Popular Mechanics magazine on Monday unveiled its seventh-annual Breakthrough Awards winners, calling out 10 products and 11 innovators its editors feel are tackling longstanding problems in medicine, space exploration, technology, environmental engineering, and automotive design, in all-new ways.
Leading the list of this year's winners is "Avatar" director James Cameron, to whom the magazine gave its 2011 Breakthrough Leadership award.
The products honored by the editors include a hot new smartphone, an all-new kind of seat belt, a genre-shattering video game, highly efficient solar cells, smog-eating roof tiles, a new kind of LED lightbulb, and an automatic telescope.
The innovators included a team that came up with a system of electrical stimulation for paralysis victims, a group that invented off-the-shelf blood vessels, two inventors who built a high-altitude wind turbine, three men who designed a remote-controlled hummingbird that flies much like a bird, a team that created a tiny cell tower, the inventor of a new kind of energy-efficient engine, a professor who built a new water treatment system, a group that designed a new kind of hybrid car, and a lifetime achievement award for the team that created NASA's Mars rovers.
According to Popular Mechanics Science Editor Jennifer Bogo, the judges for the awards looked for a series of winners that could solve real problems in new ways. They highlighted products and innovators that were able to jump in front of trends in the way people interact with technology, and give people more control over technology no matter where they are.
They also looked for products and innovators who were able to make "subtle but ingenious improvements to products that are very familiar," Bogo said, such as the honorees who came up with the new lightbulb and the new seat belt system. As well, she said, the editors searched for solutions that were generally affordable, or that significantly lower the costs of existing products or systems.
Three winning products
Though each of the winning products was notable, to me three stood out from the pack for one reason or another.
The first is Microsoft's Kinect for Windows software development kit. Popular Mechanics had honored Kinect (then known as Project Natal) as a breakthrough user interface in the 2009 edition of its awards. Now the magazine is calling out the development system that will enable developers to create an infinite number of all-new ways to use the hit Kinect motion-control system. "It wasn't until hackers got their hands on Microsoft's motion-control technology for Xbox 360, with its infrared camera, laser depth sensors, and microphone array," the editors wrote in announcing the 2011 awards, "that Kinect's true potential emerged. In the official software development kit, the company not only sanctions hacking, it provides programmers, researchers, and artists with the tools to do it."
Next up is Square's iOS- and Android-based credit card reader. "With Square's credit card reader, any iPad, iPhone, or Android handset can process transactions on the spot," the editors wrote. "The new Square app turns mobile devices into full-fledged point-of-sale terminals with a visual inventory. [Square's] Card Case further simplifies the process, storing payment info in a secure app to allow instant purchases."
Lastly, the editors lauded Parrot's $350 Asteroid, a "drop-in receiver [that] can turn any older car or truck into a connected vehicle," Bogo and her co-judges wrote. "Powered by Google Android software, the Asteroid includes voice recognition, hands-free calling, and links for popular smartphones and media players. It also supports 3G mobile broadband, enabling apps for navigation, Internet radio, and more."
The list of scientists, technologists, and other creative types the editors have highlighted is at least as noteworthy as the products they chose. But two stand out.
First, for its Leadership award, the magazine chose "Avatar," "Titanic," "Aliens," and "The Terminator" director James Cameron. These days, it's hard to know which of Cameron's achievements are most laudable, but the Popular Mechanics judges decided to begin with his development of new filmmaking technology. He "invented the world's most advanced 3D camera in order to bring his [visions] to the screen, revolutionizing the entertainment industry," the editors wrote. "But his impact [also] extends far beyond Hollywood. As an explorer, Cameron has logged dozens of submersible dives, including 33 to the wreck of Titanic. He has also worked to equip future Mars rovers with 3D cameras and served on the NASA Advisory Council. His tireless promotion of environmental sustainability--echoed in many films--promises to preserve worlds for generations to discover."
The editors clearly appreciate exploration and how important it is for humanity. They bestowed another one of their innovation awards on Elon Musk and his team at SpaceX, for their creation of the Dragon spacecraft and their work toward the creation of America's private space industry. "In the wake of [the end of] NASA's shuttle program, SpaceX has set out to prove that it can do what has historically required a massive government effort: deliver cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit," the editors wrote. "Plus, SpaceX claims it can do so more nimbly and cheaply. This past December, the company passed a major milestone when it became the first private company to launch a spacecraft into orbit and successfully recover it. The encore: sending its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station this fall."
To see the magazine's write-ups on all the winning products and innovators, head on over to Popular Mechanics.