We asked our strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers to send in nominations for the biggest innovations of 2019: Specifically, which were most notable for their potential to influence product design in coming years?
It’s interesting to note that many in the resulting list, below, reflect the shifts predicted by global socio-cultural megatrends – especially those that predict a more inclusive, sustainable future. Here are our picks for biggest innovations of 2019 (note that the numbers don’t indicate rank — they’re in no specific order):
1. Electric vehicles revved up.
Electric vehicles also made last year’s list, but we felt they were necessary to include as one of the biggest innovations of 2019 because of the market’s continual, explosive growth. In 2019, EVs seemed to reach a new level of public acceptance. More manufacturers in the consumer market started transitioning away from combustion engines and into the EV game — see Ford, which recently announced their Mach-E, a mustang badged EV.
Elon Musk’s audacious debut of Tesla’s electric pickup, Cybertruck, at the end of the year brought 250,000 preorders within a week. The impressive specs are one thing. … the completely bonkers alternate-future cyberpunk styling is another. (We think we love it, despite having some serious doubts about most of what was presented.)
Elon Musk’s audacious debut of Tesla’s electric pickup, Cybertruck, at the end of the year brought 250,000 preorders within a week.
Then there was the shift in motorsports with LMP1 manufacturers leaving for formula E while other series including Formula 1 have expanded hybrid development in coming rules. Motorsports manufacturers wanting to focus purely on electric development is huge — just another sign pointing to electric as the future. –Carter James and Dan Massam
2. Just one word for you: Plastics.
This past year brought major advancements in reducing the environmental impact of plastic. Two inventions come to mind as among the biggest innovations of 2019, one a reinvention of the material and the other a reinvention of a product.
MarinaTex, invented by British designer, Lucy Hughes, is a fully biodegradable plastic film that can replace any single-use plastic packaging or bag. Produced from fishing industry waste instead of petroleum, MarinaTex provides a use for the fifty million tons of waste that industry produces each year.
MarinaTex is a fully biodegradable plastic film that provides a use for the fifty million tons of waste produced by the fishing industry each year.
A second notable invention, called Unocup, is a folding, paper coffee cup with an integrated lid that does away with the need for plastic lids, which account for eight times more ocean waste than straws do. The appealing, origami-like Unocup by two NYC designers was the subject of a popular Kickstarter campaign. In addition to being a clever redesign of a problematic product, Unocup makes the list of biggest innovations of 2019 for successfully raising awareness of our plastic-lid issue and intensifying the urgency to find a solution. –Chris Marks and Chris Murray
3. The shape of things to come got smaller. Much smaller.
One of 2019’s coolest, and potentially most impactful, inventions was the world’s smallest accelerometer, which is two orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest accelerometer currently in production.
As written by Xuge Fan, a postdoctoral researcher at KTH’s Department of Micro and Nanosystems, these nanoelectromechanical sensors could help usher in a new and smaller generation of “mobile, wearable, and implantable devices” due to their reduced size. This magnitude of size reduction is especially significant when you consider that the rate of transistor density predicted by Moore’s Law has slowed. These advances are coming more slowly, but in bounds.
These nanoelectromechanical sensors could help usher in a new and smaller generation of “mobile, wearable, and implantable devices” due to their reduced size.
Expect the price of wearables to surge as manufacturers adjust to working with these tiny, active components. More expensive, skilled labor or machine processes will be necessary for mounting, as will sensitive handling and inspection methods. There’s also the possibility that the price of wearables will plummet as they face obsolescence, giving way to implants. –Steve Czaplicki
4. The number of commercial satellites increased astronomically.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched more than 100 broadband satellites in its Starlink network, and announced plans for over 10,000 more. Separately, companies like Planet Labs have launched many small satellites for earth imaging. These developments are expected to create the infrastructure for increased worldwide communication bandwidth and improved imaging, but they raise concerns about both privacy and the impact on astronomical interference. –Kevin Murphy
5. Faux meat was sizzling hot.
Flavor scientists have been able to replicate meat flavors for a while, but until now no one has successfully delivered the right texture. In 2019, both Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat managed to do so, defying previously held beliefs about food design. How to replicate the qualities of meat, down to the artificial blood, is a fascinating case study in technical design — which may be why so many Bresslergroup employees nominated plant-based “meat” as one of the biggest innovations of 2019.
How to replicate the qualities of meat, down to the artificial blood, is a fascinating case study in technical design.
The products’ success in the marketplace — which required overcoming highly negative preconceptions about veggie burgers — could serve up encouragement to others who are considering taking on challenges that have been written off as impossible … or unappetizing. –Eric Chang, Conall Dempsey, Chris Phelan, and Katie Tapman
6. Product companies disrupted processes in the name of sustainability.
While the advantages of engineered, plant-based foods such as the Impossible Burger dominated sustainability headlines in 2019, some product companies also took great strides — even rolling out new business models and processes — to rethink the way we use and manufacture harmful materials.
Adidas continued their beta release of Futurecraft Loop, the 100% recyclable running shoe. Re-engineering the shoe to be entirely one material (thermoplastic polyurethane or TPU), the company is able to take back used Loop shoes, grind them up, and remake them new, eliminating virgin plastic in the process. As of now Adidas is only able to reconstitute ten percent of a used Loop shoe into a new one, but they hope to reach 1:1 product circularity in the near future.
Adidas hopes to reach 1:1 product circularity in the near future.
Terracycle co-developed a Loop zero-waste packaging platform with consumer goods giant, P&G. The platform supports an impressive list of brands. Consumers in the Northeast can order deodorant, mouthwash, ice cream, diapers, washing detergent, and many other consumables in reusable packaging. Once the sturdy containers are emptied, they can be picked up via a UPS tote for cleaning, sterilization, and refilling. Each package in the system is designed for one hundred or more uses, and Terracycle is planning to expand the platform to leading grocery stores. –Chris Murray
7. It was the year of the foldable phone.
Samsung and Moto were two manufacturers to introduce folding phones in 2019. Their Galaxy Fold and RAZR take novel approaches to foldable displays and introduce new interaction paradigms. These releases have the potential to pave the way for a post-iPhone era and a new wave of smartphone designs, functions, and innovations. (Just for fun, imagine what the first telephone looked like, and ponder how far phone technology has come since then!)
These releases have the potential to pave the way for a post-iPhone era and a new wave of smartphone designs, functions, and innovations.
Relatedly, Microsoft came out with two new devices, the Surface Neo and Surface Duo, that don’t use foldable displays but are trying out a new, related form factor that we suspect will evolve to be more usable in the future. This “book” design aims to make content consumption and productivity easier on mobile devices. –Eric Chang and Tobenna Oduah
8. Digital privacy entered the realm of possibility … for some of us.
Americans often wonder why their European counterparts enjoy the privacy protections of GDPR, while we’re at the mercy of third-party data collecting, selling, tracking, keeping, and targeting. Californians can enjoy some of those rights, too, through the California Consumer Privacy Act (AB 375) that was passed in 2018, and will go into effect in January, 2020 (with enforcement starting on July 1, 2020).
It’s the most comprehensive digital privacy law in the nation, empowering consumers with the right to know what information any company has collected about them and whom that information is shared with. Another bill that will also go into effect in January 2020 is SB 327, the first law in the nation to specifically protect data gathered by connected devices, also known as the Internet of Things.
A lot of ink was spilled in 2019 regarding both laws and their impact on industry as businesses prepared for them to go into effect. As with all things California, it is suspected other states will follow suit in the absence of federal legislation. –Anat Mooreville, PhD
9. Headphones completed their transformation into hearables.
We were excited in 2015 about start-up Doppler Labs’ vision for putting “a computer, speaker, and mic in everyone’s ear.” Doppler’s ‘Here One’ augmented-reality wireless earbuds had an active listening system that allowed users to turn up and down the ambient noise around them, and directional audio that used a microphone array to allow users to clearly hear the person in front of them while other ambient noise is quieted. While we were disappointed when they closed shop in 2017, they introduced the world to a new category of “smart earbud” wearables, or hearables.
Today, there are smart earbuds from big tech that are Alexa/Siri/Google Assistant enabled, answering your questions or translating for you in real time. Some, like the Here One, have microphones for active noise cancellation, including Apple’s new and popular AirPods Pro. In fact, wireless earbuds and headphones are a big reason why global shipments for wearable devices nearly doubled in the third quarter of 2019, a 94.6 percent year-over-year increase. The “hearables market” is one of the biggest innovations of 2019 because it made up almost half of these shipments.
Wireless earbuds and headphones are a big reason why global shipments for wearable devices nearly doubled in the third quarter of 2019, a 94.6 percent year-over-year increase.
With the cord cut and more smarts inside, the quick rise of hearables is indicative of how the wearables market is evolving beyond smartwatches and Fitbits. All of this points to a future that is certain to be devoid of headphone jacks. –Aaron Pavkov
10. Wearables took on mind control.
While there were rumbles prior to 2019, the wearables market now seems especially poised to leap into the realm of brain-computer interfaces. CTRL-Labs, a non-invasive neural interface platform, started shipping its developer kit armband in early 2019.
That company was acquired by Facebook in September and may release the first commercially available neural interface product in the not too distant future. They’ll have some competition, as both non-invasive NextMind and frighteningly invasive Neuralink (courtesy of Elon Musk) look to bring us the next wave of wearables. –Aaron Pavkov
11. Alexa everywhere, in everything.
Amazon’s September, 2019 launch event brought Alexa capabilities to more devices, including three wearables (Echo Buds, Echo Frames, and Echo Loop), so she is always — literally! — at your fingertips.
Amazon also made it easier for hardware manufacturers to add Alexa functionality to their products, setting the stage for the omnipresent virtual assistant of our (near?) future. If the biggest innovations of 2019 are measured by ubiquity, Alexa tops the list. –Brian O’Connor
12. We met Q, the world’s first genderless voice.
Why are default voice settings for our leading AI (artificial intelligence) assistants – Alexa, Siri, Cortana — all female? The irony of assigning traditional, sexist stereotypes to innovative, emerging technology has been pointed out by many commentators.
Tech companies have responded to these criticisms by offering male alternatives to female default settings. (My Siri is a dude with an Aussie accent. How about yours?) In 2019 a team of researchers, tech leaders, linguists, designers, and advocates took the issue of gender bias in AI assistants further by creating Q, the world’s first genderless voice to start a dialogue about gender, technology, and ethics.
The irony of assigning traditional, sexist stereotypes to innovative, emerging technology has been pointed out by many.
The team recorded the voices of 22 transgender and non-binary people to use as a basis for the voice, and then digitally engineered it to make it more gender-neutral — which involved manipulating pitch, style, and pronunciation. Although for the time being, Q is only on a website and not in any device, its very existence shows tech companies the possibilities of getting ahead of changing social norms and what real, impactful innovation looks (and sounds) like. –Caroline Tiger
13. Spot was unleashed from its lab.
Boston Dynamics’ robotic dog was made famous over the last couple of years by viral videos — and by inspiring a terrifying episode of dystopian sci-fi series, Black Mirror, about killer robot dogs. What makes it one of the biggest innovations of 2019 is its launch as a commercially available product. The company began leasing out its multi-purpose robot in September, and a few short months later it was already being sighted in the field, at work on construction sites, and helping bomb squads.
Spot has its own Software Development Kits so customers can customize the robot for their specific needs. The number of Spots available is limited, and the company is selective about who gets a lease. Potential customers, or “partners” in Boston Dynamics’ parlance, need to either “have a compelling use case or a development team that we believe can do something really interesting with the robot,” says the company.
Spot has its own Software Development Kits so customers can customize the robot for their specific needs.
As a precaution and to help allay any fears, Spot is leased (not sold), to enforce Boston Dynamics’ requirement that it not be used in a way that will “physically harm or intimidate people,” and to ensure that robots continue to work peacefully and productively alongside their carbon-based counterparts. –Aaron Pavkov
Read our picks for the Biggest Innovations To Influence Product Design from 2013–2018, and tell us if we got it right!