horsepower, sans turbo—and greater fuel economy out of otherwise standard engines. Cams, may you rest in peace.
McLaren 570S: A Drivable Supercar
You don't need an airfield to open up the McLaren 570S. A 562-horsepower engine hits 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds (and tops out at a modest 204 mph), while its carbon-fiber cabin keeps the ride stiff on tight turns. $184,900
2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV: The EV for Everyone
Affordable electric vehicles have struggled to break the 200-mile-range barrier. General Motors (no, not Tesla) is getting there first. It all comes down to the battery: The Bolt's 288-cell, 60-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion powerhouse is heavy in nickel, which boosts energy density and extends range to 238 miles. Liberal use of aluminum in the hood, doors, tailgate, and suspension keep the car from getting weighed down. $37,495
4moms Self-installing Car Seat: Foolproof Infant Seat
Nearly half of all infant car seats are improperly installed, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. 4moms' rear-facing seat makes installation idiot-proof. The base contains 20 sensors, including accelerometers and gyros, that work with motors to level the seat and tighten the straps. As long as the carrier is snapped onto the base, it will continually recheck the fit. It's also comfy: The ergonomics are on par with top baby carriers. $500
2017 Audi SQ7 TDI: Full Turbo, No Waiting
Powerful as it is, a turbocharger lags before kicking in; it's asleep until exhaust builds up to spool its turbine, blasting pressurized air into the engine. The Audi SQ7 TDI uses a 7-kilowatt electric motor to spin its turbine. Inspired by Formula 1, the system hits 70,000 rpm in less than 0.25 seconds. For now, the electric-powered compressor (EPC) is Europe-only. We can't wait for it to leap the pond. $100,000 (€89,900)
Airbus APWorks Light Rider: 3-D Printed Motorcycle
Helping offset the heavy battery in the APWorks Light Rider is a fully 3D-printed body. The prototype bike's skeletal aluminum frame cuts the weight to a svelte 77 pounds—a 30 percent dip on conventional manufacturing weight.
2016 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350R: Lightest Feet on a Car
Mustangs once shared parts with burly pickup trucks. Now, the classic pony wears ultralight carbon-fiber wheels. The 19-inch rims on the Shelby each weigh some 15 pounds less than regular aluminum wheels. Less weight speeds acceleration, and greater rigidity improves handling. Don't worry about lightenin' 'em up: They're insulated with a ceramic coating similar to the space shuttle's. $63,995 (wheels $3,433-$4,053 each)
HERE HD Live Map: The Most Detailed Map
Autonomous cars need maps that plot every lane marker, guard rail, and speed-limit change ahead. The dynamically updating HD Live Map from HERE—a spinoff of electronics-giant Nokia—has already logged 1.8 million miles in the U.S. and Europe. The company's fleet of cars maps roads to an accuracy of 10 centimeters—three to five times better than GPS. Next year, HERE will start adding data from real drivers into the mix.
2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class: Car Talk
When cars chat with each other, they won't look like Pixar characters. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) will be standard within a decade, letting cars share alerts—some fool who ran a red light ahead&