When you’re looking for the coolest, most science-fictiony tech out there, it’s not always a shiny new gadget or even something that’s very new at all. One of the most exciting, future-busting technologies of 2014 was a system created more than a decade ago, scarcely improved on since, and only deployed at the end of the past year. But because of it we landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The scientific data we received as a result of doing so points us down a path that many in the space exploration community believe will occupy our attention and potentially bear tremendous rewards in the decades to come. That’s just one example. Here’s a look at other futuristic technology we can expect to play major roles in the months and years to come.
STUFF THAT ARRIVED IN 2014
“Maker” Tools for the IoT
From the Raspberry Pi, Gizmo, Edison, and Arduino development boards to the availability of inexpensive, tiny processors, sensors, and microcontrollers for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, we’re on the brink of a new era of distributed innovation in computing. Just as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak famously built Apple out of a Silicon Valley garage—though the bit about the actual garage is a myth, according to Woz—small-scale operations are now poised to challenge tech giants with the next wave of clever, connected devices that make our homes smarter, our factories more efficient, and even turn our clothing and accessories into intelligent computing engines.
Samsung Gear VR
Collaborating with Oculus VR, Samsung managed to get out the first generally available, eminently affordable virtual reality headset before 2014 expired, releasing the Gear VR on December 8. At just $200, this rig serves up a 360-degree virtual reality gaming experience for a whole lot less dinero than expensive VR prototypes, like the Oculus Rift, which still have limited availability. There’s a catch, of course: Samsung’s VR goggles require the company’s Galaxy Note 4 phablet to work.
Intel Core M Chips
It’s taken a while for Intel to challenge ARM with a full-throttled x86 chip possessing low enough power and temperature thresholds to enable fanless tablet and laptop designs. With its 14nm “Broadwell” architecture, Intel finally got the power draw and heat down, and the new Core M line is the first fruit of that accomplishment. There are already several Core M–based devices on the market
and you can bank on a whole lot more arriving in 2015.
STUFF YOU CAN EXPECT IN 2015
No, Apple won’t be creating the smartwatch market the way it did with smartphones and consumer tablets. And yes, it seems like Apple could have released this device at any point in the past couple of years, instead of making us wait until early 2015. But we bet the Apple Watch, when it does arrive, will quickly establish a standard for what a wearable should be. And it seems certain that
Apple will sell a ton of them.
Lightning-Fast Wireless Charging
Device chargers are terrible. But until now, there hasn’t been any alternative to charging cords that are easily lost or forgotten when you need them most. Wireless charging is much more elegant and it’s starting to appear in retail outlets like Starbucks, which has set up wireless charging stations in several of its San Francisco stores in a pilot program. Semiconductor firms like Freescale and
Broadcom are leading the charge, so to speak, to make the technology even better. The former company says its new 15-watt, Qi-compliant wireless charging solution will be available early in 2015, meaning we could soon have wireless charging stations that recharge batteries faster than wired technologies like USB.
Affordable, Printable Prosthetics
Earlier this year, our hearts were lifted when Kansas teen Mason Wilde used a 3D printer to craft a prosthetic “Robohand” for his young friend, nine-year-old Matthew, who was born without fingers on his right hand. Traditional prosthetics can cost upwards of $40,000, but volunteers with groups like E-Nable are now helping other kids with similar conditions, using as little as $45 in materials to craft 3D-printed hands that work via cables and an integrated tensioning system. But it gets even better. We may soon have much more complex, 3D-printable prosthetics using powered-up servo motors instead of simple cabling systems. To wit, Open Bionics won the $200,000 second prize at Intel’s recent Make It Wearable competition for its 3D-printable robotic hand for amputees—the
startup says it aims to bring the cost for such a prosthesis down to just $2,000.
STUFF THAT’S A FEW YEARS OUT
SpaceX’s Reusable Rocket
In just a few years, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has gone from testing a reusable rocket design, dubbed Grasshopper, to installing key vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) functionality in the Falcon 9 rockets used for official missions like cargo runs to the International Space Station. In July, the private space firm managed to guide the Falcon 9’s first stage to a “soft” ocean landing after the launch of six Orbcomm OG2 satellites from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The key to making its VTVL launch vehicle reusable is to accomplish a guided set-down on land, and though SpaceX has set a pretty ambitious timeline for making that happen as part of an official mission, we think it may not be a reality for a few more years yet.
The winner of the $500,000 grand prize at Intel’s Make It Wearable contest, Nixie has designed a drone aircraft that folds up its copter arms and is worn like a watch on your wrist when not in use. It could be some time before the rather rough-looking prototype is ready for prime time. But the Nixie, which can take photos and video in “boomerang” or “follow me” mode, points us toward a future where drones become truly mobile even when they’re not buzzing around in the sky.
Mainstream Self-Driving Cars
In 2014, California joined Nevada in issuing permits for self-driving vehicles—a big step, to be sure, but automated cars like Google’s and Volvo’s remain novelties for the time being. So when can we expect robot carriages for the masses to begin hitting the roadways? Davide Santo, the head of Freescale’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems microcontroller business, says mainstream, semiautonomous vehicles should arrive around 2017. Over the next decade, we’ll begin sharing the road with fully automated cars, trucks, and buses. And eventually, Santo believes, the self-driving versions will likely crowd out driver-operated vehicles in all but a few designated areas, to the point that human-controlled driving goes the way of the horse-drawn buggy.
United States Navy’s Laser Cannon
The U.S. Navy may have delivered 2014’s most “Star Wars is real” moment at the very end of the year. What else can we say about the impressive demonstration of a working laser weapon aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base vessel, the USS Ponce, which showed the laser blowing up ships and even a drone aircraft? The Navy has now approved the combat use of its laser weapons system, or LaWS, in the Persian Gulf. All very nice, but when will get an ion cannon?
STUFF A FEW DECADES AWAY
By harnessing the weird, baffling properties of entangled subatomic particles, we could someday develop computers based on quantum bits, or qubits, which are orders of magnitude more powerful than our current calculating engines and which could instantly transmit messages at great distances with uncrackable security protection. The sticking point: This has proven exceedingly difficult to accomplish, and successful experiments in quantum computing have thus far been confined to carefully controlled laboratories, not real-world environments. But scientists continue to plug away at the problem. Quantum computing on a practical scale may still be a decade or more away. But just in the past few years, researchers have developed silicon-based building blocks for a quantum computer, created the first working quantum network, used lasers and diamonds to achieve breakthroughs, and continued to set new distance records for quantum teleportation.
There’s already been a lot of work done to create powered exoskeletons to assist soldiers carrying heavy loads or even help people suffering from severe spine injuries to walk again. Many of these early efforts certainly look cool, but they’re bulky and very mechanistic—think of the fearsome contraptions shown in films like Edge of Tomorrow and Elysium. Early-stage development of “soft” exosuits promises something very different: a much subtler muscular enhancement system that could be worn unobtrusively. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, recently awarded $2.9 million in funding from DARPA, aim to create a smart suit that can “be worn comfortably under clothing and could enable soldiers to walk longer distances, keep fatigue at bay, and minimize the risk of injury when carrying heavy loads.” Wyss researchers also say “alternative versions of the suit could eventually assist those with limited mobility as well.”
The holodeck from Star Trek may be arriving sooner than we think. The next big breakthrough in virtual reality could be the haptic hologram, a technology using sound waves to make virtual objects feel real to human users. Researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom use a Leap Motion sensor to detect the location of a user’s hand then project the feel of three-dimensional objects like spheres and pyramids by means of “high-frequency sound waves emitted by an array of tiny speakers which create the sensation of touching an invisible, floating object,” according to New Scientist. Adding touch to the imaginary world of increasingly advanced visual and aural replication technology would begin to complete the futurist vision of all-encompassing VR that’s indistinguishable from actual reality. And we can’t wait for it to happen.