Tech toys

Here are our picks for the best game-changing technologies that are about to transform our lives.

The growth of new technologies and associated consumer products is staggering. In 2015, global inventors and innovators filed nearly 2.9-million patent applications — an average of 7,914 a day — to the World Intellectual Property Organization. While you go about your routine, new products are arriving that will transform the way you work, play and socialize. The best of these will change your perspective and spark your wonder. Here, we present some of those game-changing technologies that will help you travel places, stir your imagination and even reconnect you with your family and friends.


(US$400,000 – US$600,000)

Flying cars have excited popular imagination for more than a century. Science-fiction master Jules Verne featured the idea in his 1904 novel Master of the World and American aeronautical engineer Ted Hall showcased a fully realized flying vehicle in 1946.

Hall’s first model of the Convair flying car survived 66 successful test flights and seemed a lock for commercialization. During the first week of tests for the second model, however, the “road- able” airplane crashed, leaving investors spooked. For the next seven decades, testing a flying car was more perilous than being an Apollo 13 astronaut.

Finally, the future is now. In February, Dutch company PAL-V International began pre-sales of the Liberty Pioneer and Liberty Sport, the world’s first certified commercial flying cars. PAL-V’s technology includes a three-wheeled vehicle with a retractable, top-mounted rotor. The two-seater’s gyroplane technology — the wind-powered rotor blade provides lift and a rear propeller offers thrust — is easier to pilot than a plane or helicopter and offers greater safety and lower cost.

The top speed is 160 km/h on the road and 180 km/h while airborne, and conversion between driving and flying modes takes five to 10 minutes. The company is promising to deliver flying cars to consumers (who’ll need pilot licences to operate them) by 2018.



Triton 7500/2 personal submarine

Want to view coral reefs and experience some of the world’s most vibrant ecosystems? Or would you like to explore shipwrecks beyond the reach of divers or travel amidst sharks or rarely seen marine species? Then you need your own submarine.

Earlier this year, Florida-based Triton Submarines introduced the world’s deepest diving submersible with a transparent hull. The 20-cm thick, spherical hull provides visibility in all directions, accommodates a pilot and a passenger and can safely travel to depths of 2,300 metres. The unusual combination of technical excellence and high performance with design brilliance makes this sub equally appealing to an oceanographer, filmmaker or millionaire adventurer. The same firm created the luxury submersible that enabled man’s first underwater meeting with a giant squid in its natural habitat.

A dive of 12 hours is easily achievable and the Triton carries four days of life support and emergency battery power. The pilot uses a joystick to control multiple thrusters, allowing for precise movement. Sunlight only reaches about 200 metres below the water’s surface, so six powerful lamps illuminate the surroundings. Cameras, seven-function manipulator arms and other scientific equipment can be fitted to the submersible.

There’s no licence required to operate a Triton, but new owners undergo a three-part training process that includes orientation, simulator instruction and 10 to 14 days of open-water instruction. Shipping is available worldwide and the firm will dispatch technicians to service subs on-site. In 2016, personal submarines made more than one million civilian passenger dives. According to Triton, mini-subs are the safest mode of transportation. For example, since Dutch firm U-Boat Worx began producing its first commercial recreational sub in 2006, the global fleet has enjoyed a perfect safety record.



Kuri smart robot

Your Roomba Smart Vacuum is the first robot you fell in love with. Now meet Kuri, the machine destined to be your new crush. Created by Mayfield Robotics, a division of Bosch, this cloud-connected, voice-activated robot is an electronic butler that connects with some of your Internet-enabled apps and home devices. It also plans to be part of your family.

Designed for mobility, connectivity and personality, it’s Kuri’s playful looks and delightful interactions that are attracting the most attention. “Adorable Kuri wants to be your friend, not your robot overlord,” proclaimed a headline in PC Magazine earlier this year. Say “I love you” to Kuri and he — or she — responds with an I-love-you-too dance and light show.

Enabled with voice and face recognition software, the bot responds to verbal commands or a person’s presence with expressive eyes and lights and sounds that channel Star Wars character R2-D2, while connecting with entertainment systems or other smart devices.

Kuri’s conical body is about 50 centimetres tall and uses an HD camera, mapping sensors and machine intelligence to remember your floor plan and recognize regular activities. The robot will wake you up or turn the lights on as you arrive home from work and greet you at the door. When the house is empty, Kuri has live streaming capabilities to monitor your house. Kuri the robot is currently only available for pre-order in the US.



Volata Model 1 smart bike

When the modern bicycle was introduced in the 1880s, it was a truly game-changing innovation. The invention shrank time and distance, transformed manufacturing and marketing and even bolstered the rights of women by encouraging independent travel and less modest, less restrictive clothing.

Today, the humble bike is being remade by technology and Volata Cycles has a reputation for seamlessly integrating multiple innovations to create the “ultimate all-in-one bike.” The San Francisco firm’s self-proclaimed mission is to speed the world’s transition to sustainable transportation by making bikes “that will convince more and more people to ride every day.”

Step over the top tube, power up the Bluetooth-connected computer and experience a ride you never imagined. A joystick integrated into the brake hood allows you to check the weather, connect with your smartphone and receive message notifications, get directions or track your mileage.

If you’re out at night, sensors will detect darkness and activate front and rear lights that are built into the frame. Hydraulic disc brakes, belt-drive transmission and internal gearing offer reduced maintenance. All electronics, including an electronic horn, are powered by your riding.

Arrive at your destination, lock your bike, and set the anti-theft system that initiates motion detectors, triggers an alarm and sends a notification to your phone if your bike is tampered with. If the bike is stolen, you can track it via the GPS locator. The Model 1 begins shipping to Canada in September.



Sony Xperia Touch smart projector

Imagine a device that allows you to project any image on almost any surface to create an interactive touch screen. A living room floor becomes an electronic arcade, a desk transforms into a musical keyboard or a kitchen counter is imprinted with a cookbook. The new Sony Xperia Touch does just that.

Launched this spring in select markets — at press time Sony Mobile had not yet announced pricing or availability for the North American market, including Canada — the product combines a screen, two-way stereo speakers, Wi-Fi and touch functionality for play, educational exploration, entertainment or communication. The screen hosts chat and video apps through Google Play and expands from about 58 cm to 203 cm to help individuals better watch movies or stream their favourite television shows. A battery allows for an hour of continuous video playback.

The sleek, tiny unit is also equipped with voice recognition and motion sensors and turns on when approached. The Xperia Touch can be programmed to display a clock or the weather or a reminder to your children.


(STARTING AT $1,800)

TAG Heuer Connected Modular 45 watch

Apple dominates the global smartwatch market through its design savvy and intuitive sense of consumer desires, but Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer hopes to emulate that success among luxury watch buyers with the Connected Modular 45, which it released in March. Currently available in Canada, the timepiece is considerably more expensive than standard Apple watches, which are priced from US$359 to US$919.

The watch combines the rugged beauty and heft of traditional timepieces with the functionality of a computer touch screen. This is a Wi-Fi-enabled device dressed up as a mechanical watch that features a choice of iconic Carrera dials. The Carrera is perhaps Heuer’s best-known product and has come to symbolize the brand’s association with Formula 1 motorcar racing. As part of a sponsorship deal inked with automaker Ferrari in 1971, the Swiss watch company gave each Ferrari driver a solid gold Carrera with the driver’s name and blood type engraved on the back.

In this futuristic Carrera, Google’s Android Wear 2.0 operating system, a high-res screen, GPS and Google voice control combine to offer many of the benefits of a smartphone with the convenience of a wearable device.

The Connected Modular 45 accommodates third-party apps from firms such as music service Spotify and uses mobile signals to receive notifications or enable data. Purchases can be made using Android Pay.

One of the most innovative features is the ability of buyers to assemble their own watch — TAG Heuer says there are more than 4,000 combinations — choosing case material, bezel colour, buckle style and more. And if an owner wants to upgrade an element after the fact, changes can be easily made.



Block smartphone blocker

Our digital connection to the world has become so constant, so immersive, that we now need technologies to save us from technology. A new product developed by Dutch entrepreneurs will save your evening from distracted diners and put a smile on the faces of self-professed Luddites.

Block, partly funded by T-Mobile’s FutureLab, works like this. Place up to six cellphones into a beautifully designed hexagonal aluminum case and secure the lid. The container functions as a Faraday cage that blocks electromagnetic signals, including Wi-Fi and cellular signals, from entering or exiting. With all phones now disconnected, you can reconnect with friends and family without distraction.

Why not just turn your cellphone off? Recent research has found even the visible presence of a handset is distracting because it reminds us of the ability to access our social community. Out of sight, out of mind.

“We feel like we lack infrastructure to counter our digital addictions,” Block cofounder Sidney John Vollmer told TechCrunch. “We think we’re slowly realizing we’re getting more than we bargained for with our use of the personal/digital. The equilibrium is long gone.” Following a successful pre-sale of 650 units last year, the firm is presently targeting the end of this year for a full consumer launch.



DJI Phantom 4 Pro + drone

The sky’s the limit for drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles or flying robots are often seen as toys, but as they become smarter and more robust, they have also become platforms for innumerable tasks. Medical drones are already transporting supplies to hard-to-reach locales, while insect-sized drones are being tested to pollinate plants. In Guyana, they are used to map deforestation and monitor illegal logging.

The latest generation of personal drones features smartphone technology, making them very appealing. They can track and monitor a child walking to school, take beautiful aerial shots or provide a live HD video feed of an event more than six kilometres away. Or at least the DJI Phantom 4 Pro + drone can.

Known as the “iPhone of drones” for its revolutionary features, intuitive functionality and sleek design, the Phantom 4 now allows users to lock on and follow a person or moving object, such as a car or animal, without assistance, film a set path or orbit a preset location. It boasts object-avoidance sensors that make the drone practically crash proof.

Gesture mode uses advanced computer vision technology to signal the Phantom 4 to snap a photo. Designed to reach speeds of more than 70 km/h, this drone stays airborne longer — almost 30 minutes — recharges more quickly and offers a better camera than many competitors. Available online from DJI or through hobby shops and electronics retailers in Canada.


(US$8.3 million)

Hankook Mirae Technology Method-2 manned robot

Ever dream of starring in your own science fiction spectacle? In March, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos gave us a glimpse of that scenario when he climbed into the cockpit of Hankook Mirae Technology’s 4.2-m-tall manned robot, gleefully manipulated the robot’s arms and asked viewers, “Why do I feel so much like Sigourney Weaver?”

The South Korean robot’s movement mirrored that of Bezos, who could manipulate the Method-2 by moving his own limbs. Weighing 1.6 tonnes, the ground shakes when the machine takes a step. Each bot arm weighs 130 kilograms.

The computerized machine is built to safely navigate extremely hazardous environments where humans can’t go. Method-2’s exoskeleton, crafted by Hollywood special effects designer Vitaly Bulagarov of Robocop, Terminator and Transformers fame, looks similar to the military robots in the 2009 film Avatar. Hankook Mirae expects to take orders for the Method-2 at the end of 2017.