The top tech innovations of 2017

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USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham gives his list of what he thinks are the coolest tech innovations of 2017.

LOS ANGELES — When you can get a drone to respond to your commands by waving your hands, it’s hard to top that as one of the most fascinating tech innovations of the year.

You don’t have to know much about operating the DJI Spark Drone. Want to go up or to the side? Just move your hands near the drone. This is fun stuff that takes a lot of the learning curve out of flying a drone.

But it also gave us a glimpse into the future where a wave or even a wink would do our tech bidding. In a year where Amazon’s voice-activated Echo speaker was one of the best sellers, and companies like Amazon, Sonos and Google touted new voice-computing features, we saw the Spark as potentially opening the door to other gesture-controlled consumer devices.

If we could wave commands for a drone, imagine putting those same sensors on TV sets, cellphones and video game consoles, and all the different ways we’ll be able to communicate.

Deal alert: the price on the DJI Spark has dropped $100 to around $399 for the holidays. (Amazon has it for $349, but it’s currently sold out.)

More: These smart drones can identify sharks close to shore

Flying cars get closer to reality

Speaking of flying, we don’t necessarily buy that Kitty Hawk Flyer is really going to launch anytime soon, but we love the concept: a flying boat-type vehicle from the co-founder of Google that can cruise over water. It looks like a giant drone, one where the driver sits atop to navigate.

The company, backed by Larry Page, the CEO of Google-parent Alphabet, had originally said the unit would be available by the end of 2017. With just a few days left for the year, there is scant buying information available on the website, but the YouTube video that claims to show the flying vehicle in action is still generating lots of views, over 3 million to date.

Kitty Hawk isn’t the only flying vehicle in the works. Both Toyota and Uber vowed to debut models in just three years. If that seems soon, remember that the Jetsons took place in 2062, so if the companies are a little late, they still have 40 years to catch up.

More: Flying cars? Uber, NASA see them in Los Angeles skies by 2020

Self-driving cars take passengers 

This year, automotive companies and technology start-ups turbocharged their self-driving car ambitions. But the biggest move by far came from Waymo, the renamed Google self-driving car outfit that in Phoenix launched the country’s first driverless car pick-up program. The twist: no humans in the front seat, eventually, to monitor. 

It’s just the beginning. General Motors recently said it will introduce a ride-sharing service with self-driving cars in 2019, two years earlier than rival Ford.

More: Self-driving cars programmed to decide who dies in a crash

Microchips for humans

Love or hate the idea of a company implanting its employees, you’ve got to give it to the folks at Three Square Market for creating some buzz. It announced it planned to implant microchips in its employees in 2017.  The idea is that employees could ditch company badges and just wave their chipped hands to enter the building and use their chips in similar ways to paying for stuff with our smartphones. The microchip was developed by a company in Sweden that hopes to spread more chips into all of us in 2018.

More: Why 40 office workers in Wisconsin let a tattoo artist put a microchip in their hand

Amazon Key

Here’s something else we never saw before: giving a major tech company the actual keys to our homes. Amazon introduced the Key service to cut down on stolen packages. You pay $250 (on sale now for $199) to Amazon to install a device that will let company reps drop packages inside the home. The “Key” is a smart lock and companion security camera that gives access to the reps and watches over them when they enter the front door.

More: Package theft hits nearly one-third of Americans. Is video surveillance the answer?

Animated emojis

We were in the camp that was underwhelmed by the iPhone X, Apple’s first re-designed iPhone since 2014’s iPhone 6. So it has a pretty screen, edge-to-edge display, no home button and facial recognition to unlock the phone. That’s cool, but the animated emojis, called Animojis, are the breakthrough. Twelve animated characters, including a unicorn, fox and pig, can be used to create messages based on your voice and facial expressions (you laugh, the emoji laughs), only on the iPhone X. Now that’s cool. 

Augmented Ikea shopping

Another iPhone breakthrough is in the world of augmented reality, where Apple introduced tens of thousands of new apps that mix animation with real life. Our favorite is the IKEA Place app, which lets you point your camera at an area of the home or office and super-impose authentic-looking renderings of IKEA furniture to show you what a chair or couch might look like in the corner. That’s something we hadn’t been able to do before. 

Beautiful edge-to-edge displays

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USA TODAY’s Ed Baig spent the last week testing Samsung’s Note 8 phone and now shares his six biggest takeaways from the new device. Spoiler: it didn’t catch on fire.
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New phones from Apple, Samsung, LG, Google and others ditched the bezels of past iPhones for new screens with edge-to-edge displays, giving owners much more display without a bigger phone. The $999 iPhone, the most expensive ever, had its largest screen, at 5.8 inches, while the new Samsung Note 8, is even larger at 6.3 inches. 

Voice

 

Our gadgets got chattier this year, as Amazon, in particular, along with Google and Apple, touted new ways to use their personal assistants. Apple Maps now can show you around inside the airport — and you can use Siri to direct you. Amazon’s list of “skills,” mini-apps to do more with Alexa, grew to 25,000, up from just over 5,000 at this time last year. (Our favorite: AnyPod, which lets you listen to specific episodes of podcasts, fast forward and rewind with way more precision than a normal Alexa command.)

Google brought phone calls to the Google Home speaker, arguably one of the most marketed and discounted tech items of the year. (On Black Friday, Walmart sold the new Home Mini for $29, with a $25 gift card, bringing its effective price to $4.)

Best of all, the Google Assistant (“OK Google,”) came to more places in 2017, including the iPhone. For every time you said “Hey Siri,” and came up short, now you could go to Google for a better answer. Back- to-back comparisons with Alexa, the Assistant and Siri showed Google in front, followed by Siri and then Alexa. 

That was in 2017. With Amazon’s aggressive push in voice technology, we expect the e-tailer to bypass Siri (the most used voice assistant, thanks to over 1 billion iPhones in use) in 2018 and give Google a run for its money. 

Hey Siri, can I get an OK Google to Alexa? 

 

What were your tech breakthroughs of 2017? I’d love to see your list. Look for me on Twitter (@jeffersongraham) and Facebook and if you haven’t checked out the daily #TalkingTech podcast yet, now’s the time. You can listen on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to online audio. 

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