2016 has been a massive year for innovation. We’re seeing bigger shifts towards clean energy, bolder strides in healthcare innovation, plus lots of really cool stuff that is bound to improve lives in one way or another.
Here’re 18 of our favorite innovations of 2016, in no particular order:
1. The World’s First Robot Lawyer
Created by 19-year old Joshua Browder, DoNotPay is a “robot lawyer” that helps you appeal your parking fines in London and New York. It can also deal with irresponsible landlords (in the UK) and help you get compensated from delayed flights or late trains in the EU. The robot lawyer uses chatbot technology to ask you questions and determine if you have a case, then directs you to the appropriate steps. It can even draft out legal letters for you.
Why it’s awesome: Since its advent, the robot lawyer has overturned more than 175,000 parking tickets ($5 million worth!), which would’ve been unjustly paid for. Plus, it’s been built by a teenager. We love kids daring to explore their capabilities.
2. Amazon Go – food shopping with no lines
Imagine going to a store, picking up whatever you want and just leaving without having to play the checkout line roulette. That’s basically the concept of Amazon Go, which will launch to the public in early 2017.
You use the Amazon Go app to enter the store, take what you want, and walk out. The store uses what Amazon calls the “Just Walk Out” technology. It’s essentially the same type of tech used by self-driving cars — computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning. The tech will sense which items you’ve plucked from the shelves, charge your Amazon account accordingly, and then send you a receipt.
Why it’s awesome: Amazon Go gives a glimpse into the future of retail — incredibly convenient and line-free. If we go by Amazon’s track record, Amazon Go’s technology could very well disrupt the existing landscape of food shopping.
3. The Orange Sweet Potato — One of the Most Innovative Ways to Feed the Planet
About 2 billion people in the world don’t get enough essential vitamins and minerals in their diet. And HarvestPlus is on a mission to change that. Using a process called biofortification, they create micronutrient-rich crop produced using conventional plant breeding methods. The results include the vitamin A-fortified sweet potato, iron-fortified beans, beta-carotene fortified cassava and many more.
Why it’s awesome: The Orange Sweet Potato was referred to as “one of the most innovative approaches to feeding the planet” by the US government. It has won the prestigious World Food Prize and is now being planted and consumed by over 126,000 households in Uganda alone.
4. The plane that flew around the world without a drop of fuel
The Solar Impulse 2 landed in Abu Dhabi in July this year after flying 40,000km over the course of 15 months, powered solely by the energy of the sun. The adventure began in Switzerland, when Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg decided to explore their vision of clean tech helping to reduce carbon emissions.
Why it’s awesome: Besides breaking several world records, it’s a historic journey that has proven how possible it is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, even for planes.
5. SpaceX’s Reusable Rockets
Rockets cost a load of money to build (over $60 million) and can be used only once. Imagine building something for $60 million to transport a satellite into space once, and then throwing it away. That’s a massive waste of money, which is why Elon Musk’s SpaceX is developing the reusable rocket.
This year SpaceX made history for reusable rockets, successfully landing its Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship to be refurbished and reused. Previous water landing attempts had ended explosively, so this was definitely something to celebrate.
Why it’s awesome: Once fulled developed, reusable rockets will drastically reduce costs of space access — by as much as a factor of a hundred.
6. PlayStation VR
The PlayStation VR is Sony’s contender in the virtual reality headset race. We dare say that it is a winner thanks to its competitive price point. Its compatibility with the PlayStation 4 also essentially opens up the massive existing user base as potential customers.
Why it’s awesome: It basically brings quality VR to the mass market at a very competitive price compared to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (which requires you to fork out for a powerful, and expensive gaming PC). While its specs are slightly less impressive than its rivals, users report that the comfortable gaming experience and quality is top notch.
7. A “Kindle” for the blind
Refreshable braille displays already exist, but they can usually only manage one line of text. This makes reading a slow and arduous process for the visually impaired, and limits the type of information it can display. A one-liner can’t handle graphs, spreadsheets or music because those are displayed spatially.
To address this problem, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a refreshable braille tablet that can display full pages at once.
Hailed the Holy Braille, the tablet is built upon the pneumatic system. It uses either air or fluid to push up small plastic pins that form braille letters. The Holy Braille is one of ten Popular Science 2016 Invention Awards winners.
Why it’s awesome: One word — price. While the technology for full-page braille displays exist, the cost to produce them would be prohibitive, potentially costing upwards of $55,000 per device. The team at the University of Michigan hopes to lower the cost of through the use of microfluidics which is much cheaper to produce, and predicts a price between $1,000 – $2,000.
8. Pokemon Go
In less than a month from its launch in July this year, Pokemon Go had already amassed 75 million downloads (it’s now standing at 500 million downloads). It took the app only 13 hours to reach the top of the highest grossing app chart in the US. And right now it’s the biggest US mobile game of all time, with 23 million daily users. [Sources 1, 2]
Why it’s awesome: Pokemon Go basically brought Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality to the masses, concepts previously only geeks and industry insiders were privy to. It’s built upon an existing game by Niantic called Ingress, which was popular among some but never truly caught on worldwide. Pokemon Go is an amazing example of the kind of magic that can happen when you fuse together a large company (Nintendo) and a startup (Niantic).
9. A digital tablet that feels and works exactly like paper — only better
reMarkable takes e-reader technology up a notch — delivering a realistic paper-like experience for people who love to see their thoughts visualized. Using what they call the CANVAS technology, the reMarkable tablet can be used exactly like how you would a notebook, a sketchbook, a printed document or just scraps of paper. You can take notes, scribble and doodle to your heart’s delight without generating disorganized piles of physical documents. All your scribblings are synced to the cloud in real time, making it a great tool for collaboration with no worries of lost notes. You can load e-books, PowerPoint presentations and documents onto it, organize your notes and sketches into different note- and sketchbooks,
Why it’s awesome: Everything else in the market that has attempted to replicate real paper has either flopped or are ridden with kinks. We’re super excited to seeing what its Norwegian creators tout as the world’s fastest digital paper.
10. The factory that’ll dramatically lower the cost of solar energy
Tesla’s sister company SolarCity opened the GigaFactory this year. It spans 27 acres, making it the biggest of its kind in North America.
Once complete, the GigaFactory will produce 10,000 solar panels daily, equivalent to one gigawatt of solar power annually. These panels are highly efficient and are made using a simplified, low-cost manufacturing process.
Why it’s awesome: Solar energy used to come at a much higher cost. The Gigafactory, when complete and producing at maximum capacity, will be able to lower costs to the point where solar plus batteries is cheaper than fossil fuels.
11. The Brain Implant that Communicates Wirelessly
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a disease that destroys the nerve cells which controls your muscles. This eventually leads to a loss of mobility, speech, and even the ability to breathe without aid. ALS patients often use an eye-tracking device to communicate, unfortunately 1 in 3 loses the ability to move their eyes.
While brain-computer interfaces exist, they need re-calibrating by a team of engineers on a daily basis. Many are so complex they cannot work wirelessly.
As a result, the team at the Brain Center of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands has developed a simple, inexpensive device that can be used at home, without the need for constant recalibration.
Why it’s awesome: HB, a woman with ALS, was the first to test out this device and have the system implanted. While it works slower than her eye tracker, the device can be used outdoors unlike the eye tracker which is sensitive to light. This has given her confidence to go outside and travel.
12. Chevrolet Bolt – The First Mass Market Electric Car
Electric cars have been around for decades, but buyers have always had to worry about the range they can go before running out of juice. That was until the Tesla hit the market with a range of 208 miles. However, Teslas also come at a pretty hefty price tag, which limits its mass market appeal.
The Chevrolet Bolt offers an EPA of 238 miles (383km) per charge, surpassing the Tesla Model 3 by 23 miles. It doesn’t hurt that it comes at a very attractive price of $37,500 ($30,000 post federal tax incentives).
The Chevy Bolt comes equipped with all the tech you’d expect from an electric car — a 10.2-inch touchscreen, an electronic precision shift, as well as a super spacious, functional interior.
Why it’s awesome: Being the industry’s first affordable, long-range electric vehicle, the Chevy Bolt is General Motor’s big bet on its future in a world rapidly heading towards renewable, clean energy. Besides its price and battery range, the Chevy Bolt also has an innovative braking system which extends the car’s battery life by another 5%. It has been named the 2017 Car of the Year by Motor Trend as well as Green Car of the Year by the Green Car Journal.
13. The bin that works 24/7 to clean the ocean
About 7 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, making up 75% of all marine debris. Marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide and is set to get worse.
The plastic pollution is so overwhelming that a report published earlier this year estimates the amount of plastic will outweigh the fish by 2050.
To tackle the problem, two Australians have cooked up a first-of-its-kind bin that floats about, sucking up rubbish and debris. Designed to be used around marinas, ports, harbors, and yacht clubs, the Seabin will attack the trash brought in by the wind and currents.
Why it’s awesome: The current solution to trash around the marinas is expensive and labour-intensive. The Seabin does a better job at a much lower price point, does not take much to maintain and works 24/7. While it currently runs on electricity, the Seabin team is in the process of developing solar-powered Seabins, so they’re already innovating their innovation!
14. Uber’s self-driving delivery truck
70% of the US’s freight is dealt with by the trucking industry, and they’re desperate for more drivers. According to the American Trucking Association, the current shortage of truck drivers stands at 48,000, with the figure possibly leaping to 175,000 by 2024.
In other words, there’s no better time for Uber-acquired Otto to launch its self-driving trucks. On October 20, Otto’s self-driving 18-wheeler tractor trailer drove 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer over 100 miles (160km) without human intervention.
Why it’s awesome: While the technology is still in its early days and cannot deal with tricky city environments, its hardware is tuned for the consistent patterns of highway driving. In a country where 430,000 truck crashes occurred just last year, self-driving trucks can definitely play a role in making highways safer.
15. A farm powered by seawater and sunlight
In South Australia where the desert climate disagrees with conventional agriculture, farmers needed to think different. Sundrop Farms is the first in the world to utilize solar energy and desalinated seawater to grow their 180,000 tomato plants.
Why it’s awesome: By skipping soil, pesticides, fossil fuels and groundwater, the farm demonstrates how it is entirely possible to grow food in an eco-friendly, sustainable manner.
16. The world’s first touch-free smartphone
Israel’s Sesame Phone is controlled purely by head movements and gestures — making it possible for disabled people to call someone, send a text, surf the web and even play apps without the need for help.
The Sesame Phone tracks the user’s head movements through the built-in, front-facing camera on the phone. It then combines them with computer vision algorithms to create a cursor that appears on the screen of the phone. This enables users to do anything one might do with one finger on the screen. Integrated voice control wakes the phone up to start tracking you, so it’s truly touch-less.
Why it’s awesome: Sesame Enable’s technology gives an entire segment of society in Israel the ability to do what we take for granted everyday — go digital. It also grants them the freedom of independence and privacy, something very few disabled people enjoy.
17. A stethoscope you ingest
The Enterophone is a pill that can monitor your vital signs once you have ingested it. It uses special microphones to pick up sounds of your heart and lungs while a tiny thermometer measures your core body temperature.
It’s the only ingestible pill that tracks all three vital signs at once, all from within the gastrointestinal tract. Developed by a biomedical engineer at Harvard Medical School and a biomaterials scientist at MIT, the Enterophone has been successfully tested on pigs, and is in plans to be tested on humans next.
Why it’s awesome: If trials go well, this pill could make monitoring your vitals a breeze. It’ll make it easier to assess trauma patients, monitor soldiers in the field, perform long-term evaluation of patients with chronic illnesses, or improve training for professional and amateur athletes, according to the researchers.
18. The font that people with dyslexia can read without struggling
One in five people have difficulty reading, not because they don’t know how to, but because they suffer from dyslexia. People with dyslexia find it difficult to process graphic symbols, which makes reading and deciphering words a huge chore.
The Dyslexie font was created so that each letter is distinct and easier to recognize for those with dyslexia. It has recently raised a round of money via Kickstarter for a PDF converter that changes any typeface into the Dyslexie font.
Why it’s awesome: It’s hard imagining how something as small as a font can change the world for the better. But it can. Schools are using the Dyslexie font to help children with dyslexia learn better with minimal frustrations. Businesses are using the font to increase productivity and decrease errors in the workplace. There are even some publishers using the font to increase accessibility and encourage reading among those with dyslexia.
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