Skye Gould / Tech Insider
From the first-ever $9 computer to lab-grown rhino horns, this year has been filled with innovations that give us hope for the future.
The TI Innovation team compiled a list of our favorite world-changing products and ideas that made significant progress over the last year. We saw scientists make progress on some of the most intractable diseases, buildings become smarter, and gender take center stage.
Some of these innovations are still nascent, while others have already had a big impact. All have the potential to change the way we live.
Ikea makes a much better shelter.
Ikea brought its ethos of simple, well-designed products into a new genre: refugee shelters that have already been deployed across the planet, from Iraq to Ethiopia.
Better Shelter, a collaboration between the Ikea foundation and the UN, is a modular, flat-pack, solar-powered shelter that just takes four hours to put together and can last up to three years.
The 188-square-foot shelter accommodates five people. It’s a lot nicer than the tarp-covered metal frames found in most refugee camps, and it scales up too.
"The modular design enables the shelters to be linked together, creating larger structures,” Better Shelter's Märta Terne said in an email. “In Nepal ... a number of shelters were linked together at the gable walls forming longer structures providing space for both a reception area, storage and an examination area at the back.”
Better Shelter will deliver 10,000 shelters this year.
An algae-based gel stops bleeding in seconds.
VetiGel, an algae-based gel that can stop bleeding in just 12 seconds, is set to start shipping to veterinarians this fall. After further testing, humans may get it, too.
Created by biotech company Suneris, the gel quickly seals wounds and stops traumatic bleeding, the leading cause of preventable death in trauma victims.
Joe Landolina, Suneris' CEO, was just 17 when he invented VetiGel. Five years later, Suneris is about to ship its first batch.
VetiGel takes the fibers inside your everyday algae plant and injects them into a wound. The fibers link together like LEGO blocks within seconds, forming a leak-proof seal and stopping the bleeding process. VetiGel doesn't cause clots and it integrates over time into the damaged tissue, so it never needs to be removed.
"The ability to stop a bleed quickly with no applied pressure is a game-changer," says Landolina.
This $9 computer is incredibly good.
Next Thing Co./Tech Insider
Hardware is expensive. Chip is not. The world's first $9 computer, which began shipping this fall, can be used for everything from editing spreadsheets to learning to code.
All you have to do is connect it to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse with adaptors, and you're in business. Amateur inventors can also create new gadgets, like mobile printers or media players that use Chip as their processors, keeping the overall cost of parts down.
Dave Rauchwerk, CEO of Next Thing Co., previously created a GIF-generating camera powered by the ever-popular Raspberry Pi, but the microcomputer's $35 price tag drove up the cost of the camera beyond what's reasonable for a toy.
Rauchwerk decided that in order to get the cost down his team needed to create a new computer. Chip is a Linux-based mini-PC with a 1 gigahertz processor, 512 megabytes of ram, and four gigabytes of storage. All those specs add up roughly to a low-end smartphone with WiFi and Bluetooth.
Ever since Next Thing Co. first started shipping units to its Kickstarter backers in October, tinkerers have been sharing their progress and ideas. "This will be my first ever foray into working with small devices," one backer writes. We suspect she’s not alone.
The first 3D printed drug is here.
This summer, the FDA approved the first 3D printed prescription drug, a pill for epileptic seizures called Spritam. Eventually, this technology could revolutionize the pharmaceutical world, making it possible to create highly customized drugs.
"This is a milestone in the entire field," says Michael Cima, an engineering professor at MIT who helped develop the 3D printing used to make Spritam. "You're making millions of the same thing. The benchmark is now higher for all these 3D printing technologies,"
One immediate advantage of 3D printed drugs is that they are porous and will dissolve in your mouth with just a sip of water, making them easier for people who have difficulty swallowing — such as people who are having a seizure. It's possible to make porous drugs the traditional way, but it's a lot harder and more expensive.
Looking ahead, the ability to print drugs might allow for more customized medication. Other researchers have theorized that 3D printing could be a cheaper way to produce drugs for the developing world.
This solar-powered aircraft could bring internet to the world.
Facebook Connectivity Labs
Facebook's plan to bring internet access to the developing world had two breakthroughs this summer: prototyping a solar-powered, internet-delivering aircraft, as well as a lab-tested laser that can transmit data from that aircraft at 10 gigabits per second.
Together, the two could offer wireless internet to even the most isolated regions.
Aquila, as the carbon-fiber plane is named, has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and one-third the weight of an electric car. It can fly for 90 days straight at an altitude above commercial air traffic and weather patterns and beam connectivity down to people using lasers.
"We started the Connectivity Lab at Facebook to try to change this paradigm by developing a new range of technologies to help accelerate the process of bringing connectivity to the unserved and underserved," Yael Maguire, the company's engineering director, tells Tech Insider.
Facebook says test flights for its aircraft should begin later this year. Meanwhile, the company also recently announced a deal with French satellite operator Eutelsat Communications that will use satellites to beam internet across 14 countries in Africa.
Thirsty concrete can absorb 880 gallons of water a minute.
Earlier this year, British materials company Tarmac unveiled a seemingly magical solution to flooding: a porous concrete that absorbs 880 gallons of water a minute, potentially saving vulnerable regions from roads overrun by water.
Topmix Permeable concrete is made out of a coarse, pebble-like material called no-fines concrete, which contains small gaps in the surface, allowing water to quickly pass through.
Craig Burgess, product-development manager at Tarmac, says typical concrete is porous enough to let through 300 millimeters of water an hour. Topmix lets through 36,000 millimeters, which means it can divert huge quantities of water that might otherwise cause flooding.
So far, Topmix has been installed in a golf course and car park in the UK. It's for sale across the country, but we have a feeling its reach could be much larger.
CRISPR-Cas9 unlocks the building blocks of life.
YouTube/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
This year, scientists modified the building blocks of life using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that gives us the ability to rewrite DNA, ushering in a new era of disease prevention and elimination, genetically edited plants and animals, and possibly even "designer babies."
The CRISPR-Cas9 system, dubbed "the biggest biotech discovery of the century" by MIT, is essentially a "search-and-replace" tool for the genome. Don't want the code that's related to a particular disease? The tool can be used to snip or potentially swap it out.
"We're basically able to have a molecular scalpel for genomes," Jennifer Doudna, a biologist credited as one of the co-discoverers of this genetic editing system, told Tech Insider. "All the technologies in the past were sort of like sledgehammers ... This just gives scientists the capability do something that is incredibly powerful."
As Dustin Rubinstein, the head of a lab working with CRISPR at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told us, genetic editing could transform everything from cancer research and neuroscience to chemical engineering and even energy production.
"You're only limited by your imagination," Rubinstein said.
Periscope launches a streaming video revolution.
Periscope, which launched this past spring, is the best way for anyone with a smartphone to create a live broadcast of what they’re experiencing in the world, whether a civil war or a house party.
The app was born out of its CEO’s frustration with the media’s coverage of the Gezi protests in Turkey, and it already appears to have made a difference.
Reporter Paul Ronzheimer recently used Periscope to document his journey with a group of Syrian refugees from Greece to Germany. "[O]n Periscope, everybody could see it was live,” he told The Guardian. “It happened. No one was cutting it, no one was putting a two- or three-minute piece together after we filmed it. And for Germans, it was really good to understand the problems the refugees have been facing.”
Periscope even has its own stars, like artist Amanda Oleander and magician Jon Jacques.
Owned by Twitter, the app boasts insane usage statistics: 10 million users watching 40 years of live content every day.
The Omni Processor makes clean water profitable.
Who could forget the image of Bill Gates drinking poop water?
It was a cold January morning, and Gates was demoing the Omni Processor, a new Gates Foundation-funded water purifier made by Janicki Bioenergy. The machine turns human feces into drinkable water and valuable energy.
The Omni Processor is already being tested in Dakar, Senegal, and Janicki is slated to sell the first full-size processor, which can convert 14 tons of sewage into electricity and drinkable water each day, to a utility company in Dakar next year, with more communities to follow.
The key to the machine's success is its ability to make money by creating power.
"If you go into developing countries, it’s not the government providing services," says Gates Foundation's senior program officer, Doulaye Koné. "It’s entrepreneurs."
So the Gates Foundation is helping create a system where the profit margins are right for entrepreneurs who clean out the latrines in Dakar neighborhoods to sell human waste to the utility company that owns the Omni Processor.
Sanitation is usually a money-losing proposition in the developing world, which is part of why governments and corporations aren’t invested in making it better. But if you can make money on sanitation, suddenly it’s a public health boon that pays for itself.
Slack vastly improves office communication.
You may wonder why a better chat app for teams is such a big deal, but there's a reason why Slack is spreading like wildfire. Launched in beta in August 2013, the app now has 1.25 million daily active users, up from 200,000 users in October 2014.
Slack offers customizable channels for open and searchable communication across teams, as well as private rooms for group and individual chats.
Teams that have switched to Slack report, on average, 32% more productivity, 49% fewer emails, and 25% fewer meetings, while 80% say it has increased transparency.
"No matter who you are in an organization that is entirely email-based, you only get a tiny slice of all of the communication that's happening," CEO Stewart Butterfield told us.
"Whereas with Slack, the model is public within the organization by default. It encourages the marketing team to have their discussions in the marketing channel and the engineering team to have their discussion in the engineering channel, which means that everyone can see across those functional groups and see what other people are working on."
A tableware set makes it easier to eat with Alzheimer’s.
Eatwell is a new tableware set that uses bright colors, ergonomics, and clever design to make eating with cognitive decline easier. After garnering attention as the winner of the 2014 Stanford Design Challenge, it's finally being released this month.
By 2050, an expected 131 million people will live with dementia, mostly due to Alzheimer's disease. There is no cure, but smart design can restore some of the confidence that disease takes away.
Creator Sha Yao designed Eatwell's bowls with a slanted basin that collects food on one side, so contents can be easily scooped up. Spoon handles are curved to fit the natural alignment of the human hand, and an anti-tipping cup includes a wide, sturdy base.
Yao selected shades of blue, red, and yellow because research shows that a person with dementia can consume 24% more food and 84% more liquid when they are served in brightly colored containers.
Brookdale, a leading assisted living provider, will host a pilot program in its facilities for large-scale user testing later this year.
The world rallies around a new Ebola vaccine.
Early tests suggest that a new Ebola vaccine developed this year may be close to 100% successful. It's a reminder that medical advances can happen incredibly fast when the public and private sector work together.
Last year's Ebola outbreak was the largest in history, infecting some 28,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, and claiming more than 11,000 lives. It sparked worldwide panic — and a call to action.
Developed by pharmaceutical company Merck and sponsored by the World Health Organization, the Ebola vaccine (rVSV-ZEBOV) surpassed expectations this summer when it was administered to over 4,000 subjects in Guinea. A week out, not a single recipient had contracted the disease.
More recently, researchers found one dose of the vaccine would protect macaques within seven days of being infected with Ebola. Further testing in more controlled conditions is required to show the vaccine's true effectiveness. It's also impossible to know whether the protection provided by the vaccine is long term.
What's miraculous about this drug is not just the science behind it but also how quickly it sped through the trial phase. Scientists, drug companies, and governments worked together to get the vaccine through a 10-year process in just one year.
The Tesla of showerheads arrives.
The Nebia low-flow shower system proves that conservation doesn’t necessarily require sacrifice.
The showerhead, which has raised over $3 million on Kickstarter in 2015 and has backing from Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, is attractive, efficient, and allows for ultra-precise water pressure adjustability.
There’s a lot of technology behind the seemingly simple showerhead. In order to optimize the tradeoff between droplet size and efficiency, Nebia used computational fluid dynamics software, which is also used to study jet engines, to model the properties of water as it flows.
By making the droplets small, the total surface area of water from is ten times greater and dispersed over five times the area compared to a regular shower. Even so, it uses up to 70% less water than traditional showerheads.
At $349, Nebia is more expensive than competitors. But the company is taking the Tesla approach, putting design and sustainability above cost savings. "We will over time find less expensive and more efficient processes that will bring costs down," CEO Philip Winter tells Tech Insider.
Nebia goes on sale in the summer of 2016.
You can now build a skyscraper in 18 days.
Mini Sky City, a 57-story skyscraper in southern China that was built in just 18 days, shows that it’s possible to build tall structures at mind-bending speed.
The brainchild of a Chinese architecture company called Broad Sustainable Building, Mini Sky City was built this year using modular construction. That is, it was built piece-by-piece in a factory and then put together on site.
Modular construction has been used in high-rise apartment buildings elsewhere, but the founder of Broad, Zhang Yue, has plans to build an even larger modular skyscraper. Dubbed Sky City, Zhang wants to build the structure in just seven months (four for the foundation, three for the building).
The 220-story building would be the tallest skyscraper in the world if completed, but that’s still a big if: red tape has held up construction for the last few years. Regardless of whether Sky City ever goes up, Mini Sky City is a reminder that cities can grow faster than we think.
Giving people free money actually works.
Basic income — a system in which people receive unconditional salaries, regardless of whether they have a job — quickly spread across the Netherlands in 2015 and is now poised to expand even further.
If implemented properly, it could eliminate extreme poverty and cut down on the bloated bureaucracy of the welfare state.
Less than two months after the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, launched a program to give welfare residents a regular, no-strings-attached income in June, similar programs expanded to nearly two dozen nearby cities.
In 2016, Switzerland will begin discussing the feasibility of a basic income system.
Thanks to these programs and more, basic income as a system has never been more widely discussed, says professor Almaz Zelleke at NYU Shanghai.
"The Utrecht pilot contributes to that conversation, which is a good thing," Zelleke says. "But ultimately, it's the conversation about what a basic income could mean if permanently adopted on a national or regional level that will bring about change, not the results of another temporary pilot."
Ultra-precise weather prediction is within reach.
Satellite company Spire is on the way to providing better data on weather than we have ever seen before. The company is doing it with a fleet of mini satellites, with 20 going into orbit by the end of the year and 100 planned for the near future.
These small and cheap satellites will deliver 10,000 data readings per day by the end of 2015 — a full five-fold increase over the 2,000 readings a day delivered by publicly funded weather satellites, according to CEO Peter Platzer.
With better data, we can more accurately predict, for example, if a hurricane bearing down on the East Coast is a dangerous Sandy or a mild Joaquin.
And it's not just about numbers Spire’s satellites don’t “look” at the Earth like conventional ones but rather listen. Using GPS Radio Occultation technology, satellites receive GPS radio waves to collect temperature, pressure, and moisture data, which meteorologists can use to calculate predictions.
The pope goes green.
Pope Francis.Buda Mendes/Getty
This year, Pope Francis, the "People's Pope," did something unimaginable even five years ago: He aligned the Catholic Church with the green movement.
The big reveal came in the form of his June encyclical, a papal letter to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, in which the pope made a 98-page plea to stop climate destruction.
Francis, who was trained as a chemist before he went to seminary, framed the climate crisis as a moral issue, since it will probably hurt the world’s poor more than the wealthy.
"When the Catholic Church, this old institution, embraces something, it means that it’s something everybody should pay attention to — the environmental movement can no longer be brushed off as a bunch of tree-huggers,” says Thomas Reese, Senior Analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.
"People are not going to change their lifestyle to save the polar bear. But if we know anything about religion, is that it is one of the few things that gets people to give up their own self interest for other people and bigger causes," Reese says.
What better cause is there than saving the planet?
There's finally a good way to measure ocean health.
Montana-based Sunburst Sensors won $2 million in this year's Ocean Health Xprize competition for its durable and efficient method of measuring ocean acidity — a key signal of the ocean's health and the most pressing concern of human-exacerbated climate change.
The same carbon dioxide that collects in the air also dissolves into the ocean, threatening to dissolve shells and coral reefs, destroy habitats, and kill species like oysters and fish that we rely on for food. Until this year, we had no way to measure in real-time just how much carbon was there. Now there's a new gold standard.
When dropped into the ocean, the sensors collect data on water's acidity levels. This gives scientists the data they need to estimate how much sea life will suffer in the future if we don't pass carbon pollution-limiting policies.
"We suck in some seawater, we inject a dye into the seawater, and we pump it through a little cell that we shine a light through," CEO James Beck tells Tech Insider. "We basically measure a color change of that dye, and by knowing what color it is we know what the pH is."
Beck's team is currently working on a floating sensor that measures the health of oyster farms and beams the data to a smartphone for analysis.
"For sensors, in general," Beck says, "this is kind of a golden age."
The cord-cutters have won.
People have been ditching cable for the last few years, but this year was the biggest shift yet.
“The genie is out of the bottle now," analysts at MoffettNathanson wrote in May after a 0.5% annual decline in TV subscriptions. "That may not sound dramatic, perhaps, but it’s the fastest rate of decline on record and it represents by far the largest sequential acceleration we have seen to date."
It's easy to see why this is happening.
There's been an explosion of streaming options, with new products from Showtime, HBO, and YouTube joining services from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and more.
These options feature not only exclusive access to some of the most talked about shows — such as "Game of Thrones," "Transparent," and "House of Cards' — but also vast archives of shows and movies that were once on TV and in theaters.
Then there are à la carte products like Sling TV breaking apart the traditional cable bundle, letting people pay for live access to only the channels they want. And on top of all that you've got Apple preparing to disrupt TV in a major way.
Cord-cutting is a viable option for almost everyone, and it's great for consumers.
Cornell breaks ground on what could be the greenest skyscraper ever.
Cornell Tech, an applied sciences program out of Cornell University, broke ground this summer on a $115 million residential high-rise that will be the world’s tallest and largest passive-house building, meeting strict energy-efficiency standards set by Germany's Passive House Institute.
Ultimately, the dorm could change the way architects, builders, and communities think about green design.
Designed by Handel Architects, the 250-foot-tall dorm is wrapped in a metal panel that acts as a thermally insulated blanket. Combined with a ventilator that brings in fresh air from the outside, that system allows the building to shirk traditional heating and cooling systems.
When completed in 2017, the dorm will save 882 tons of CO2 each year compared to a normal building.
"Systems like Passive House lay out the strategies that allow us to create buildings that use 60% to 70% less energy, and usually with off-the-shelf technology," says Prescott Gaylord, project manager and sustainability expert at Gensler, an architecture firm. "I think it will be hard for anyone to look at the Cornell project and not ask themselves, 'Why aren't we doing this with every building we design?'"
Genetically modified mosquitoes are fighting diseases.
Oxitec is pioneering the use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat two painful, mosquito-borne viruses: dengue and chikungunya.
Oxitec cooks up mosquitoes in a lab and injects them with an additional "self-limiting" gene. They release the non-biting male mosquitoes into the wild, where they find and mate with female mosquitoes, who do bite. Their offspring inherit the genes and die before they grow old enough to reproduce. If the release is successful, the mosquito population crashes and humans have a lower risk of infection.
More than 100 million of these “friendly mosquitoes” have been let loose in field trials in Panama, the Cayman Islands, and Brazil — reportedly reducing target mosquito populations by more than 90% in each case.
This spring, the company launched its first municipal partnership with the city of Piracicaba, Brazil, where it began releasing mosquitoes over a 10-month span. Brazil also hosts Oxitec’s year-old production facility, where 2 million mosquitoes are made each week.
Meanwhile in America, the FDA is reviewing an Oxitec application to release several million engineered mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, where dengue arrived in 2009 and 2010.
Google Translate makes traveling so much better.
In July, Google released a new feature for its Translate app that provides instant visual translations for more than 20 languages, making it possible to get around almost anywhere on your own.
Before this update, users had to hold up their phone to the image they wanted to translate, take a photo, and wait. The new feature eliminates that friction: users just hold their phone to the image, open the camera, and watch as text is magically translated.
Want to check out a foreign menu? You can do it in seconds, flipping the pages and watching the items get translated in real-time. Don’t know what that sign means? Now you can find out instantly.
"For the future, we're working to improve the quality of the languages we currently support and to add more languages," says Barak Turovsky, product lead for Google Translate. "Breaking down language barriers is what we're working towards, so is our eventual aim to support as many languages and writing systems as possible."
Lab-grown rhino horns will stop poachers in their tracks.
This year, biotech startup Pembient figured out how to create real rhinos horn in a lab — an innovation that could disrupt the deadly practice of poaching, which has endangered the global population of black rhinos.
The horns have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years and have increasingly become a status symbol. In South Africa alone, the number of rhinos poached has increased by over 7,000% since 2007. According to Pembient, over 1,200 South African rhinoceroses were poached in 2014, and the asking price for rhino horn has climbed above $60,000 per kilogram.
Pembient uses yeast cells to create the same keratin that's in rhino horns. That keratin is combined with rhino DNA to form an ink for 3D printing a horn with the same physical and genetic properties as a wild horn.
"Right now, the poachers and wildlife trading syndicates are the ones that are incentivized to kill wildlife due to the high prices various wildlife products command,” Pembient founder Matthew Markus tells Tech Insider. "By making bio-identical products we want to drop those prices and destroy those incentives, thereby putting our competition out of business.”
Watson gives doctors a superhuman ally.
Watson, IBM’s artificially intelligent computer system, is changing the way doctors diagnose disease. It all started this past April with the launch of the Watson Health Cloud, a platform that will use Watson’s AI capabilities to make sense of medical data, including MRIs and CT scans.
"Images have minute changes that doctor can't appreciate because we are humans and discerning those details might not be possible. A machine might do that effectively and efficiently," says Shahram Ebadollahi, Chief Science Officer at IBM Watson Health Group.
Watson is, for instance, equipped with algorithms to detect anomalies on an echocardiogram that could interfere with normal heart function. The AI could combine this information with data from other medical imaging scans, along with text notes on the case, to create a more complete patient profile.
"Now that I can do this for one patient, I can do it for all the other patients under the care of an institution and do a comparison," Ebadollahi says. "I can say, 'Have I seen people who displayed the same characteristics of this patient? What are [we learning from] how I provided care to other people that can inform the decision here in addition to what the medical knowledge is telling us?'"
Toys for female empowerment are everywhere.
2015 was a watershed year for empowering toys.
One of our favorites is Lammily, a doll that rejects Barbie's impossible measurements in favor of a healthier and more believable look. Named after creator Nickolay Lamm's family, the doll raised over half a million dollars on Kickstarter and sold more than 40,000 units since November of last year.
LEGO also recently released a line of STEM minifigs, including female scientists, engineers, deep sea explorers, astronauts, and car mechanics.
MGA Entertainment, the company behind the Bratz dolls, launched Project MC2, which features dolls that each come with their own science experiment.
Even Barbie is getting an upgrade. This year, Mattel introduced an interactive Barbie that chats with girls and delivers inspiring messages, reassuring insecure girls that they're not only pretty, but also funny, talented, and smart.
The first new type of depression treatment in decades makes headway.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, an entirely new class of antidepressants — one that mimics the anti-depressive qualities of ketamine without the severe side effects — is on the horizon.
These drugs affect a brain receptor called NMDA, which is associated with everything from depression to anxiety.
Esketamine, from Johnson and Johnson, finished phase 2 clinical trials this year, and if phase 3 trials go well, the nasal spray could be on the market by 2018. The intravenous drug, Rapastinel, is about to start phase 3 trials, and could go on sale by 2020, according to Mark Marmur, director of corporate affairs at Actavis, which owns the drug.
While further research is needed, drugs like Esketamine and Rapastinel offer the potential of depression treatment that’s faster-acting and more effective than drugs currently on the market. For the numerous patients who aren't helped by traditional antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft, that could be a big relief.
Google makes unlimited photo storage free and easy.
In May, Google rolled out Photos — a photo storage system that lets users upload a nearly infinite amount of photos.
It can also intuitively finds those photos, whether they’re images of waffles, sunglasses, or babies, without any tags or keywords required. Just tell Google which images to find, and it will.
The genius of Photos lies in its sorting capabilities. A quick tap of a blue icon in the app instantly files the user’s entire catalog of shots into albums created by Google, with names like People, Food, and Beaches. Photos is smart enough to keep track of photos of people even as they age, so users can scroll through relationships as they pass through time.
What's more, storage at high quality resolution is free and unlimited. While some people will want to pay to upload at the full original resolution, for most people that means never having to pay for photo storage again.
Transgender issues hit the mainstream.
Larry Busacca/Getty Images
The transgender community saw sweeping breakthroughs in 2015, from the hit Amazon show "Transparent" winning an Emmy in January, to President Obama becoming the first president to use the term "transgender" in a national address, to the Pentagon's announcement that it will lift its ban on transgender people serving in the military.
Andrea James — a transgender writer, producer, and activist — says 2015 was also the year trans issues peaked on the internet, which is where most of the members of the community interact with one another. The effect: an increasingly open society that isn't afraid to blur gender lines.
"It's gotten to the point where a lot of people know someone at work or school or a family friend who has transitioned," James tells Tech Insider. "And that kind of awareness on a general level is reflected in today's media, which is a very exciting time."
James says that while notable trans celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner are important, her "real hero" is Jazz Jennings, the 15-year-old trans star of the TLC reality show "I Am Jazz," which debuted earlier this summer.
"There's this extra, interesting aspect of her life," James says, "and she's showing parents that it's not a terrifying thing if your child expresses an interest in gender non-conformity or possibly even transitioning."
India's insanely cheap space probe reaches Mars.
India recently launched a space probe into Mars orbit for $74 million, nearly 10 times less than the $671 million US Mars orbiter mission. While India’s mission launched in 2013, the space probe settled into orbit around Mars this year, proving that it’s possible for developing nations to play a significant part in the ongoing race to explore the red planet.
"The most impressive thing is being able to get the spacecraft into Mars orbit. That means exercising the control over millions of miles of distance. That takes a fairly sophisticated technological capability," says John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the George Washington University and Former Director of Center for International Science and Technology Policy at the Space Policy Institute.
The probe can reportedly stay in orbit for years.
India fulfilled its thrifty mission through a combination of strategies: it kept labor costs down (easy to do in a country where labor is cheap) and kept the onboard sensors, which measure things like methane in the Mars atmosphere, simple.
"There’s no major technological innovation in the spacecraft itself, and there are much more sophisticated spacecraft orbiting Mars," says Logsdon. "But they were able to get there."
If India can get to Mars on the cheap, what’s stopping the rest of the world?
Spotify creates the best music discovery program ever.
In a great year for streaming music, Spotify's Discover Weekly has gotten the most buzz.
Launched in July, it's a weekly playlist that uses an algorithm to deliver new tunes based on your personal taste — like a mixtape made by your best friend, if your best friend were made of fancy math. It's made many of us excited to log on every Monday morning.
Discover Weekly will "look at your listening history, give more weight to stuff you’ve been jamming on for the last month, and match that up with what other people on Spotify has been play-listing around the songs you’ve been really into lately," Spotify's Matt Ogle tells Tech Insider.
Ogle gives a simple analogy for how Discover Weekly works: You’ve been playing song A and song C a lot, but it turns out that when other people play those songs together in their playlists, they are also listening to a song B that you’ve never heard before. Discover Weekly gives you song B.
We think it may be the greatest music discovery mechanism ever made, and users seem to agree. In the 10 weeks after launch, Spotify users listened to a billion tracks on their two-hour long Discover Weekly playlists.
Police body cameras are making a difference.
Amid rising controversy over US policing, body cameras are emerging as a powerful tool to keep the peace.
After the Obama administration’s pledge of $20 million to fund police body cameras earlier this year, the cameras gained traction, with seven states mandating their use or making funds available to buy them.
Body cameras have been used as crucial evidence in recent police-citizen crimes. This summer, a white police officer in Ohio was indicted for the murder of a black man during a traffic stop based on the footage of the body camera he was wearing — contradicting his written police report.
The camera also reveal heroism: in October, a Cleveland officer talked down a suicidal man who had just shot at him — all captured on camera.
“In recent years we’ve seen cell phone cameras recording police conduct, and that’s helped to lift the veil, but that’s spotty,” says Randolph McLaughlin, professor at Pace Law School and co-chair of the civil rights practice group at Newman Ferrara.
"With the body camera, now you have an independent observer on the scene that’s mechanical," he says. "It can’t lie."
The cameras already seem to be promoting peaceful policing: A study of Rialto, California, police found that wearing body cameras reduced the use of force by 50%.
The first awesome virtual reality experience is here.
The Void, a fully immersive virtual reality theme park, made the coolest VR product of the year with the beta launch of its "5D" experience: simulated climates, vibrations, and sounds.
We tested it in a Utah warehouse and can confirm that it's awesome. You physically feel the heat of the Aztec sun and the chill of underground laboratories, along with more than three dozen other effects simulated in the arena.
The theme park plans to expand its catalog of storylines and effects, using its in-house system of head-mounted displays, vests, and gloves — technology it's calling "Rapture" — to open Virtual Entertainment Centers around the US by June 2016.
"It's a huge project," Ken Bretschneider, CEO and co-founder of The Void, tells Tech Insider. "But each virtual entertainment center is very manageable, so it's a scalable model."
Apple ushers in a new era of medical research.
Apple's health software ResearchKit, launched in March, shirks traditional methods of gathering health data by connecting medical researchers to the hundreds of millions of iPhone and Apple Watch owners. It could transform medical research, collecting a potentially unprecedented amount of information on the conditions that afflict people around the world.
In the past, recruiting for medical studies involved putting up fliers or sending out letters. Using ResearchKit, researchers can develop iOS apps that take surveys, perform tests, and give patients feedback on how they're managing symptoms.
Mount Sinai recently released its initial findings from Asthma Health, an app that studies and educates asthmatics. Hospital officials tell Tech Insider that the study drew an astounding 8,600 people and attracted a surprising number of severe asthmatics, who are often difficult to reach because the disease may limit their ability to travel and to and from research studies.
Yvonne Chan, a doctor and genomic scientist at Mount Sinai, described the launch of ResearchKit as "the first of many greater things to come."
An ultra-cheap private-school system shakes up education.
In 2015, a school-system concept dreamed up by global design firm IDEO, ex-engineer Jorge Yzusqui Chessman, and billionaire businessman Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor became the largest network of private schools in Peru. Now it could be a model for the rest of the world.
Innova Schools, designed in 2011, were created as a response to Peru’s ailing school system, which ranked dead last out of 65 in a 2012 survey. Typically, students in Peru’s government schools spend their days transcribing lectures from teachers, with little time to focus on leadership skills or creativity.
Kids attending the $130-a-month K-11 Innova Schools, in contrast, get a variety of experiences in their classrooms. They spend half their day immersed in online education and half receiving traditional classroom instruction. Kids also go through an annual week-long program focused on "structured design process," where they create solutions to a social challenge in their community.
It seems to be working. In 2013, 83% of second graders at the schools tested as proficient in reading comprehension, compared to 33% nationally, while 61% tested as proficient in math, far ahead of the national average of 17%.
"Looking to the year 2021, we want to be recognized as one of the best educational experiences in the world," says Chessman, the cofounder and Director of Innova Schools.
The app that can do everything takes over China.
WeChat is one of the most popular messaging apps on the planet. One reason why: The Chinese app, which grew to a mind-boggling 600 million users in 2015, is like the Swiss army knife of apps.
In addition to messaging, you can use WeChat to grab taxis, send money, play games, look at fitness tracker data, order food, read news, buy movie tickets, make doctor appointments, and so much more.
"WeChat should matter to all of us because it shows what’s possible when an entire country — which currently has a smartphone penetration of 62% (that’s almost 1/3 of its population) — 'leapfrogs' over the PC era directly to mobile," writes Connie Chan, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, on the venture capital firm’s blog.
Facebook has admitted that it's inspired by WeChat as it tries to turn Messenger into its own app for everything. You can count on other app-makers to follow suit.
A new vaccine could destroy dengue fever.
A worker fumigates a residential area in the Philippines to ramp up defenses against dengue.Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Later this year, French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur is expected to license a dengue vaccine in 20 countries, a major milestone in the World Health Organization’s mission to reduce mortality from the mosquito-borne virus by at least 50% by 2020.
Sanofi Pasteur announced last fall that its vaccine candidate — the culmination of 20 years of research — may reduce the number of dengue disease cases by 60% in children and adolescents for up to one year.
About half the world’s population is at risk for dengue, which causes flu-like illness, sometimes severe pain, and occasionally a lethal iteration of the disease.
Some of the vaccine’s success stems from its unconventional approach. Scientists start with a yellow fever vaccine and swap some parts so that the body identifies it as dengue and immunizes against the disease. That strategy averts some safety issues that have tripped up other potential dengue vaccines, though it also might explain the Sanofi vaccine’s middling effectiveness.
Still, Sanofi Pasteur’s progress could mark the beginning of the end for the virus, which has no approved treatment. The pharmaceutical company has already begun manufacturing the vaccine, getting ready to save millions from a painful, often debilitating disease.
People with colorblindness are finally seeing the light.
Some colorblind people have been able to see colors for the first time thanks to EnChroma's sunglasses.
Sales of the sunglasses jumped from only several hundred units in the two years they've been on sale to more than 12,000 in 2015."The response we've had is incredible," Andy Schmeder, company COO and CTO, tells Tech Insider.
"In terms of what's going on optically," Schmeder says, "the lens selectively blocks out particular regions of the [light] spectrum, restoring the band in the visible spectrum that corresponds to the colors red, green, and blue."
Today, 8% of men and 0.5% of women suffer from color blindness. It interferes with people's daily quality of life, leading them to make potentially harmful choices, like forgetting which traffic lights to stop at or mistaking which bathroom stalls are occupied.
The glasses range in price from $329 to $699, depending on the model and lens type. Schmeder says the demand for EnChroma's glasses has been so great that the company is already working on the next iteration: contact lenses.
The password is finally dying.
What better password than your face?Microsoft presentation
If you’re still trying to remember passwords, then we’re sorry. A bunch of forces are coming together to kill the annoying and flimsy web password for good.
Fingerprint logins are at the forefront, offering a faster and more secure way to sign into your phone, make purchases on Amazon and more.
In a short time, this feature has become essential for mobile devices."
Last year, only Huawei and Apple could lay claim to having the technology at a usable state, but now we have the Samsung Galaxy S6, HTC One A9 and M9+, Xperia Z5 and Z5 Compact, and even the LG V10," writes The Verge.
Facial recognition passwords are another solution. Microsoft's Windows Hello boasts the ability to let you log in with your face, your finger, or your eye.
Even Yahoo has a new trick to get around the password, letting users log in by responding to a text message.
As for sites that still rely on passwords, more and more people are switching to password managers like 1Password. Once you do, you won’t be able to manage life without it.
A new model for treating urban crime actually works.
This past year, a model for treating violence as a disease that proved successful in Richmond, California, spread to Toledo, Ohio, and Oakland, California — showing it could be a replicable, long-term solution for minimizing violence in American cities.
In 2007, Richmond was one of the deadliest places in the US, with a murder rate of 45.9 per 100,000 residents. But things changed quickly: Reports indicate that in 2014, there were just 11 homicides per 100,000 residents, or a 76% decrease.
This victory has been largely credited to Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), which homes in on the 50 young men in the community that are most likely to get violent and mentors them. Then comes an offer: You’ll get a stipend if you promise to stay away from violence.
These are "the most lethal (or potentially lethal) young men in our city," ONS head Devone Boggan tells Tech Insider. "Young men that we believe will be involved as a shooter or a victim of gunfire within a 6 to 12 month period."
The “fellows,” as they’re called, make up a "life map" of what they’d like to do with their lives, and work with the ONS team to realize those ambitions.
The crucial mechanism at work here is that instead of treating violence as a monster to be slayed, ONS looks at it as a disease to be treated. Instead of having men locked away, the organization heals them.
Apple adds an touch screen input that seemed impossible.
The iPhone touch screen was revolutionary when it came out years ago, but most people assumed there was nothing more that could be done with it. Then Apple proved everyone wrong with 3D touch.
Apple engineers worked obsessively for years to make its screen force-sensitive.
"Apple had to engineer a system of sensors that could accurately detect touch pressure across the face of the iPhone’s screen, and do it on a product that’s roughly the same size and weight (and exactly the same price) as its predecessor," writes Jason Snell at Macworld.
Most people agree that Apple nailed the design.
For now, only a few apps have 3D touch integration, and most of them have used it as a kind of right click, allowing users to interact with an app without leaving the home screen. Press down hard and you’ll see relevant options, like a list of frequent contacts in the Messages app or a screen that allows you to quickly post a photo to Instagram.
Looking forward, developers are salivating at what they can do with an input that's sensitive enough to be used as a scale.
“This is probably the biggest innovation since the phone first came out,” Andy Wafer, CEO of Pixel Toys, which created the acclaimed zombie shooter game Gunfinger, told Bloomberg.