5 of the most disruptive innovations of 2015

As we are nearing the end of 2015, take a look back at innovations that made headlines.

1.  Transportation – Autonomous Vehicles

Disruptive energy continues to emerge. Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which emits nothing but water, will go on sale this year in California.  

But the big news this year is the continued evolution of fully self-driving or “autonomous” vehicles. Their arrival is now just a matter of time, perhaps no more than a decade or two at most And, as with many big bang disruptions, we expect the transformation of transportation will continue to proceed gradually, and then, at some inflection point, suddenly.

The technology and cost for autonomous vehicles are almost ready for the mass market—with the real hold up being the regulators, who barely know how to begin rethinking a hundred years of safety, insurance, and traffic laws.

Unlike the awkward-looking prototypes of the first Google cars, the incumbent automotive companies (who fortunately already know more than a few things about disruptive innovation), are showing concept vehicles that will just look like cars, with the cameras, sensors, and other new technology hidden from view. Audi has a console that can be removed and replaced, like a tablet computer. VW will use ultrasonic technology to predict where you can find a parking space.

Now the question becomes what you will do when you’re not actually focused on driving. Mercedes demonstrated a vehicle, guestimated for 2030, whose side panels would all be flexible displays, turning the car into a theater for Infotainment, social media, and other information-intensive applications.


2.  Health and Fitness – The Quantified Self

There’s been an explosion of new vendors and new applications that collect, report, and respond to information from the user’s own body, a trend that is sometimes referred to as “the quantified self.”

Although in many cases their component hardware is the same, and while most use phones and tablets for the user interface, right now these offerings are largely stand-alone point solutions for particular uses. Some are health related, some for improved fitness training. There are separate categories for seniors, people with disabilities, kids, and athletes, again using much of the same technology.

The overlaps can be surprising, even to the developers. The ReSound LiNX, for example, is a state-of-the-art hearing aid that is beautifully designed to be nearly invisible, with its controls moved to Apple and soon Android devices over a Bluetooth connection

At some point all of these technologies will converge and rationalize, and when they do the result will be nothing short of a revolution in health care in the broadest sense, with patients shifting from passive to active participants in diagnosis, treatment, and preventive care. For an aging population in particular, this technology could add years to our ability to stay in our homes and defer the need for assisted living and home health care.

Today, you can get products that measure and report on a wide array of biometric data including glucose levels (iHealth), emotional state (Being by Zensorium), temperature (TempTraq and Pacif-i by Blue Maestro), sleep patterns (Sleep Number), pulse (Fitbit’s PurePulse), alcohol level (Alcohoot), weight (Withings), blood pressure (QardioArm by Qardio), and much more.

UMoove, is developing software-based eye tracking technology that uses the camera and processor already on a tablet to measure attention and focus. The company’s short-term goals are to diagnosis and help treat conditions such as ADHD and autism.

3.  Manufacturing – 3D Printing and Robotics

Industrial 3D printers have long been used to create manufacturing prototypes, but up until now the disruptive applications to go along with the rapid decline in price for the key components haven’t been obvious. Now the devices are increasingly being used for remote, just-in-time manufacturing and printing more sophisticated designs including customized prosthesis and 3D printed fashion.

Still, we’re just getting started with disruption of a wide range of manufactured goods and processes. This year, 3D printing pioneer MakerBot announced the availability of filaments (the basic plastic media used by the printers) that have integrated real-world materials including iron, bronze, maple and limestone. Printing objects with these new media can produce much more realistic looking and acting output, moving the technology closer to printing “real” items rather than plastic simulacra.

A company called Voxel 8, for example, will soon sell a 3D printer that can print electronic circuitry as part of an object—a true printed circuit—with the potential for making functioning electronic devices. Where will this end? In the future, 3D printers may be able to print more 3D printers.

Even more exciting were several new printers capable of using edible media to print actual food, one of the applications that has long been on the wish list of the 3D printing community. 3D Systems, another early industry leader, demonstrated theCoCoJet, which uses Hershey’s chocolate as its medium. “Ideal for the baker or chocolatier,” according to the company’s website, “the CocoJet prints custom designs in dark, milk or white chocolate.”

Even more impressive is the company’s ChefJet, due later this year, which will print with sugar or candy, examples of which were on ample display at the booth (we missed out on the offer of a sample). The ChefJet, with a large build volume, will allow cake decorators and candy makers to prepare elaborate designs and then print them, once or (hopefully) repeatedly.

4.  The Internet of Things

The shift from computers as computers to everything else as computers has already disrupted industry leaders. As recently as a few years ago, Intel’s very large booth in the Central Hall mostly focused on PCs and laptops that featured the company’s chips. But as the market for computers slows, the company has shifted its attention to the IoT, offering ever smaller and more powerful components that can be embedded into everything that isn’t already “smart.”

Belty, senses when you’d had a big Las Vegas dinner and automatically loosens itself. (In theory, it can also get tighter, if that was ever necessary.)

Taken separately, these devices may not need much in the way of remote user control and may not offer much in the way of useful information that can be uploaded to computing devices and consolidated in the cloud. But once we put it all together on standardized platforms, the disruptive impact will cross many industries, including manufacturing, distribution, retailing, consumer products, agriculture and transportation. To name a few.

Parrot’s smart Pot, has built-in sensors that measure temperature, moisture, sunlight and fertilizer level. When it’s time to take care of your plants, the pot lets you know by—you guessed it—communicating wirelessly with your smartphone or tablet. A related product can go directly into the ground for outdoor plants.

And Belkin’s WeMo line of smart home offerings continues to expand. This year, WeMo has finally integrated technology it acquired some years ago from a startup called Echo. New WeMo sensors and software are now in field trials that will expand the system to monitor water and power usage and identify from a single location, such as the breaker box, multiple devices and their individual performance.

The water sensor will analyze vibrations in the pipes to calculate and improve usage efficiency and to alert users to possible leaks. The electricity sensors, likewise, will identify waste, determine devices that need repair, and help improve the design of home security systems. In an era of growing sensitivity to the need for resources efficiency and sustainable practices, these technologies may provide a level of power and water management that is inconceivable today.

5.  Augmented Reality

Last but not least are advances in display and audio technologies that enable users to experience real and imagined environments with ever-greater richness. Whether in the form of virtual reality goggles and earphones that provide immersive gaming experiences, or superimposed displays that augment the view out a car window, the continued decline in price, size, and power requirements for basic computing components continues to spark revolutionary change in the world of sensory input.

Oculus Rift’s latest prototype isknown as Crescent Bay.The company has set a high bar in both price and performance for future display technologies. And even without a commercial product, Oculus has disrupted industries well outside of gaming. Based on the prototype developer’s kit, other companies last year were demonstrating applications of the Oculus technology.

Middleware producer SoftKinetic, for example, attached depth and gesture recognition cameras onto the Oculus Rift, allowing the user’s hand motions to translate into real-time manipulation of objects in the 3D space.  Intel is embedding SoftKinetic’s technology for what it calls RealSense, which could someday facilitate virtual design and other fine motor manipulations, including medical applications.

Competitors, naturally, have also appeared, including Razer, which announced an open source virtual reality headset in hopes will prove easier for third parties to integrate.


This article has been edited and condensed for the DI from the original on Forbes