Trying to predict the future is a fool's game.
What seems a failure at first (like, say, the electric light) becomes indispensable. And what seems destined to succeed (Hello there, Apple Newton!) can soon become a toss-away item. So claiming any invention as a "sure bet" is an easy way to set yourself up for humiliation.
There are items, though, that certainly have the potential to dramatically impact the way people live—from interacting with the world around them, to exploring deep space, to simply finding ways to survive in hostile environments.
Some have been on the market a few years; others are just gaining traction; and others, still, are in the late formulative stages, but each of these inventions has the potential to change the world as we know it today.
—By Chris Morris, Special to CNBC.com
Posted 11 June 2014
Born in Dean Kamen's DEKA Research and Development institution, this prosthetic arm received approval from the Food and Drug Administration earlier this month. Instead of the hook device amputees have been using for years, the DEKA Arm can perform several movements at once, using electrical signals from muscle contractions in the area where the prosthetic is attached.
Dubbed the Luke (after Luke Skywalker, who got his own prosthetic hand in "The Empire Strikes Back"), the arm, which is not yet available, will allow amputees to raise their arms above their head and perform more complex tasks than they can today.
Developed at Chicago's Northwestern University, this invention aims to reduce the amount of clean, treated drinking water that is wasted by leaky pipes—an issue that costs between $12.5 million and $92 million per year in the U.S. alone.
The project, still in laboratory development, uses nanosensors to monitor water flow in critical sections of a public water system. That allows for real-time monitoring without disrupting the flow conditions and helps desert areas irrigate with optimal efficiency.
Self-driving cars, like Google's prototype vehicle, may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but they're getting close to reality. Ford, in January, showed off its infrastructure for fully-automated driving. And BMW announced a research-and-development project related to the technology.
Other companies putting brainpower to self-driving cars include Delphi and Texas Instruments. Once they hit the streets, the hands-free driving these cars offer could give commuters more time to get work done and reduce traffic congestion.
Today 3-D printing is largely used for trinkets and small items. As it grows, though, it could disrupt the retail world by letting you print a copy of what you need (to a limited extent, of course) at home. That could be anything from keys to toys to small pieces of furniture.
Creating items is as simple as downloading a pattern and hitting Print or scanning what you've got into a system. Digital fabrication is in its infancy today, but proponents liken it to one of the most revolutionary introductions of the past century.
The winner of the 2013 James Dyson award for design, the Titan Arm is an upper-body robotic exoskeleton that augments arm strength by 40 lbs. It's something that can make the jobs of delivery people and construction workers much easier, and it could also serve as a rehabilitative tool for victims of stroke or for people with back and muscle injuries.
Back injuries, typically caused by lifting, affect 600,000 workers per year, costing at least $50 billion, according to the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration. But current exoskeletons are prohibitively expensive. This invention—the brainchild of students at the University of Pennsylvania—was developed using low-cost manufacturing and production techniques. That will drop the cost of the product to under $10,000. Today custom exoskeletons cost around $100,000.
In 1993, Dean Kamen turned his sites on renal patients, who at the time had to make frequent trips to dialysis clinics for treatment. HomeChoice is a VCR-size dialysis machine that can be used at home (and monitored via special software and a data card). The portability of the system allows dialysis patients to travel more freely.
The market for this product is huge. Today some 2 million people worldwide need kidney dialysis, according to Fresenius Medicare Care. In the U.S. alone, the government spends $24 billion, or $48,000 per patient per year, on dialysis, 80 percent of which is spent on Medicare patients.
Another Kamen invention, this water vapor distillation system can produce clean water from just about any source. That could be a lifesaving device for people who live in areas where potable water is scarce. (The World Health Organization estimates 3.4 million people die each year from water-related diseases, and 780 million lack access to clean water.)
Slingshot, which is about the size of a compact refrigerator, can purify more than 250,000 L of water per year to serve the needs of about 300 people. It uses less energy than a hair dryer and doesn't rely on filters. After a decade of development, DEKA has partnered with Coca-Cola, Africare and the Inter-American Development Bank to bring Slingshot technology to parts of Africa and Latin America.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has another transportation system in mind, this one train-based. Hyperloop is a speculative project that envisions trainlike vehicles traveling through tubes with minimal friction, enabling speeds of more than 600 mph (fast enough to travel from San Francisco to L.A. in 35 minutes).
Musk released a preliminary design document for Hyperloop last August, saying the estimated price tag for the service would be $6 billion. That is $3 billion less than the federal money pledged for high-speed rail in California, which has been set back by a myriad of issues. While the feasibility of the Hyperloop is still being fiercely debated by transportation engineers and others, there's no doubt it would dramatically boost the speed of travel.
The Rift burst into the national vocabulary when Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion in March. Its impact on the video game world is expected to be ... well, game-changing, but the longer-term impact of virtual reality is much bigger.
Imagine meetings that don't require travel. Medical consultations that doctors have with patients who are unable to leave home. And offering virtual mobility to those who are unable to move. (Earlier this year, a programmer used the Rift to let her grandmother, who was dying of cancer, take a virtual stroll around her garden and neighborhood when she was too weak to do so in the real world.)
As we become more and more reliant on mobile Internet-connected devices, bandwidth is becoming an increasing concern. Start-up Artemis Technologies (founded by QuickTime and WebTV creator Steve Perlman) hopes to fix the problem of poor signals with PCell, a "personal cell" that lets every mobile 4G device get full signal strength.
That's done by deploying a large number of small devices rather than a fairly small number of cell towers. Though the technology is still experimental, Perlman touts PCell as being capable of increasing signal speeds 1,000-fold.
SpaceX, Musk's private spaceflight company, has already tested its first reusable rocket, called the Falcon 9, to promising results, soaring 1 km in the air before touching back down on its launchpad earlier this month.
The 100-ft.-tall system is designed with metal legs to allow for vertical takeoff and landing. The design would significantly reduce the cost of spaceflight, as booster rockets could return to the launchpad instead of NASA and other agencies having to find and retrieve them from the ocean.
Musk, though, has much grander ambitions than saving money. "If we're going to be a multiplanet species," he said at last year's SXSW conference, "we must have reusable rockets."