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The best innovations of 2014

The Orion spacecraft before it arrived in Cape Canaveral for its test flight in early December. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
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It was the year that we landed on a comet and launched a new era in NASA space exploration, turned to science to find a possible cure for Ebola, made robots and drones topics of everyday conversation and watched as Silicon Valley continued its rapid transition to the wearable computing revolution. The year’s big start-up was Uber, which seemed to dominate tech headlines globally for reasons both good and bad, while established Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook continued to generate attention for their visionary plans to get every human in the world online.

Here are the 10 best innovations of the year and what made them so special:

1. NASA’s Orion spacecraft, for opening up a new era of manned space travel

At the beginning of December, the launch of NASA’s new Orion spacecraft unofficially marked “Day One of the Mars era.” While the total time Orion spent in space before splashdown back on Earth was short — approximately 4.5 hours — the Orion spacecraft flew farther from Earth than any previous spacecraft designed for humans in over 40 years. NASA says that, by 2021, it could start crewed test flights aimed at putting astronauts on manned space trips to Mars or nearby asteroids.

And it wasn’t just NASA turning heads and getting people talking about the next era of space exploration. Perhaps the most talked-about space adventure was the landing of Philae on the surface of the Rosetta comet by the European Space Agency after a 10-year odyssey in space. Not only was the Rosetta landing an historic technical accomplishment, but also it might end up offering potential clues as to the beginnings of life on Earth. India, too, made headlines with its first-ever orbiter to Mars, while NASA’s Curiosity Rover continued to send back images and data from the red planet.

2. Apple Watch, for taking wearable computers mainstream

Apple’s launch of a smartwatch had been rumored for so long, it seemed almost impossible that Apple would meet expectations when the Apple Watch was finally announced on Sept. 9. And, yet, while Apple wasn’t the first to market with a new smartwatch, it was arguably the best to market. The new Apple Watch was stunning in its appearance and technological sophistication, offering Apple users the ability to make mobile payments just with a wave of the wrist.

Wearable computing is now the hottest area of Silicon Valley, and the field seems to be on the cusp of having a truly breakout moment in 2015. Google Glass, despite its increasingly rocky road to market, could be one of the big stories of wearable computing in 2015. And there are plenty of other tech companies preparing new wearable computing entries for 2015, as well as potential partnerships in the works with companies like Nike.

3. ZMapp, for offering clues to a potential cure for Ebola

In the scramble to find a cure for the mysterious Ebola virus, medical innovators turned to the very cutting edge of experimental research to find treatments that could slow, or perhaps even stop, the outbreak. For now, the best candidate among these appears to be ZMapp, a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies developed by researchers at San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical. In one experiment, ZMapp appeared to stop the spread of the virus in monkeys within five days of being infected. Although the drug had never before been tested in humans prior to 2014, it was given to several victims of the Ebola virus.

We’re at the bold start of a new era in virology, in which medical innovators must accept that viruses such as Ebola are not random Black Swan events, but rather, events with familiar patterns that can be tracked and stopped. This will require new thinking about how to attack viruses, as well as a potential re-evaluation of the costs that society is willing to endure to bring new treatments to market. As in the case of ZMapp and Ebola, it may mean speeding up the trial period or forgoing certain testing in order to get a treatment into the hands of more people.

4. Lockheed Martin’s concept for a compact nuclear fusion reactor, for re-imagining the future of energy

This year’s big breakthrough in energy was the announcement by researchers at defense giant Lockheed Martin that they were getting closer to finding a way to channel nuclear fusion in a bold new way. Rather than construct huge buildings to make a nuclear reactor, the goal is to create a compact nuclear reactor that can sit on the back of an 18-wheel truck or the wing of an airplane. In short, the same types of powerful nuclear fusion reactions that power the sun could also be used to power new forms of transportation or, potentially, even entire cities.

That has huge ramifications, and not for people who enjoy driving around their own personal nuclear truck. Imagine a new era in energy, in which the costs are pushed down so dramatically that airplanes stay aloft for what seems like an infinite period of time. Of course, there are the skeptics and naysayers who can’t possibly imagine how nuclear reactors could be made that small. Yet, Lockheed Martin says that it might be possible to see a prototype within five years and an actual compact nuclear reactor within the next decade.

5. Samsung Gear VR, for bringing virtual reality to the masses

The release of Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus, might end up taking virtual reality mainstream. Already, there have been announcements of new apps and other offerings for Gear VR, including gaming and experiential content, as well as entirely new types of films made using virtual reality technology. The Samsung Gear VR device, while still in the experimental “Innovator Edition,” is really a test case for whether there is a robust consumer market for an affordable tech device that offers an immersive, 360-degree experience.

As a result, 2015 could end up being a big year for virtual reality. For example, the launch of the original VR device that you strap to your face, the Oculus Rift, is slated for release later in the year. And other big players getting into the VR mix include Sony and Google.

6. The Uberfication of everything, for showing us the upside and downside of the sharing economy

The most talked-about startup in 2014 was Uber, as the company continued to expand globally at a rapid pace. In the span of just six months, Uber went from an $18 billion company to a $40 billion company, making it bigger in terms of valuation than Netflix, Tesla or Alcoa. In fact, at $40 billion, Uber would be more valuable than three-quarters of the companies in the S&P 500. As a result, it became commonplace for other startups riding the wave of Silicon Valley expectations to compare themselves to Uber in the hopes of attracting a similar type of valuation.

But you don’t get that big, that fast, without making a few enemies on the way up. Uber’s worldwide push has done more than just raise concerns of taxi drivers around the world — it has exposed the downside of the global sharing economy. In the United States, Uber caused privacy experts to freak out after reports claimed the company was looking to find ways to silence its critics in the media. In India, an Uber driver allegedly raped a woman. In Sydney, the company was blamed for surge pricing after the ISIS terrorist incident caused people to flee the city. How Uber’s surging valuation fares in 2015 will rest, in no small part, on how it deals with this surge in negative publicity.

7. Heartbleed, for reminding us that everything can and will be hacked

In 2014, the Heartbleed bug became the equivalent of the Y2K virus – something that everyone who used the Internet dreaded, but nobody knew exactly what it was or how it worked. People just knew it had the potential to infect a staggering number of computers in the world by exposing a major flaw in encryption software. What Heartbleed reminded us was that the Internet is “inherently chaotic, built by multitudes and continuously tweaked, with nobody in charge of it all.”

And Heartbleed was just the start. Cyberhacks have become so mainstream that it almost seems expected when nationwide retailers announce major security breaches from hackers. In September, the much-hyped “Fappening” resulted in the controversial release of nude photographs of celebrities to the Internet. And, at the end of the year, the alleged North Korean hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment — and the subsequent decision to cancel release of “The Interview” — became the latest proof that foreign hackers now have the ability to impact nations and industries thousands of miles away.

8. HP Sprout, for moving us closer to a 3D-printed future

In October, HP announced a bold new “Blended Reality” vision for the future of printing to make it easier for anyone to work in 3D rather than 2D. An entirely new machine – the HP Sprout – promises to transform just about everyone into a potential 3D creator. The HP Sprout is essentially an enhanced Windows PC that includes a 23-inch screen, a built-in projector with cameras, and a touch mat for manipulating images. Using the new HP Sprout, consumers will be able to create, design and manipulate 3D designs with their hands in an immersive environment.

2015 could see even more breakthroughs in 3D printing. In late 2014, for example, a group of researchers at Princeton figured out a way to 3D-print LEDs, something that had never been done before. Instead of just printing objects using standard materials, these researchers could potentially print LEDs and perhaps even semiconductors. This means that we’ll soon be able to put electronics into just about everything. This 3D printing technique could open the door to everything from flexible and wearable gadgets to bionic implants that use lights to stimulate nerves. The Princeton researchers even showcased the potential for putting an LED within a contact lens and creating a bio-electronic ear.

9. Google’s cancer-detecting pills, for showing us the future of medicine 

Google X – the R&D unit within Google responsible for “moonshot” projects — once again challenged our thinking of what’s possible with the announcement in late October of a project to create a smart pill packed with tiny magnetic particles designed to circulate around the human body looking for signs of cancer and other diseases. While still in the experimental stage, the cancer-detecting pill would be able to travel through a patient’s bloodstream, searching for malignant cells and reporting their findings to a sensor device that you wear.

The Google cancer-detecting pill, if it ever comes to market, would represent an important breakthrough in health powered by Silicon Valley’s biggest technology companies. New digital health initiatives from Google and Apple, for example, are now leading to creative new ideas for the health care sector involving smartphones and wearable devices. Moreover, new medical prize competitions hint at a future in which Silicon Valley-inspired medical innovation gives us handheld consumer diagnostic tools like the medical tricorder.