5 Pieces of Tech That Truly Changed the Game in 2016

Google Pixel release
Bloomberg/Getty Images

With so many wannabe Elon Musks trying to convince us that their "innovative" Kickstarter-funded smart device is going to save humanity, it's totally normal if your eyes glaze over every time a fancy new gizmo comes along. But there were a handful of hugely significant debuts this year worth singling out for their potential to turn the tech industry on its head, and in some cases, legitimately change the world and how we live in it. Here are the game-changing technologies we were most excited to see in 2016.

google pixel phone
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Google's Pixel phone

Why it's important: Google's first big foray into hardware totally beat Apple at its own game.
The Google Pixel is undoubtedly a superb phone, and one of the best on the market right now (that camera though!). Still, its impressive specs aren't necessarily the reason it made the list. The Pixel is significant because it's a bellwether of the smartphone industry and its future. By mimicking many iPhone design elements (and improving upon several functional ones, including a better battery life and more storage), it poses a significant threat to Apple at a crucial moment when many iPhone fans are feeling fatigued and unimpressed with Cupertino's tired moves. It's a signal that Google is getting ready to throw its weight around in the hardware space for real, and when Google makes a big decision like that, people not only listen, they follow. 

volvo uber autonomous car
Courtesy of Volvo

Uber's self-driving car fleet

Why it's important: It's a giant leap forward for autonomous ride-hailing and urban transportation.
Say what you will of Uber's checkered reputation and controversial business moves, but it's successfully upended the entire transportation industry and isn't slowing down. This year, it took things to the next level by deploying a fleet of self-driving Volvo SUVs in Pittsburgh as part of a partnership with the automaker to help bring safe autonomous vehicles to the road by 2021. The 100 modified Volvos aren't fully able to drive themselves, and come equipped with trained engineers behind the wheel to take over the controls when necessary, but nonetheless, the pilot program marked a significant milestone on the path toward hailing autonomous cabs and eliminating the crippling traffic congestion that's caused by human drivers.

It might still sound like a far-fetched reality, but remember that just five years ago in those heady pre-Uber days, it seemed absolutely bonkers to use your cellphone to hitch a ride home in a stranger's backseat. Now the company that normalized that notion is worth north of $60 billion.

Microsoft's Surface Studio

Why it's important: The ultra-futuristic creative workstation proves Microsoft just got cool again.
For years, Microsoft has had the cursed reputation as an uncool tech brand stuck in the '90s, lapping up whatever leftovers it could from the likes of Apple and Google. But like a prepubescent dweeb that morphs into a stud, Microsoft came out swinging this year with a truly impressive, goosebump-inducing machine that made Apple's long-overdue update to the MacBook Pro look like peanuts by comparison.

The $3,000 Surface Studio is the sort of machine Apple once prided itself on making: a sleek, user-friendly workstation designed for the creative professional, complete with an enormous hinged touchscreen that transforms it from a proper desktop to a drafting table. It boasts incredibly powerful graphics and display, and a funky onscreen dial attachment that makes editing easier than ever. It's a welcome and sexy leap forward into the next phase of creative computing.

Pokémon GO

Why it's important: The global phenomenon officially ushered in the age of augmented reality.
Remember those few weeks this past summer when full-grown adults lost their goddamn minds over Pokémon GO? Forsaking sanity and their own physical well-being in the name of capturing creepy-cute virtual characters with their phones? Normally, a flash-in-the-pan hit game wouldn't be on this list, but in this case it's less about the game itself and more about the fact that it introduced a huge swath of people to augmented reality. 

Pokémon GO's popularity suggests we're on the cusp of an AR revolution. Every day people are growing more and more comfortable interacting with technology that blends the real world with the virtual, and not just for entertainment, but in more utilitarian ways that -- with the help of an on-the-eye or over-the-eye device -- can help us seamlessly understand and navigate our surroundings without staring down at a screen. 

tesla solar roof tiles
Courtesy of Tesla

Tesla's solar roof tiles

Why it's important: It's bringing the benefits of solar energy to the masses.
Solar energy is great! It's renewable! It's green! It's (basically) infinite! But, let's face it: Most solar panels are pretty damn ugly, and can quickly muck up a home's aesthetic when tacked onto the roof. That's what makes Elon Musk's big unveiling of Tesla's solar roof system such a huge deal: It combines the benefits of solar energy with the look of a regular rooftop.

The ultra-durable tempered glass roof tiles -- which Musk maintains will last a lifetime -- mimic the look of traditional roof tiles, but they allow for light to pass through onto standard flat solar cells. In turn, these charge the Tesla Powerwall batteries in the home, which the resident then draws energy from for all manner of purposes. Making the setup even sweeter is the fact that installing one of these systems would end up being significantly cheaper than replacing a traditional roof when combined with the projected utility bill savings.

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist, and wrote this on a boring seven-year-old MacBook Pro.