Every day there are technological breakthroughs that occur behind the closed doors of research labs (and house garages where some startups begin), and then there are the breakthroughs that “go mainstream” with consumers. 2015 saw so many that it is difficult to condense the list to five. The following impressive technologies made the cut because they improve convenience, productivity, and efficiency (in addition to having that barely definable “wow” factor).
1. Wearable Smart Devices
Both the Apple Watch and the Fitbit had great years in 2015. Operating apps, receiving messages and notifications from an iPhone, and reporting health statistics like counting calories, steps, and hours of sleep are just a few of the benefits of these wearable devices. In 2014, sales for fitness devices were only $1 billion. According to Radiant Insights, fitness-related wearables will hit $14.9 billion in sales by the year 2021.
2. 3D Printing
Additive Manufacturing (AM) is the technical term for 3D Printing. In 2015, businesses that use rubber, clay, porcelain, titanium, silicone, steel, and plaster utilized these game-changing machines to “print” everything from hot tubs to plane components. Architects used it to print scale models of buildings, and then even parts of the building itself. The medical field used printed titanium to create pelvises, jawbones, prosthetics, and splints. At home, consumers got creative and made toys, keys, furniture, urns, shoes, clocks, hooks, door knobs, sculptures, and jewelry. Although we do not quite have the Replicators from Star Trek, there are testing labs in China that are working on using 3D printers to create food, medications for at-home pharmacies, and even working organs. Future innovations will require a lot of involvement with law enforcement and politics. Laws get complicated when people can print weapons like guns and knives in their own homes. Additionally, the cost of a 3D printer is expected to double every year between now and 2019.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) -- mini-helicopters that are also known as drones -- have migrated from the military, to the business world, to toys used by consumers. Drones are both loved and hated. They are loved when used by production companies to film movies, electrical companies to check on potentially dangerous power lines, and when they are used by aid workers to deliver emergency supplies. They are hated when used for unsanctioned surveillance and when they get in the way of the FAA and divert flights.
4. Phones as Credit Cards
Because of Apple Pay and other apps, consumers can now use their smartphones the same way they use plastic credit cards. Experts agree that it has not caught on as quick as they expected it to. As of summer 2015, only 13% of consumers with compatible iPhones used the Apple Pay app, and only 27% of retailers accepted it. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, said in January that 2015 would be the “year of Apple Pay.” That has not really happened, but it is still a breakthrough nonetheless. It has likely been slowed down not by a lack of consumer interest, but because many places of business have to update their own technology to accommodate, from biometric readers to perhaps even what is flash storage capabilities. Starbucks, KFC, and Chili’s are the latest to get on board. Soon, plastic will stay at home, and all we will need to make a purchase is a phone and a thumb.
5. Smart Cars
As of 2015, vehicles are able to drive themselves, and connect to each other and with the internet. Wireless car to car communication increases driving safety by using data analytics tools to broadcast vital statistics like the steering wheel position, direction, speed, and brake status. Overriding projections from 2014, an estimated 35%-45% of new cars sent to the United States in 2015 had the ability to connect to the internet. In 2016 that number is expected to reach as high as 65%-75%. The future of self-driving vehicles will depend a lot on legislature determined by countries and individual states.
Only time will tell if the mainstream breakthroughs of 2015 will continue to pick up speed in 2016, or if the public interest will shift to something else.