The next five years will likely prove more technologically transformative than the past five have been. If you're the least bit doubtful about that, consider that Popular Mechanics named Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface tablet -- running Windows 8 -- as one of the top 10 technology breakthroughs of 2012. We can do better -- we must do better.
Technology companies are dreaming up some of the most science fiction-like tech we've ever seen -- from wireless electricity to flying cars -- and we're just a few short years away from getting our hands on most of it. So take a look at these 12 amazing examples of tech wizardry that you'll be able to experience without the need of a time machine.
1. Credit card-sized computers
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) announced a modular computer called the Intel Compute Card that has all the elements of a full computer --- including processors, memory, storage, and wireless capability -- all slimmed down into an interchangeable card. Intel said in a press release, "Device makers simply design a standard Intel Compute Card slot into their device and then utilize the best Intel Compute Card for their performance and price needs."
The cards would make it easy to upgrade all sorts of connected technology, from Internet of Things devices to computers. That could soon mean upgrading to the latest computer would be as simple as picking up a new compute card and popping it into your existing device.
2. Implantable bionic lenses
Laser eye surgery has come a long way and can give you nearly perfect vision, but a company called Ocumetics is taking sight one step further. The company has created a bionic lens that's placed inside your eye and allows you to see three times better than 20/20 vision.
It sounds a lot like science fiction, but many companies and health researchers are experimenting with implantable technology to help improve everything from eyesight to brain functions. Ocumetics' Bionic Lens has been in development for years, and the company expects to bring it to market -- at a price tag of $3,200 per eye -- in the next two to five years. The company says the surgical procedure is painless and lasts just eight minutes.
3. Augmented-reality glasses
We're not talking about Google Glass here. The inability of Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) to get augmented reality (AR) off the the ground hasn't deterred Microsoft and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) from launching their own AR-glasses programs.
Microsoft's HoloLens allows users to view instructions, games, and other 3D holographic objects in front of them and move them around with their hands. The device is available only to developers right now -- at a hefty $5,000 price tag -- but the goal is for all of us to be using similar headsets very soon.
To that end, Facebook is reportedly working on its own AR glasses that will allow its users to interact with the digital world, and each other, in new ways. There's no timetable set for Facebook's AR glasses, but its latest release of AR and virtual-reality features on its flagship app indicate that it's more likely than not you'll be able to get your hands on AR glasses sooner rather than later.
4. Roaming house robots
This one sounds a tiny bit creepy. But it you want to take your home security system to the next level or want a small helper setting up reminders for you, then a roaming robot might just be for you.
Several of the small bots made their debut at CES this year, including a helper robot called Yumii Cutii that helps elderly people contact their family members and make doctor appointments. Other home-based robots can autonomously roam around the house like a security camera on wheels. Whether you prefer a helper or security bot, you're just a few years away from getting your hands on one.
5. Ultra-thin television screens
Just as with smartphones, televisions are getting thinner, and over the next five years, you'll be able to buy the thinnest televisions screens you've ever seen. Earlier this year, LG released its ultra-thin W7 TV screen that measures just 2.57 mm thick. That's thinner than your fingertip! The 65-inch OLED display has 4K resolution, weighs just 17 pounds, and did we mention it's thinner than your fingertip?
The "W" in the name stands for "wallpaper" and because of its thin design, all of the TV's internal component and HDMI connections are housed inside a sound bar that comes with the television. You can already buy the W7 for a cool $8,000, but you can expect that price to drop significantly over the next five years -- and to expect more companies to release their own versions.
6. Self-driving cars
Driverless cars are quickly becoming a reality, and by 2035, there will be nearly 12 million of them on the road, but you probably won't have to wait that long to get your hands on one. Ford is already developing its own autonomous cars and plans to offer them up for sale by 2021. The company recently made a $1 billion investment in an artificial-intelligence company, called Argo AI, that's creating the software for the vehicles. Ford is also boosting its autonomous fleet to 90 vehicles this year.
Ford is hardly the only company betting on driverless cars, of course. Google recently spun out its driverless-car unit into its own company, now called Waymo, that will start offering limited driverless-car services later this year. Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has said his cars will be fully autonomous by 2020 as well, and the latest models come with all of the hardware to make them fully self-driving -- though the company hasn't released all the software to make those features functional.
7. Virtual-reality computers
You may not want a virtual-reality (VR) headset yet, but over the next few years, high-end VR headsets are going to transform from the heavy, cumbersome, and wire-tethered devices they are now to standalone systems that run on their own operating system.
Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, is probably the most recognizable name in the VR space now, but Google is working on a new operating system based on Android that will allow VR headsets to work independently from smartphones and computers. In five years, you'll be able to strap on a headset, walk around in your home, and experience videos, games, and content without the need of a computer or smartphone. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes VR will be the next computing platform, so it's possible your computer purchase five years from now could be an all-in-one VR headset.
8. Wireless-electricity gadgets
Mobile devices are awesome, but their battery power isn't always that great. So why not ditch the batteries and pull electricity out of the air? OK, that' s a bit oversimplified, but Disney Research has developed a room that powers lights and several mobile devices wirelessly by sending electromagnetic currents to them. The research wing of the House of Mouse built a specially designed room with aluminum panels and a copper pole in the middle.
And a company called Energous showed off some charging stations earlier this year that will be able to charge mobile devices from up to 15 feet away. The company's WattUp technology sends a beam of electricity to mobile devices using radio frequencies. The company may still be a few years away from making wireless charging a long-distance reality, but in five years' time, you may be able to kiss your phone charger goodbye.
9. Underwater drones
Flying drones are so 2017. Imagine tossing your drone into the sea or lake and instantly live-steaming what it sees directly to your smartphone. Companies like PowerVision already have a drone for avid fishers, called the PowerRay, that let you know when you've gotten a bite on your fishing line, record the fish trying trying to get away in 4K detail, and snap a high-res image of the underwater fight.
The drone can dive to a depth of 98 feet and run for four hours, and the company envisions cinematographers using the drone for filming. The PowerRay drone starts at $1,488 right now, but in a few years, the price will come down -- it always does -- and you'll see a lot more consumers buying them for pure recreation. If all that weren't enough, the PowerRay can also be purchased with an optional VR headset that gives you a firsthand view of what the drone is seeing and gives the user the ability to control it with just a tilt of the head.
10. Flying cars
OK, so maybe you won't be able to actually buy a flying car five years from now, but you may be able pay for a ride in one. Uber recently announced at Uber Elevate its plans to help develop a system of piloted flying cars that people can share, just like its on-demand car rides, by 2022.
And Uber is far from the only company developing flying cars. Israel-based Urban Aeronatics recently introduced its Metro Skyway that's designed to shuttle four people above cityscapes in a hydrogen-powered airborne vehicle. The company's been working on the tech for more than a decade and believes it's five years away from a commercial launch. Some technology still needs to be perfected before flying cars come into their own, and there will probably be plenty of government hurdles but look to the skies in 2022, and you may just see your next ride.
11. Smart clothing
Smartwatches and fitness bands are already going mainstream. Now, say hello to the next big thing: smart clothing. There are already shirts and bras on the market that track heart rate, activity, calories burned, and so on. Similarly, shoes can track distance covered, cadence, and duration, but you can expect their capabilities to keep expanding.
This tech will probably evolve from a tool for athletes to something we're all wearing to keep track of our health. Nike, Ralph Lauren, and Under Armor are the first movers in this space, but you can expect a lot more options in the coming years.
12. Conversational AI-based assistants
Artificial intelligence-based assistants already exist with limited capabilities. Siri, Cortana, and Amazon's Alexa can all answer questions, tell us the weather, and even make reservations. Over the next few years, however, voice-based AI assistants will continue to evolve and take over more tasks.
Machine learning and deep-learning AI assistants will become smarter, capable of answering far more questions and performing more complicated tasks. As such, you can expect most of us to have these assistants connected to our homes and acting as our own personal Jarvis.