This past year we've seen the advent of smart baby monitors, a whole world of change in financial technologies, the advent of hoverboards, and, of course, the backlash to hoverboards. Companies are now launching rockets to space, and drones from the palm of your hand. There's a new iWatch for your wrist and Google Cardboard for your eyes.
That was 2015. What's in store for this year? Here's a primer.
1. Next-generation designer body parts.
One of the most interesting applications of 3-D printing is medical devices. Think: implants and prosthetics. Dental implants and hip implants are already being done--and the next generation of these innovations are well underway. They're called "bioprinting," which essentially means "printing" layers of tissue that can be grafted to the body for a variety of purposes. Over the next three years, the market for 3-D printing in health care is predicted to reach more than $4 billion. For a few years, researchers have been working on building printable--and fully customizable--veins, heart valves, and even ears. The next frontier is building full organs out of printable tissue. Seriously. A Virginia foundation has an open call--with a $1 million prize--for the first organization to print a fully functioning liver before 2018.
2. Mainstream slacktivism.
New research shows that socially engaging with a protest or demonstration from afar is just as likely to help spread the word virally as having your boots on the ground. A study published in the research journal Plos One found that a key to turning a protest into a real social movement with a long lifespan is online engagement. So, tweeting from your desk helps solidify the network effect of a protest, and amplify it. "Our findings suggest that peripheral users in online protest networks may be as important in expanding the reach of messages as the highly committed minority at the core," the study reads. In 2016, look for more research into how to--and digital vehicles that will help you--do your part as a couch potato.
3. Worker drones.
After 2016, there will be more drones in the sky than manned aircraft--and you should expect those trend lines to continue. Experts predict that in 10 years the industry will balloon from $3 billion to $90 billion. One particular area that's ripe for innovation: replacing dangerous jobs usually done by human pilots or humans on foot--say, first-aid drones, firefighter drones, and temporary-cell-phone-tower drones to replace permanent structures during disasters or combat.
4. Designer marijuana.
The cannabis boom will continue in 2016. In addition to more states mulling legalization, keep an eye out for new research from scientists and universities on cannabinoid-based drugs (sans the psychoactive THC) to treat osteoporosis, epilepsy, and maybe even cancer. The goal is to eliminate the drug's trademark high--while treating serious illnesses with few or no side effects. No doubt, drug companies will latch onto the idea--and new companies will spring up to sell and market them, too. The U.S. market for legal cannabis is soaring, having grown 74 percent in 2014 to $2.7 billion, according to researchers from The ArcView Group, a cannabis industry investment and research firm based in Oakland, California. Products that dispense and deliver these drugs could also see a boom: There's already a "Keurig for pot," a vaporizer by CannaKorp that uses friendly single-dose pods. Maybe Grandma would be comfortable keeping one on her side-table.
5. On-demand everything becoming even more ubiquitous.
Amazon delivery is getting better all the time. And fresh competition from Jet.com and a never-ending stream of new delivery options for your pantry staples and meals promises to make very fast delivery even faster. Live in New York City, Austin, San Diego, Los Angeles, or even Ottawa, and you don't even have to leave your couch to get booze within an hour. If you do leave your apartment, expect car services, or valet parking, to get even easier. Once you get home, you can fire up an on-demand video, and ponder the fact that Amazon is actually profitable now. Plus, it has drones it wants to deploy. Might they can soon bring you an ice-cream sandwich? If regulators can get behind it, almost certainly.
6. Floating internet and cell service.
We've heard Mark Zuckerberg talk about bringing internet to unwired parts of the world by beaming it from balloons or satellites or drones. Google, too, is invested in the idea of floating massive balloons overhead to endow a geographic area with cell or internet service. It's called Project Loon, and could, one day, bring connectivity to the 60 percent of the world's population that still does not have it. Drone companies, too, are working on helping wire the earth, from their perches in the sky. CyPhy Works is creating a drone that can be tethered to the earth to provide it continuous power, and keep it from straying. "It's like having a near-Earth satellite," Helen Greiner, chief executive of CyPhy Works, told the Wall Street Journal. "Once you have an eye in the sky all the time, there are so many things you can do with it." With Project Loon only one to two years out, and CyPhy actively tethering drones, 2016 will be the year for ironing out the kinks in these hovering signals.
We've just marked the one-year anniversary of the announcement that diplomatic relations would be restored between the United States and Cuba, which was achieved in July. And airlines have the conceptual green-light to make commercial flights between the nations (though they are still submitting proposals to the Department of Transportation to actually do so). As Cuba opens up to more American tourism and trade, it won't be exporting only culture to the States. It's going to open up new areas for doing business: On top of lucrative areas of importing, exporting, and aiding tourism, there are also lots of opportunities in consulting and modernizing communications infrastructure in Cuba. "Americans will also be able to provide other support for the growth of Cuba's nascent private sector," according to a White House statement. That, according to one estimate, could be a $21 billion trade opportunity over the next five years.
8. Food tech, giving back.
Tech is taking over feeding the world's poor. The World Food Programme has been creating a digital system that allows beneficiaries to receive regularly scheduled small cash transfers, via chip or SMS, so they can buy what they need. The aim is to help local producers, and feed more people more efficiently--without carting massive truckloads of supplies in or out of a region. Meanwhile, growing companies, including Hampton Creek, Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and Modern Meadow, are making huge strides in using inexpensive plant proteins to create nutrient-rich meat and egg substitutes. The goal isn't just health; it's also to provide bigger bang for the planetary buck, in terms of land use.
9. Cord cutting, part 2.
Thought this was an aughts fad? Nope. YouTube finally has a premium service. Amazon is starting to sell piecemeal a la carte channels. Netflix is killing it with original programming, going all out this past year in creating documentaries, movies, and drama series. Who's losing? Big cable. Disney chief executive Bob Iger called it in a conference call in August: "Trends among younger audiences ... will continue to put pressure on the multichannel ecosystem." Share prices for all the big channels sunk this summer, and even ESPN, known for minting money, is trying to cut costs in reaction to losing subscribers. As pay-TV customers are stagnating, cable companies are looking a lot less necessary for individual subscribers--and with the high prices charged by the ones that are near-monopolies, Americans are cutting them out. What's in? Buying directly from premium channels and subscribing to the media you actually want. (Whether this is actually a cost-saving measure for the masses--now that's TBD.)