The 25 Best Inventions of 2016
Every year, TIME selects the best inventions that are making the world better, smarter and—in some cases—a little more fun. In the past, we’ve featured everything from the real-life hoverboard to the desktop DNA lab. Here’s which ones made this year’s unranked list.
The Levitating Lightbulb
Since he was a child, Simon Morris has been obsessed with making objects float in midair. At one point he even managed to turn a skateboard into a hoverboard, though as he recalls it, “I couldn’t ride on it.” Now he’s applying that same passion to Flyte, a lightbulb that relies on electromagnetism to levitate and spin, and on resonant inductive coupling—a technical term for wireless power transmission—to shine. Morris sees his design as a seamless blend of science and art honoring both pragmatists, like Thomas Edison, and dreamers, like Nikola Tesla. And consumers appear to agree: Morris says Flyte has sold so well since its official January launch that his team is planning to introduce a whole ecosystem of floating products, including a planter, Lyfe, which debuted in June. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he says.
The Folding Bike Helmet
Morpher / $119
Like many cyclists, Jeff Woolf has been involved in a serious crash—one that might have killed him were it not for his helmet. So why, he wondered, do so many of his contemporaries refuse to wear one? Turns out, it’s mostly because they’re hard to carry around; they’re thick and bulky, and don’t fit into bags or backpacks. And that was a problem that Woolf, an engineer, knew he could fix. The result: Morpher, a bike helmet made from interweaved plastics that is just as strong as its traditional counterparts (it meets general safety requirements in both the U.S. and Europe), but flexible enough to fold almost totally flat, making it easier to transport. Woolf recently shipped the first units to his Indiegogo backers, who helped raise almost $300,000; he’s now in talks with stores too. “It’s inevitable that as more people take to the road on a bicycle, more people will have accidents,” Woolf says, adding that he hopes Morpher will save lives.
Solar Panels That Don’t Stick Out
Solar Roof / Developed by Tesla and Solarcity
Help the environment, save some money—and litter your roof with bulky metal boxes. That’s the dilemma home-solar-panel buyers have faced for years. Tesla’s response: the Solar Roof, a series of tiles designed to blend together while also harnessing the power of the sun. The product line, which will be available next year, is a collaboration between Tesla and SolarCity, a longtime provider of traditional solar panels. (The former is set to acquire the latter.) And although pricing information has not yet been released, SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive is optimistic about Solar Roof’s potential. “It’s addressing a new segment,” he says, referring to the 5 million Americans who install new roofs each year, some of whom might want to go solar.
Shoes That Tie Themselves
Nike Hyperadapt 1.0 / $720
Almost everyone who sees Back to the Future wants three things: a time-traveling DeLorean, a working hoverboard and a pair of self-lacing shoes. Now, thanks to Nike, the shoe dream is a reality. When wearers press a button near the tongue, the HyperAdapt 1.0s automatically tighten and loosen around their foot. And although this technology may sound frivolous, it’s not just for kicks: simplified shoe fastening could give athletes an edge during competition, and it’s especially useful for people with impaired motor function. “We’re already seeing powerful feedback” from the disabled community, says Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s vice president of design and special projects.
Soccer Fields That Fit Anywhere
The Unusual Football Field/ Developed by AP Thailand
The Khlong Toei district in the heart of Bangkok is packed tight with buildings and people—which doesn’t leave much room to build new parks, let alone giant rectangular fields on which kids can play soccer. So real estate firm AP Thailand took a different approach. As part of a recent project, the company used aerial photography to find what developer Pattaraphurit Rungjaturapat calls “untended areas,” or unusually shaped patches of land that weren’t being used. Then it covered them with concrete, paint and antislip materials—all the trimmings of a proper sports venue, without the typical boundaries. Not that locals seem to mind: Rungjaturapat says the first two fields, which opened earlier this year, are packed with kids as soon as school lets out. This December, AP Thailand plans to open a third.
The Headset Leading a Virtual Revolution
In order to access the most cutting-edge virtual reality, people typically have to shell out thousands of dollars—not just for a headset (like the $800 HTC Vive), but for a computer that’s powerful enough to support it. Sony’s PlayStation VR, by contrast, is designed to work with a console that millions of people already own: the PlayStation 4. That’s a boon for gamers in search of what Sony engineer Richard Marks calls “the most intense, most extreme” action, as well as casual consumers, who now have an easier way to experience VR.
Cannabis That Could Replace Pills
Hmbldt Vape Pens / $100 each
Millions of Americans rely on over-the-counter medicine to treat routine complications such as insomnia and headaches. What if they took hits of pot instead? That’s what California-based Hmbldt is banking on with its new line of vaporizer pens. When inhaled, the pens dispense a dose of cannabis oil that Hmbldt says has been chemically engineered to make people feel a certain way—calm, sleepy, relieved of pain—without getting high. Cannabis-delivery methods like this one haven’t yet been thoroughly vetted by physicians. But as more states legalize medical marijuana, and more studies show that it does have merits, products like Hmbldt’s (now available only in California) could become increasingly commonplace. “This really can help people feel better,” says Jason DeLand, the company’s head of strategy.
The Ultimate Alarm Clock
It’s hard to believe that an alarm clock—the cruel, clunky gadget that jolts you awake and ruins your morning—could not only be beautiful but also improve your sleep. That it could gauge the temperature, humidity, light and even air quality in your bedroom to help you engineer a perfect sleep environment. That it could monitor your sleep cycles and wake you when you’re least likely to feel groggy—all thanks to simple voice commands. Indeed, Sense (and its companion pillow sensor) is no ordinary alarm clock. It took hundreds of prototypes to get it right, says James Proud, founder and CEO of Hello, which makes Sense. Early adopters report that using the small glowing orb feels almost as natural as crawling into bed. That was key, says Proud, who adds, “Nobody wants to introduce complexity into their lives, least of all when it comes to sleep.”
A Sleeker, Smarter Toothbrush
When it comes to dental hygiene, most Americans are slackers: 1 in 2 don’t brush twice a day, and 3 in 4 don’t replace their bristles every three months, no matter how many times they’re warned of the risks (which include cavities and gum disease). “We needed to get people to care a lot more,” says designer Simon Enever. So he and partner Bill May set out to make brushing feel more rewarding. The result is Quip, a simple, affordable, battery-powered toothbrush that works like its counterparts from Oral-B and Sonicare—a two-minute timer vibrates every 30 seconds, reminding users to switch positions—but looks and feels like something you’d find in an Apple store; customers can even opt for a matte metallic finish. “It’s a nicer experience,” says Enever, who adds that he’s already working on his next design challenge: getting you to floss.