From mind-controlled cars to perma-charged batteries, innovations in development today are poised to enhance, disrupt and even spawn whole new industries, writes futurist Will Higham
01 / IMMERSIVE REALITY
Virtual reality has yet to make a real commercial impact, except on niche leisure markets. But it has huge potential, not least in the workplace – student surgeons could practise their skills safely on a virtual operating table, for example. But such environments still need to feel more real to be truly effective, which is why providers are adding sensory enhancements. The “omni-binaural” 8ball microphone from Hear360 offers a fully immersive listening experience, while the VR Sense cabinet enables users to feel the effects of heat, cold, wind and rain. And the full-body Teslasuit (pictured) “transmits exact haptic sensations via electrical stimulation”, which could make virtual board meetings a little more invigorating.
02 / MIRACLE MATERIALS
As seen with steel and plastic, the invention of a new material can form the basis of an entire industry. It’s a decade since scientists isolated graphene, but they’re still finding novel applications for this remarkable substance that could transform several sectors. For instance, it can be used to etch edible radio-frequency identification tags into foods that will reveal whether or not they are suitable for consumption. It can be used to manufacture both eco-friendly concrete and self-repairing robots. It can also filter contaminated water at a phenomenal rate. Some studies suggest that it can even help in the detection of cancer. And graphene could be just the start – one scientific paper recently identified 200 new materials with similarly revolutionary properties.
03 / A LICENCE TO PRINT MONEY
To some, 3D printing is still a gimmick, but it’s actually another instance in which a material innovation is set to make a huge impact in fields ranging from healthcare to transport. Scientists have worked out how to 3D print bones and even flexible body parts, such as lungs and corneas. Construction firms are honing their abilities to print in concrete and metal, enabling them to build a home in a matter of days at a cost of a few thousand pounds. And Michelin has created an ultra- hard-wearing airless concept tyre made of organic materials. Its tread can be “recharged” using a 3D printer when it’s worn or needs to be adjusted according to seasonal changes in road conditions.
04 / SMART SURFACES
Talk of transport innovation typically conjures up images of driverless cars. But another breakthrough in this field may well have a more immediate impact: sensor-embedded smart roads. It’s part of the rise of the internet of things, which will soon make smart surfaces – from office walls to kitchen tabletops – ubiquitous. Smart roads will potentially be able to detect collisions and call 999, report potholes, melt ice and even self-heal. They’ll capture usage data and optimise routes. They’ll be able to store and transfer solar energy to vehicles and infrastructure, which means wireless charging and “free” electricity for street lights, signs and even houses. Ultimately, they could form the basis of nationwide cable-free 5G networks. Already at the edges of this tech are Integrated Roadways in Kansas and China’s Jinan solar highway. It’s predicted that the market will be worth $23bn by 2028.
05 / POTENTIAL DIFFERENCE
Energy sources are often overlooked in innovation round-ups, yet they can transform industries. Scientists are creating batteries that need much less frequent charging and almost no handling. The uBeam wireless charging system, for instance, turns power into ultrasound waves and then converts these back when they reach a device. Such developments could accelerate the adoption of electric cars or enable people in remote areas to make more use of new tech. They could also improve workplace efficiency – field sales executives’ portable devices will never again run out of juice on the road, for instance. Tiny nanowire-powered batteries will enable less invasive in-body monitors and other biotech. A new foldable waterproof battery from South Korea promises to fuel the development of more flexible gadgetry and smart clothing, while the resistance-free qualities of graphene could deliver a battery that never needs recharging.
06 / MIND CONTROLS
Although many people see artificial intelligence as the future, more and more experts are championing augmented intelligence – ie, innovations that improve, rather than replace, humans. This could enable industries to enhance their offerings without making widespread redundancies. Scientists have already made huge advances with human-machine interfaces and are finding ways to control appliances with our minds. Tesla and Facebook are both focusing on this area – the latter has 60 engineers working on a computer interface that will enable people to type using brainwaves alone. Researchers in Japan have developed a thought-controlled third arm that allows users to multi-multi-task. Nissan has even designed a vehicle that can be partly controlled by the driver’s brain. Take that, autonomous cars.