So with the year coming to a close, here are some of the most anticipated innovations to keep an eye on in 2015:
All the ballyhoo surrounding what had been merely a rumored work-in-progress was finally put to rest the moment CEO Tim Cook took the wraps off the long-awaited Apple Watch back in September.
How it will fare once it goes on sale in the spring is anyone’s guess though. Other efforts, such as Rival Samsung’s line of Galaxy Gear watches, had been widely panned for poor battery life, dearth of useful apps and a heavy reliance on being paired with other Samsung Galaxy mobile devices to perform key functions.
But at the same time, you certainly can’t discount the tremendous fanfare for anything Apple puts out. And to its credit, the product team was able to cram several useful features, including a fitness tracker, wireless payment functionality, test messaging and inductive charging beneath a sleek 1.5 inch sapphire crystal touchscreen display. Design head honcho Jony Ive has even designed a custom iOS based operating system (Watch OS) to pull it all together as seamlessly as possible.
Virtual reality headsets
What began as a duct-taped experiment would later morph into crowd-funded sensation, raising $2.5 million on Kickstarter, bought up by Facebook for $2 billion in cash and assets and another potential $300 million in the waiting. That’s the kind of buzz that has built up around the ongoing development of Oculus Rift, a home-baked virtual reality head-mounted display that immerses gamers within a true virtual 3-D environment.
So far, efforts to turn prototypes into an affordable, consumer-level product have yielded incremental successes, namely a series of development kit builds for buyers to test and design suitable games. The latest version, though, codenamed Crescent Bay, has shown vast improvements, with a resolution rumored to be in the 1440p range, built-in audio, and precision 360-degree tracking to ensure each head movement and shifts in visual angles were synced to produce a smooth interactive experience.
While a polished product appears imminent in 2015, home electronics giants Sony and Samsung have since ramped up development towards launching their own consumer-ready models. For instance, Sony’s Project Morpheus, also slated for a 2015 release, has shown promise in public demonstrations. And, as of last week, Samsung’s Gear VR “innovator edition,” which features Oculus Rift technology, was made available in limited quantities. The $200 headset’s specs indicate that it’s somewhere between development kit and matured mass-market product.
Google Glass part deux
Unlike movies sequels, the next generation of any technology is usually a substantial improvement on the original. That will almost certainly need to be the case if Google Glass is ever to reach its full potential.
From the moment it debuted in 2012, breakthrough eyewear had the makings of a technology that was ahead of its time, though not entirely in the manner its creators had hoped. There were, for instance, privacy concerns. The three-hour battery life was also far from adequate for anything beyond intermittent use. And compared to smartphones and tablets, very few apps were made to take advantage of the device’s unique capabilities.
Still, the search giant figures to chalk up the initial “explorer edition” as little more than a dress rehearsal for an eventual consumer product it hopes to release someday. Citing unnamed sources, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Google Glass, version 2, is being readied for another pilot launch sometime next year.
According to the report, the second iteration will be powered by an Intel chip rather than processors supplied by Texas Instruments, a shift that should result in longer battery life. Little else is known at the moment.
The electrifying wheel
Makers of electric bicycles have positioned them as a happy medium between old-fashioned bicycling and fully-motorized scooters and motorcycles. A good many bicycling purists, though, aren’t buying it — literally.
Sure, there’s still some peddling involved since the transfer of energy helps provide a charging boost to the battery and motor. But e-bikes are bulkier. And there’s that throttle. What’s that? You don’t throttle a bicycle.
Since 2012, Cambridge-based startup Superpedestrian has been making the rounds with a unique alternative called the Copenhagen Wheel. Rather than designing a better e-bike, the creators opted to pack all that powered functionality — a 350 watt electric motor, 48 volt lithium-ion battery, WiFi, navigational sensors — into the hub of a replacement wheel. Simply swap out the rear wheel and off you go.
Pre-orders have been processed and scheduled for shipment at the beginning of 2015.
Self-tying shoes aka Marty McFly’s
For fans of the classic “Back to the Future” movies, 2015 may very well turn out to be a banner year after all. The Hendoboard, a working hoverboard of sorts, is on track to arrive sometime in October. And self-tying shoes? They’re on their way also.
Earlier this year, Nike designer Tinker Hatfield told Sole Collector magazine that the company will indeed introduce a shoe equipped with power laces sometime next year. While a prototype has yet to be spotted, it may resemble a design put forth four years ago by amateur inventor Blake Bevin. With her version, a simple press activates a series of battery-powered motors that pull the laces to tighten.
And just last month, a start-up began raising funds on Kickstarter for “Power Lace,” a shoe that uses a simple lever system to loosen or strap down the supporting laces. As of this writing, the creators have 27 days to go to reach their $650,000 goal. If successful, the product is expected to go out next year.
A smarter robotic vacuum cleaner
Sir James Dyson is known for coming up with chic, bold creations such as a bladeless fan and the sea truck. But his most signature invention was undoubtedly the bagless vacuum cleaner, which remains to this day his most successful product.
Dyson would later follow that up in 2001 with the DC06, a prototype destined to be the world’s first commercial robotic vacuum cleaner. But being the perfectionist that he is, the concept was eventually scraped because the machine was too bulky and slow, leaving an opening in the market for iRobot’s Roomba.
Now, Dyson is poised to deliver for consumers his first robotic vacuum, which looks to be the most advanced yet. What makes the Dyson 360 Eye revolutionary is a built-in 360 degree camera that compiles constantly-refreshed visual data to create a real time map of the room. With this, the vacuum triangulates its position to avoid going over the same area twice or missing a spot, saving both time and energy.
But will it take out the Roomba? We’ll see how it plays out when it goes on sale early next year.
A future-proof smartphone
It began as a nifty idea that’s long overdue: make smartphone features as easily upgradable as the hardware inside desktop PCs and consumers would never again have to pay an arm and a leg for newer models.
To achieve this, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens hashed out a modular system in which standardized parts, such as the camera, WiFi radio and even the processor can be swapped out, similar to the way blocks of Legos can be interchangeably pieced together and taken apart.
Hakkens proposed the concept in 2013 as Phonebloks and has since collaborated with Google, under codename Project Ara, to create a viable platform for consumers in the near future. Among the many challenges is the fact that smartphones are becoming cheaper, and in comparison, a modular system may actually wind up costing more, which defeats the purpose really. And could a phone design be reconfigured for function without sacrificing form? Hardly anybody wants a bulky blocky phone.
Hopefully, some answers will be forthcoming as a market pilot is scheduled for late 2015.
Smartphones that you can bend like Gumby
Of all the device makers that have been flaunting bendable touchscreen displays, Samsung is the first to confirm that a technology that allows a smartphone to be bent in half will arrive sometime next year.
While a tad gimmicky, these sorts of developments speak more to the glaring fact that smartphone advances have reached a bit of an impasse recently. Annual refreshes for leading flagship models, such as iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S, have started to follow a fairly predictable cycle of incremental upgrades mainly to core features such as the processor, camera, display and form factor.
If anything, though, displays with this degree of flexibility opens the door to bending gestures for skipping through songs without having to take the phone out of your pocket.
The all-in-one blood testing device
Besides needles, there are numerous reasons why blood testing can be a real pain. Screening for various diseases and conditions, for instance, often require extracting vials upon vials of blood. Once received by the lab for analysis, samples can be misplaced or mishandled. Meanwhile, the process can take anywhere from days to even weeks.
The rHEALTH sensor is a one-of-a-kind medical device that was designed to eliminate much of the hassle. About the size of a brick, the machine houses a sophisticated array of lasers to detect specific biomarkers for a wide range of diseases, including Ebola and HIV. All that’s needed is a single drop of blood and reliable results are displayed within minutes. The creators, a team from the DNA Medicine Institute, even created an accompanying app that guides the user through the various of self-diagnosis procedures.
The technology isn’t quite ready for the consumer market, which would require FDA approval. The developers are currently working on expanding the rHealth’s capabilities to detect more diseases and preparing for field testing around the middle of next year as part of Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition.