In depth: Here are 5 consumer tech innovations that won 2015

Each year brings more innovation than the last – such is the nature of technology – but that doesn’t mean we can’t look back at some of the more groundbreaking technologies that have paved the way for the future.

From new smartphones to new cars, there were a number of cutting-edge products in the past year worthy of praise. While there are plenty of great innovations I can’t discuss for fear of writing a book instead of an article, these are five of the most important consumer tech innovations of 2015, ones that will have lasting effects on their categories and will influence innovation well into the New Year.

Microsoft HoloLens

Virtual and augmented reality are on the way up – there’s no denying that. But while Oculus is working to make gaming more immersive and Google is rethinking Glass, Microsoft came up with a product that looks truly spectacular – HoloLens.

HoloLens is one of the first headsets that doesn’t require wire tethering to a computer or other device. While it instantly captured imaginations when it was first unveiled, many were skeptical about whether it could actually perform what Microsoft was suggesting it could. The “aha moment” for me, however, came when Microsoft first showed what it’s like to play Minecraft on the HoloLens. It really seemed to take gaming to a new, interactive level, allowing users to experience the game within their real world, wherever they were.

The AR viewer, however, goes beyond gaming. Some, including our own Michelle Fitzsimmons and Duncan Bell, see the headset as the future of computing. Not only does HoloLens bring a computer to wherever the user wants one to be, it also creates an environment around the data, a feature that could end up being instrumental in the future of education, medicine and product development, to name a few.

While the HoloLens seems like it could pave the way for the future of computing, it does have a few issues that need to be resolved. It’s still glitchy and has a fairly narrow field-of-view compared to what some were expecting. It also has some issues when it comes to fitting and staying snug on users heads. Despite these issues, it’s certainly possible that Microsoft will resolve them before the consumer launch of the device. The HoloLens release is marked as “early 2016” – right when virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR are slated for their own releases. Those headsets are unique in their own right, but HoloLens may prove to be the most innovative of them all.

iPhone 6S

iPhone 6S

I swear: any other year I probably wouldn’t have featured the latest iPhone on this list. While every new iPhone carries its own hype, it’s arguable whether more recent releases are really, truly groundbreaking. However, I contend the iPhone 6S is the most innovative iPhone since the original one of 2007. Why, you may ask? Because of 3D Touch.

For the iPhone 6S, Apple has imagined a totally new way for users to interact with their smartphones, allowing them to input a set of commands simply based on how hard they press on the display.

Here’s how it works: the 6S includes sensors that detect the distance between the display cover glass and the display backlight. The cover glass is slightly flexible, meaning that when a user presses down with some pressure, it bends a little. These measurements are tiny – in fact, you would be forgiven for not noticing any difference between the display in the iPhone 6S and the iPhone 6. But trust me, there is.

Just how important is this? Well, most major smartphone manufacturers are expected to have their own version of 3D Touch within the next year, with many of them likely to unveil it in phones at MWC 2016 in February.

While the technology is cutting edge, many app developers still need to work it into their software. This could be slow going until Apple incorporates the technology into its iPad lineup and other smartphone manufacturers release their own versions of 3D Touch. Still, 3D Touch offers developers a completely new control mechanisms to play with, and it could be especially useful in mobile gaming.

Tesla Model X

Tesla Model X

Legend has it that whenever Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk thinks of a new product, it will be the coolest thing on the planet (or so I’ve heard). That’s so far been generally true, and between PayPal, the Hyperloop, the Falcon 9 rocket, and the Model S, we’ve seen some pretty groundbreaking technology from Musk and his companies.

This year, one of Musk’s most notable releases was the Tesla Model X, a new family-sized, all-electric car complete with falcon wing doors and a high level of safety.

Those falcon wing doors allow car riders to open them in extremely tight spaces. The doors are also big, so drivers and passengers can easily access the second and third rows of seats – perfect for families who might need to strap in a young child.

The Model X is cutting-edge in a number of ways, not least of which being that it’s the first all-electric SUV. Larger cars are often associated with higher emissions, but the Model X proves that not only does this not have to be true, but also that drivers don’t have to sacrifice power by buying electric. In fact, the Model X is so powerful, that it’s the first tow-capable electric car, and while it’s towing will probably reduce the vehicle’s range and power, that it can handle towing is a big step forward.

According to Tesla, the Model X is also the world’s cleanest SUV, and even has a “biohazard” button, which activates the air filtration system and is said to offer “medical-grade” air through this system.

Tesla wasn’t just shaking up the car industry when it came to creating the first electric SUV. Safety was also a big concern in developing this vehicle, and it paid off: the Model X won five stars in every car safety-rating category. There’s only a 6.5% chance of injury in a high-speed collision for drivers of the Model X, which are some reassuring odds.

The Tesla Model X comes in two models – the 90D and the P90D. The 90D can go from 0 to 60 mph (97kph) in only 3.7 seconds and has a range of 257 miles, or 413 km. It costs $132,000 (about £89,036, AU$182,608). The P90D, however, is the fastest accelerating SUV in the world, and comes equipped with the same Ludicrous Mode found in the Model S. This will get you from 0 to 60mph in 3.2 seconds. It costs $142,000 (about £95,781, AU$196,442).

USB type-c

USB Type-C

Sure, USB Type-C was developed before 2015, but this was the year the standard finally took off, replacing others as the faster and slimmer option for your favorite devices. It also means you’ll never try to plug in your USB device the wrong way again.

While it’s important to note that USB-C itself is simply a shape, the majority of companies implementing it will also use USB 3.1 – the standard that USB-C is most often associated. USB 3.1 offers much faster data speeds than its predecessors (up to 10Gbps), which is more than enough to transfer 4K movies in a matter of seconds from one device to another.

Not only that, but USB Type-C also brings much faster charging speeds than USB 3.0 and 2.0. Whereas older standards will have you wait hours for a full charge, the new USB Power Delivery specification that is most often used in USB-C enables the delivery of up to 100 Watts, meaning your device will juice up much more quickly than it did before. Not only that, but the new connector supports two-way charging, meaning you can connect one USB-C supported phone, and one phone will charge the other.

Apple adopted USB-C in the new MacBook, a computer that only has one port for charging, data transfer, and more. Users can purchase a dongle to create more ports, but the writing’s on the wall: we are shifting to cloud storage solutions like Google Drive rather than external hard drives, and we’re using Bluetooth mouses and keyboards rather than wired ones. We don’t need as many ports and wires as we used to, especially if we want more portable devices, and USB-C is facilitating this change. Smartphones, too, are starting to ship with USB-C, such as the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X from Google.

If you don’t already own a device with USB-C, expect your next smartphone to house the technology. Unless, of course, you’re an iPhone user, in which case you’ll most likely still be stuck on Apple’s Lightning cable.

Windows 10

Windows 10

Windows 8.1 earned back some of the consumer trust that was lost after Windows 8, but Windows 10 is like a full redemption.

The operating system (we never did get Windows 9) adds a number of great features to enhance the usability of Windows. For example, taking a page from Apple’s book, it finally included virtual desktops, which seriously improves the multitasking capabilities of Windows-based computers.

Another innovative feature in Windows 10 is the addition of Universal Apps. While the original idea was first introduced in Windows 8, Windows 10 takes it to the next level, essentially meaning that there is one store, one app package, and one API set across all Windows 10 platforms – phones, tablets, computers, and even Xbox One. This bridges the gap between mobile and desktop devices and blurs the line between operating systems; users can even plug their Windows 10 Mobile phone into an external display to use it as a full desktop computer.

It’s easy to imagine Google doing the same and merging Android and Chrome OS (though that won’t happen anytime soon). It’s more of a stretch to see Apple going that far with iOS and OS X, but it certainly could happen if Universal Apps catch on.

Other Windows 10 features include the evolution of the Start menu, incorporating features from the Metro UI in Windows 8, and the addition of Cortana, bringing a desktop personal assistant to the masses.

But it’s perhaps that Windows 10 is so much more fully featured than Windows 8.1 that makes it groundbreaking. Most operating system upgrades are incremental, and though they add new features and fixes, Microsoft went all out with Windows 10.

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