IT’S ONE OF THE MOST enjoyable parts of my job: the moment in mid-October when a binder is dropped on my desk containing each page of our December Best of What’s New issue slotted sequentially into place so that I can truly immerse myself in this, our annual celebration of superlative technological innovation.
October's Future of the Home issue featured bold visions for living in extreme conditions. Architects showed us that with the right technology, humans can comfortably inhabit just about anyplace, be it a flood zone, crowded city or encroaching desert.
High-tech water rides turn a competitive swimming arena into a place of leisure
The Beijing National Aquatics Center, or Water Cube, was built to house the swimming events of the 2008 Olympics. (Its polymer walls, which reduce energy costs by minimizing the need for lighting and heating, won a POPSCI Best of What's New award in 2006.)
A science experiment in South Pole ice searches for clues about how the universe—and dark matter—works
Every December since 2004, engineers have flown to the South Pole to drill 8,000-foot-deep holes in the ice. The team lowers cables, each strung with 60 disco-ball-size light sensors, into the holes and lets them freeze over. So far they have completed 79 such holes, set in a grid half a mile on each side, and plan to drill the final seven this month.
NASA engineers propose combining a rail gun and a scramjet to fire spacecraft into orbit
HOW TO FLY INTO ORBIT
RENA MARIE PACELLA
In April, President Obama urged NASA to come up with, among other things, a less expensive method than conventional rocketry for launching spacecraft. By September, the agency’s engineers floated a plan that would save millions of dollars in propellant, improve astronaut safety, and allow for more frequent flights.
A new greenhouse could provide food and oxygen to an entire lunar colony
SUSANNAH F. LOCKE
When astronauts next land on the moon, they’re likely to whip up a celebratory dinner of freeze-dried macaroni and cheese. But a new self-building greenhouse could supplement that meal with a fresh salad to eat and oxygen to breathe. The greenhouse, constructed at the University of Arizona, is a plant-based life-support system.
Underground radon detectors could forecast earthquakes days before they happen
HOW IT MIGHT WORK
Toads. Clouds. Radon gas. Scientists have studied the movement of each of these in desperate attempts to improve earthquake detection methods by even just a few minutes. Now there’s a technology to test the radon theory for good and possibly give warning days before a quake.
Five contests that recognize science achievements of the everyman
There’s a long tradition of offering big cash prizes to entice talented and creative individuals to solve problems that have stymied industry and governments for decades. For example, in 1810, French cook Nicolas Appert won a 12,000-franc government prize for a food preservation method to help feed Napoleon’s army.
Our December issue is more than just an exhaustive guide to the greatest creations of the year. It’s a forecast. For 23 years, the Best of What’s New awards have gone to the 100 innovations that indicate where technology is headed in the future.
Deforestation and overfarming have helped decrease the productivity of about 70 percent of the world’s arid and semi-arid lands, which could force the migration of 50 million people by 2017. Our innovation of the year, the Groasis Waterboxx, an irrigation-free plant incubator, could help make these lands fertile again.
A BIOLOGIST’S PLAN FOR RADICALLY REDUCING CARBON EMISSIONS
AS A MARINE-BIOLOGY student in the 1980s, Brent Constantz was astonished to discover how simply corals conjure their stony mass from nothing more than seawater. The trick? They combine the calcium and bicarbonate already present in seawater into calcium carbonate, which crystallizes into a durable exoskeleton.
The future of the car will be electrified, and the Porsche 918 Spyder concept shows just how much fun it will be. In this mid-engine supercar’s current configuration, a 3.4-liter racing V8 shares propulsion duty with three electric motors that produce a combined 218 horsepower.
After years of companies trying to cram a computer into a tablet—the resulting boxes have been too heavy, the software too sparse, the screen too small—Apple made what everyone wanted: a sleek device with a gorgeous screen and a dead-simple interface that makes you want to sit back and play.
In our 23rd year of selecting the most innovative products, it’s time to consider a new category. Applications haven’t replaced gadgets—after all, you can’t have one without the other—but the year’s best apps deserve recognition. A text-based search can tell you who’s in a movie, but it can’t identify who’s in front of you.
The 2,716.5-foot-tall Burj is not merely "the world's tallest building"; it's taller than any other building by more than 1,000 feet. In structure, scale and sheer weight, the pride of Dubai is "a different animal," says Skidmore Owings & Merrill engineer Bill Baker, who designed the beast with architect Adrian Smith.
Trauma doctors have a saying: Time is blood. The quicker a physician can identify an injury or disease, the better the patient’s chances of survival. Ultrasound can show doctors a patient’s beating heart or blood flowing through a kidney, and now the Vscan, just a bit larger than a smartphone, puts the tool in every doctor’s lab coat.
FOR A CRUTCH INVENTOR, INJURY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
IN THE SUMMER of 2005, Jeff Weber took a fall in the backyard of his Minnesota home, broke his heel, and was sentenced to 13 weeks on crutches. With little to do but hobble around and think, he quickly noticed the flaws in his new accessories: the way the hard "pads” compressed the soft tissue of his armpit, the way the rail-straight columns forced nerve-stressing bad posture, the way the perpendicular grips required a constant awkward twisting of his wrists.
The First Astronaut-Worthy Private Rocket in Orbit
EADS ASTRIUM TANDEM-X SATELLITE
Mapping the World in 3-D
PRATT & WHITNEY ROCKETDYNE/BOEING X-51A WAVERIDER
The Fastest Jet Engine
PIASECKI/CARNEGIE MELLON AUTONOMOUS HELICOPTER
The Smartest Autonomous Helicopter
Most Mysterious Aircraft
Zero-emission flight leapt forward in July, when Swiss pilot André Borschberg flew the solarand battery-powered Solar Impulse HB-SIA for 26 hours, 9 minutes and 10 seconds, reaching a height of 28,500 feet before gliding back down and marking the first time any aircraft had flown overnight on energy collected during the day [see page 63 for more on Borschberg].
HOW A RECORD-BREAKING PILOT MADE IT THROUGH THE NIGHT IN A SUN-POWERED PLANE
JOSEPH A. BERNSTEIN
BORN IN ZURICH, Switzerland, in 1952, the year the first commercial jet airliner took flight, André Borschberg grew up longing for the skyward frontier and the "freedom of three dimensions." He absorbed his father's tales of reconnaissance flights during World War II.
In a fight, your home theater could now take on any cineplex, thanks to this 3-D TV. While other TV makers entered the third dimension with upgraded LCDs, Panasonic was the first company to work with ultrafast plasma. And it turns out that plasma is what it takes to make at-home 3-D beautiful.
DECISION SCIENCES INTERNATIONAL MULTI-MODE PASSIVE DETECTION SYSTEM
The Surest Way to Detect Nukes
UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO OLFACTORY SENSOR
The Sharpest Sniffer
LINCOLN LABORATORY ISIS
The Spycam Most Likely to Catch Spies
SIERRA NEVADA CORP. GORGON STARE
The Most Intimidating Drone Accessory
FIRST ALERT POOL ALARM
BI2 TECHNOLOGIES MORIS
ROBOTIC TENTACLE MANIPULATOR
Grippiest Robot Arm
MORPHO DETECTION SHOESCANNER
Best Shoebomb Sleuth
MULTI-MODE PASSIVE DETECTION SYSTEM
FIRST ALERT POOL ALARM
ROBOTIC TENTACLE MANIPULATOR
Ocean riptides drown an estimated 100 people every year in the U.S. They can sweep a swimmer out to sea at up to eight feet per second, outpacing even the strongest lifeguard. EMILY, the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard, is a four-foot-long remote-controlled rescue buoy that can zip across choppy waves at up to 26 mph, reaching a drowning victim 10 times as fast as any swimmer.
The Web offers more entertainment than cable, but who cares when it’s all stuck on tiny laptop screens? Now, Intel’s Wireless Display (WiDi) makes the Internet watchable by streaming whatever is on your PC-from House on Hulu to live games on NFL.com—to your big, beautiful TV, no programming or wires required.
Unlike the better-known Roomba, which cleans at random, bouncing off furniture and redirecting itself, the Neato XV-11 vacuums strategically. It surveys the room with its infrared laser range-finder, taking 4,000 readings a second and measuring the distance to every object within 15 feet, and repeats this reconnaissance from several vantage points until it has constructed a bulletproof plan of attack.
The first-ever commercial amphibious vessel with retractable all-wheel drive, the Sealegs rigid inflatable boat (RIB) allows boaters to launch and land nearly anywhere. On land, the 23-foot craft gets around on three 25-inch all-terrain tires.
An iPhone-controlled LED suit tears up the dance floor
HOW IT WORKS
The first time Marc DeVidts attended Dragon*Con, a sci-fi convention sometimes known as Nerdi Gras, he felt distinctly underdressed amid all the aliens and space travelers. He decided to outdo them the next time with a project tailor-made for the event’s late-night, darkened dance floors: an LED-laced, iPhone-controlled, all-white suit that flashes light patterns in time with the music.
Plan the refreshments with Thatsthe spirit.com's party calculator. Enter the number of guests, the proportion of beer, wine and liquor drinkers, and how much you want to spend per case or bottle. The site tells you how much to buy and what it will cost.
Our columnist heads to the Far East to prove that he’s the world’s greatest mad scientist
Every month for the past seven years, I've undertaken some experiment—entertaining you, dear readers, by risking my life with dangerous chemicals. But this month I conducted an experiment of an entirely different kind: I went in front of a live audience on a popular Japanese variety show and risked their lives with dangerous chemicals.
Assemble a weatherproof, solar-powered rig that lets you use your computer for days even if you’re away from civilization
CREATE A SOLAR OFFICE
What happens when life takes you somewhere that lacks Internet access or electricity, but you need to use your computer? Whether you’re faking out your boss while on a long fishing trip, or suffering through an extended power outage, there are times when laptop batteries won’t cut it.
Techies and gamers have always preferred putting together their own PCs, but regular computer users with no special expertise can also benefit from a bit of home tinkering. Though it won’t save you much money over off-the-shelf models these days unless you choose the cheapest parts, you can get a superior machine for the same price.
If your blog, wedding slideshow or haunted house needs a sound, chances are the Free-sound Project (freesound .org) can supply it. The site is a repository of thousands of sound files that have been released under the Creative Commons Sampling Plus license, so they’re all free and legal to use in any noncommercial way you can think of.
1. Unscrew the burner from a buffet range, disconnect the wires, and remove the burner from the base of the range. 2. Place the coil inside the pot. Put the wires through the hole in the bottom of the pot, and reconnect them to the base of the range.
A It's true that the plains of Kansas are a more familiar backdrop for tornadoes than Times Square, but the funnels can form just about anywhere if the conditions are right. The reason Tornado Alley, the area stretching from Texas to South Dakota and from the Rocky Mountains to Kansas, is the most active tornado spot in the U.S.—it sees hundreds a year—is not because it’s flat farmland.
After the 1929 stock-market crash, English airship expert Dennis Burney road-tested a car he thought would appeal to Depression-era drivers. According to Burney, his airship-inspired Streamline consumed only half the fuel of conventional automobiles, thanks to its crescent-shaped body, rear-mounted engine, and inset headlamps and door handles.