Simply because a new invention is innovative doesn’t make it smart. Here, our judgement of this year’s most notable “advances.”
In the 1800s, we thought the telephone was amazing. Now we have hybrid computer phones in our pockets. Flat-screen TVs impressed us in the early 2000s, but that was before we’d seen HD. Which was before we’d seen OLED TVs. And there’s no way the guy who invented the microwave knew he’d indirectly spawned the Hot Pocket. But for every useful creation, there is a useless one. For every person inventing the PC in his garage, there’s someone thinking up the recumbent bike. It can be hard to tell what technological feats are worthy of our time and admiration. That’s why we’re here. As a magazine, we support advancement. But we also realize that sometimes—just sometimes—there is such a thing as a bad idea.
RIDABLE LUGGAGE (STUPID)
Unzip the handlebars and pop out the foot pegs and this $1,495 carry-on suitcase becomes a small electric motorcycle you can ride all the way to Gate 27. An hour of charging gets you a six- to eight-mile range and speeds of 5 to 8 mph, depending on how much you packed and your body weight. Sounds fun—and it is. But it’s also ridiculous, like something Kim Jong-un would ride if he didn’t already have people forced to carry him. The tiny pegs barely keep your feet off the floor, so you have to hope you don’t ride over anything that could snag a heel. Plus, your eyes are at approximately navel height, which makes it tough to see in anything less than a wide-open terminal.
360º CAMERAS (AMAZING)
Three-hundred-sixty-degree cameras have dropped to GoPro prices. (The 360fly is only $300.) The only real issue is editing. In terms of field of view, you’re looking at six to ten times more raw footage with a 360 camera. As with drone footage, unless you do something truly VR-worthy—tour an Air Force base, dive with sharks, visit a cat café—only a portion of what 360 cameras capture is worth looking at. For now, the final video won’t be as focused or compelling as a tight 2D clip. It can’t be. Especially if the person you show the video to doesn’t have a VR headset or Google Cardboard. But this is about looking forward. Not to a day when everyone is using YouTube 360, which, honestly, will always be pretty fun to play with. To a day when we all have VR setups in our houses, hooked to our phones (or directly to our brains or souls, or whatever happens in this future world; we aren’t there yet, so we don’t know). That day will come in part because of 360-degree cameras. And we’ll get better at editing.
AUTONOMOUS DRIVING ASSISTANCE (AMAZING)
Earlier this year, when Tesla’s Autopilot gained the dubious distinction of being the first driver-assistance system to be implicated in a fatal crash, it was tragic, to be sure. But is it enough reason to abandon a promising technology? The systems haven’t been around for very long, and you need a whole lot of data to paint a picture of accidents that don’t happen. And early studies suggest that, yes, smarter cars can help save us from our own imperfect driving.
It’ll be a long time before a car can drive you anywhere you want without human intervention, but for the moment, the questions are pretty simple: If you start to drift into the wrong lane, would you like the car to steer you away from the oncoming traffic? If there’s an oblivious guy stepping into the crosswalk, would you prefer not to hit him? And if you’re about to reverse into the path of a school bus, would you like your car to automatically hit the brakes? All of those systems—lane-assist, pedestrian-detection, cross-path-detection—are available already, and, yes, you want them. The car isn’t yet ready to take over your whole commute. But that doesn’t mean it can’t save you somewhere along the way.
NEW AIRPORT SECURITY (AMAZING)
Instead of passengers putting their wallets and belts into bins one at a time, single-file, a situation in which one slow guy delays the entire line, Delta created a security checkpoint that uses five simultaneous stations. The system is completely automated. You approach an empty station, fill your bin, and put it on the conveyor. If you accidentally leave that water bottle in your carry-on, or there’s something suspicious that requires a second look, your bin is routed to a separate area. The conveyor belts even automatically send the bins back to the front of the line. For now, the only location using the technology is Atlanta, Delta’s hub. But they promise they’re expanding to other airports. Suddenly we’re feeling much more forgiving about that lost bag.
WELIVE SPACES (STUPID)
Last April, the office-sharing company WeWork introduced its newest communal venture: housing. WeLive’s fully furnished apartments offer an average of 450 square feet of semiprivate or private areas for sleeping, in addition to open, shared spaces that come with startup-like perks including laundry rooms outfitted with ping-pong tables, on-site yoga studios, and bars equipped with bitters and shakers. Community managers plan team-building activities, such as taco night or karaoke, and residents can contact building management using an app. There’s even unlimited free beer and coffee. It’s a dorm for post-grads. This is not a good thing.
There are certain things you stop after college: accepting T-shirts because they’re free, eating Cup Noodles, and wearing a backpack everywhere. Also, sharing four walls with a relative stranger and icebreaker games of two truths and a lie.
SNAPCHAT FILTERS (AMAZING)
When people look back at this era of ubiquitous technology, what will they see? All of us flipping through the Bambi eyes and horrifying digital makeup of Snapchat filters. They may not be all that impressed—until they see face swap, which shows you what you’d look like if you had the features of the person next to you. Live. It’s delightful. And frightening. And it’s a technological marvel. Sure, some conspiracy theorists think the app is feeding the FBI’s facial recognition database, but future people won’t mind because they’ll obviously be living in a crimeless society, thanks to our willingness to unknowingly indulge the government. We hope those people will pull out their phones and be able to open Snapchat. Because they deserve to know happiness, too.
CARS THAT KNOW WHEN THE LIGHT WILL CHANGE (AMAZING)
As Tom Petty could tell you, the waiting is the hardest part of red lights. Audi has a solution—not to make the lights any shorter, but to let you know exactly when you’re getting the green. Next year, in select cities with smart traffic signals, Audi’s Traffic Light Information System will use the car’s onboard LTE data connection to communicate with the intersection’s signals and give you a countdown to green. It’s the first step in V2I (vehicle to infrastructure) technology, an area that will be crucial for both safety and automation, and, luckily, it’s just the beginning.
BEER SOMMELIERS (STUPID)
There are a lot of kinds of beer. Take India Pale Ales, for example. There are Belgian IPAs, rye IPAs, double IPAs, and at least four colors of IPA—black, brown, red, and white. It can start to feel a little overwhelming. To keep track of it all there is an aide: the cicerone (SIS-uh-rohn). Cicerones are the sommeliers of the beer world, only they have less clout and don’t get to wear that sipping dish around their neck when they work. They go through official training and ordination, and upon graduation, they help us drink.
Started in 2008, the Cicerone Certification Program offers anyone with tuition money and a bottle opener four increasingly sophisticated titles (beer server, cicerone, advanced cicerone, master cicerone). But what it offers to the world is a sign that we’ve gone too far. Beer can be complex in its flavors and preparation. We appreciate that. It’s why we have favorites, and why we’ll spend more time at restaurants reading the beer menu than pondering the day’s specials. But we don’t necessarily want help. While it may be a complicated drink, beer is a simple pleasure. Let’s keep it that way. Besides, we already have a name for cicerones: bartenders.
THE NFL ON TWITTER (AMAZING)
This year, Twitter made a rumored $100 million deal with the NFL to live-broadcast ten Thursday night football games. (It made similar deals with MLB and the NHL.) For Twitter, it was a way to find new users—and something to actually sell ads against. For the rest of us, we could watch football, for free, no matter where we were or what kind of cable package we had. But it means having to share the game with all the people on Twitter. Twitter gives everyone a voice, which is nice, but that voice during a football game is usually yelling—about how the Patriots suck or how stupid the announcer’s hat is—and it never seems to go hoarse. In that respect, it’s like being at a real football game, where you never know who will sit next to you. But instead of costing you $150 and an hour in parking-lot traffic, Twitter is absolutely free. And there’s no last call on the beer in your fridge. You can handle the yelling. And if you decide you can’t, simply turn your phone to landscape mode, and the conversation stream disappears.
A BACKPACK WITH A COOLER (AMAZING)
Dakine, the surf and snowboard accessories company, has always been better known for outfitting its packs and bags to best accommodate things like surf leashes and helmets. Now, it’s focusing on transporting easy-access soda and beer in what is clearly the mullet of backpacks. Up top, it’s all business: twenty-eight liters of storage capacity for your regular gear plus a protected pocket for sunglasses and your phone. Down below, it’s a party with a separate compartment that holds twelve cans and ice packs. The best part, though, is a zippered side dispenser. You can pull out a drink without having to take off the pack. Take into account the three insulated cozies and bottle opener on the shoulder strap and you’re a roving, unencumbered good-time Charlie.
FACEBOOK LIVE (AMAZING)
Since it launched in April, the most-viewed videos streamed on Facebook Live have been of a woman laughing in a Chewbacca mask and an exploding watermelon. But that’s not the only thing it can do. Facebook Live provides ordinary people with the power to broadcast important events. In instances when the News 4 truck is stuck in traffic and real reporters can’t be on the scene, we have a temporary stand-in: some guy named Tim and his cellphone. Or in places cameras can’t always be filming, like when Philando Castile was shot by police and his girlfriend broadcast the scene. When something happens, newsworthy or not, there’s not always going to be a camera crew there. But there will be people with cellphones.
FACEBOOK MEMORIES (STUPID)
A few weeks ago Facebook notified me of a nine-year friendship anniversary with a guy I met in college. For such a special occasion, Facebook algorithmically selected two pictures to warm my heart—one of us at Disneyland and one of him and his now-wife, whom I mocked in the caption. Charming. On February 4, Facebook treated everyone to a video of “Polaroids” of their “friends” and things they’ve “done together.” It was the social network’s twelfth anniversary, or roughly the tenth anniversary of the day “friend” became a verb. Which is why these anniversaries are so pointless. When “friend” is a thing you do with the click of a button, not a thing you earn, there’s no real reason to memorialize it. —Kevin Dupzyk
TEXTURE-CHANGING SPONGES (AMAZING)
Scrub Daddy is a brightly colored smiley-face sponge, with holes for the eyes and the mouth. It’s ugly. But it works. Invented by the former owner of an automotive buffing company, the Scrub Daddy uses a temperature-dependent polymer-based foam called FlexTexture, which was originally invented to help mechanics clean their hands. In warm water, the sponge’s texture changes, becoming softer and more malleable. When the water is switched back to cold, the sponge increases in roughness, easily scraping away old soap scum and mildew. And it smiles at you the whole time. No matter what it’s covered in.
A BATTERY FOR YOUR HOUSE (AMAZING)
Tesla’s new Powerwall banks energy in an aesthetically pleasing reservoir so you can power your home with solar energy at night. It is a model of utopian efficiency—if you can afford the setup costs. The base model is $3,000, plus $1,500 for the required inverters and installation, and $10,000 to $30,000 for solar panels. But making solar power affordable is not what Elon Musk is after. First he has to make it convenient. The Powerwall offers a way to become energy self-sufficient. If you live in an area with enough sunlight, you won’t pay for power again. Bank what you harvest during the day and use it at night. With less sun, your battery can still top itself off from the grid during cheaper periods of the day. Eventually, you may actually start saving money. But the whole time you’ll be doing something more important: saving the planet.
A TRACKPAD ON YOUR ARM (AMAZING)
Whether you consider tattoos art, desecration, or just a foolproof way to ensure that whatever relationship you’re memorializing won’t last, there’s now another option: trackpad. This year, Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao and a team of researchers from MIT Media Lab and Microsoft announced DuoSkin, a conductive gold-leaf temporary tattoo with a power source and Bluetooth connectivity. The tattoos recognize taps and swipes, and can be used with most Bluetooth devices. No, you’re probably not going to want a calculator on your forearm. But an easy way to turn on the lights or control your music from across the room? The technology may bring us one step closer to becoming true cyborgs, but at least we’ll be popular at dinner parties.
STREAMING ORIGINAL MOVIES (AMAZING)
Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos set a 2016 original content goal at six hundred hours—twenty-five uninterrupted days’ worth of acclaimed, binge-worthy series like House of Cards, Narcos, and Stranger Things. If the deepening butt craters in our couch cushions are any indication, the challenge was accepted. Lost in the unquestioned success of Netflix’s content boom, however, is its shaky history with original films. Since late 2015, Netflix has offered up a trial-and-error mix of indies (Indian comedy Brahman Naman), sequels no one was really hoping for (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny), and heavily streamed but critically panned Adam Sandler “comedies” like The Ridiculous 6. It was a slow start.But there’s hope for Netflix movies—as the savior of art-house fare and the medium-budget films that major studios ignore for reboots and superhero franchises. Netflix’s theatrical originals are getting better, with upcoming titles like Christopher Guest’sMascots;Death Note, a supernatural horror movie from buzzy director Adam Wingard; and Will Forte’s A Futile & Stupid Gesture, about a cofounder of National Lampoon.
The surest sign that Netflix films are improving is upcoming collaborations with bold-face names whose sole interest isn’t getting David Spade much-needed work. The company paid $60 million for the rights to Brad Pitt’s War Machine. It invested another $50 million in Okja, a South Korean action flick with Jake Gyllenhaal.