The top tech surprises of 2014

There’s an awful lot of tech news that happens in 365 and a quarter days, and not every headline is one you expect to read. We were treated to plenty of surprises in 2014 here at Geek, and we figured rounding up some of our favorites was a fitting way to wind up the year.

NASA emailed a wrench to space

In September, SpaceX delivered something a lot more awesome to the ISS than a fancy zero-G espresso machine: a 3D printer. Just over a week ago, they needed to utilize it. Commander Barry Wilmore needed a specific kind of socket wrench to complete a repair. In the past, he would have had to wait for another capsule to deliver the goods. This time, however, California-based Made in Space and NASA just emailed him a file and he printed his own wrench right there on the ISS.

It's not going to help Ripley kill an alien, but this exoskeleton lightens the load for Daewoo's dockworkers.

It’s not going to help Ripley kill an alien, but this exoskeleton lightens the load for Daewoo’s dockworkers.

The exoskeleton revolution has begun

Some of Daewoo’s staff got fancy new power suits this summer, but they weren’t tailored for boardroom use. Their exoskeleton let workers feel like they were lifting just 15 pounds when carrying a 75 pound load — greatly reducing the risk of certain on-the-job injuries. Noonee CEO Keith Gunura tackled another workplace problem with his exoskeleton. Dubbed The Chairless Chair, it’s designed let you to park yourself in a seated position near whatever you’re working on.

Argo Medical Technologies’ exoskeleton work focuses on less able-bodied wearers.  This summer, their ReWalk unit — created to allow people with spinal cord injuries to walk again — was approved for home use. And let’s not forget about the 2014 World Cup: it all started with a humble kick from a soccer fan who controlled an exoskeleton’s movements with his mind.

Someone built a real hoverboard

Sure, it costs $10,000 and even Tony Hawk has trouble looking cool while riding it, but that doesn’t make the Hendo Hoverboard any less awesome. The fact that you can only ride one at Hendo HQ on their tiny half pipe and not all over Hill Valley, well, that’s a bit of a downer. But they’ve taken an important first step. Maybe in a decade we’ll all have access to dedicated hoverboard parks downtown. A geek can dream, right?

Tesla Motors does it again… and again!

Leave it to Elon Musk to shake things up right at the end of the year. As if the unveiling of the Model X and addition of a secondary motor and driving assistance to the D wasn’t enough, Musk decided to announce a major upgrade to the Roadster, too. The 3.0 revision has been completely overhauled: drag has been substantially reduced, rolling resistance trimmed, and driving range boosted. Roadster 3.0 owners can expect at least 400 miles out of a single charge.

We landed on a comet

And thankfully, we didn’t need to send Bruce Willis there to blow it up (yes, technically that was a massive asteroid). No, Rosetta and the Philae lander were simply on a mission of discovery. After a decade of planning and preparation, you could make the argument that this doesn’t really count as a surprise… but come on, they landed something on a comet. On purpose, even!

Belgians recreate 160-year-old beer, build beer pipeline

If I’d only realized back in high school that brewing technology programs were a real thing at some universities, I, too could have been part of a research team that did something amazing like figuring out how to brew a beer that had been lost at sea for 160 years. It was arguably a much more scholarly task than whipping up a batch of brain-infused Walking Dead beer (but that’s still awesome in its own way).

As if that wasn’t enough, another group of Belgians came up with an infrastructure upgrade for Bruges that blew our minds: a beer pipeline. In-home tapping probably won’t ever be an option, but it will cut down on the amount of truck traffic pummeling Bruges’ historic streets.

With a top speed of nearly 205mph, Electric Blue proved that EVs can really light it up.

With a top speed of nearly 205mph, Electric Blue proved that EVs can really light it up.

An electric car broke the 200mph barrier

Few people think that electric cars are all city-friendly sub-compacts like the Nissan Leaf, and that’s due in large part to the work of Elon Musk and Tesla Motors. But over at Brigham Young University, students and staff were also busy smashing electric car stereotypes. In September, Electric Blue posted an average speed of 204.9mph over two runs at the Bonneville Salt Flats, crushing the previous record — also held by Electric Blue — by more than 50mph.

The result even surprised the BYU team. The knew that 200mph was possible on paper, but watching it happen on the Salt Flats was “like seven Christmas mornings,” according to former team member Jeff Baxter.

Microsoft’s massive makeover

When Satya Nadella took over for Steve Ballmer, big changes were expected. Nadella was tasked with continuing the company’s evolution into a devices and services business. One key component of his plan:  overhaul pricing. Early in the year we got wind of Microsoft’s plan to offer free Windows licenses to OEMs who built low-cost devices. Hit a big box store this month, and there’s a good chance you’ll find at least one Windows tablet with a sticker price around $100 – pretty much the same price as a retail copy of the OS.

As if that wasn’t odd enough, Microsoft then introduced the Work and Play bundle — a new weapon in the battle to win customers for life. For $149, subscribers can snag access to Office 365, Xbox Live Gold, Xbox Music, Skype Unlimited, and unlimited OneDrive space for a full year.

Apple dropped $3 billion on Dr. Dre’s Beats Audio

Yes, Apple built two large-screened phones after dragging their heels for years. Yes, they announced a smartwatch. Neither of those came as surprises, though… certainly not in the same league as the jaw-dropping $3 billion acquisition of Beats Audio.

Apple’s Eddie Cue said there were two key reasons that they bought Beats. First, that they make great headphones — much, much better than the crappy EarPods Apple throws in with their gizmos. Second, Beats Music was the “first music subscription service done right.” Initial reports were that Apple wanted to shut the service down, but it became clear that their real plan was to re-brand Beats Music and roll it in to iTunes.

They’re also banking on Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine using their clout to bag more exclusive album releases, hopefully none of which will be forcibly crammed into your iTunes library.

Now read: Stuff we regret buying in 2014

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