2015's Biggest Tech Breakthroughs

Technology has been racing forward at unprecedented speeds over the last few years.

It's not all that long ago that carrying a cell phone was something strictly for business leaders and showy rich people. We're not even that far removed from a time when the Internet was delivered mostly by dial-up access and mostly by a a company then called America Online.

Now, smartphones are ubiquitous, cheap, and more powerful than the computers of not that long ago. We're less than 10 years removed from the first iPhone, and those original models seem as outdated as the flip phones of the late '90s.

Flat-screen TVs are now the norm, electric cars are a thing, and private companies have spaceships. We live in a time where innovation is celebrated and both people and companies are pushing the bounds of what's possible.

The past 12 months were no different, and technology lurched forward in ways that may change how people interact, how we leave this planet, and how we get stuff delivered.

Virtual reality is hereThe media has been talking about the dawn of virtual reality as a consumer technology since ill-fated products such as Nintendo's Virtual Boy in 1995. That headset-based game, which gave people who used it for more than a few minutes a headache, proved to not be quite ready for mass consumption.

But after around two decades of fits and starts, call 2015 the year VR became viable. In 2015, Facebook and Samsung teamed up on the Samsung Gear VR, a $99 headset that delivers a credible virtual-reality experience. The headset, powered by technology from Facebook's Oculus division, requires a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, which serves as the screen.

Samsung's Gear VR, powered by Facebook's Oculus. Source: Samsung.

It's low-budget VR, but it's an immersive, impressive experience that's a bit novelty and a bit of a promise of what's to come. Gear VR is fun, if not super useful, but it sets the table for upcoming devices such as Microsoft's HoloLens.

This was the year VR went from a fun thing to talk about to something that can become part of our lives moving forward. This isn't 3D TV or something else that looks cool but we don't need. It's technology that opens up new possibilities for how we communicate and how we interact with the world.

Space: It's no longer just for governmentsSpaceX has been in existence since 2002, but this is the year Elon Musk's company showed that true innovation in how we leave Earth's atmosphere and return to it need not be government funded. Add in the similar work of Jeff Bezos' private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, and 2015 is the year when space exploration really went private.

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin were able to send an upright rocket into space and return it to Earth for possible reuse. This process, in theory, lowers the cost of space travel and begins making it accessible to entities that aren't the world's largest governments or the super rich.

One of the SpaceX rockets. Source: SpaceX.

"I think it's very clear the future is reusable space, and the rest of the world is playing catch-up to the innovation that's taking place in America's space entrepreneurs," said Charles Miller, president of NexGenSpace, a spaceflight consulting firm, told The Verge.

We may not be signing up for $99 trips to the moon in 2016, but the groundwork laid this past year makes that idea seem a lot closer than it ever has.

It's the year of the droneWhen Amazon.com first started talking about using drones for delivery, the idea seemed a little preposterous. It was hard to picture a sky full of unmanned planes carrying packages that would show up at our doors an hour or so after we ordered them.

In 2015, however, what once seemed unlikely moved a lot closer to being possible. The Federal Aviation Administration has not yet approved drones for commercial use, but it's been forced to address their ownership by private citizens.

The federal agency has created new rules for drone users and launched a website for owners to legally register their personal unmanned flying craft. That's not quite the same as letting Amazon use drones for delivery, but even that moved forward this year, as the FAA approved more than 1,000 business permits for the use of drones in the first half of 2015, according to Fortune.

Amazon's drone prototype. Source: Amazon.

And while Amazon doesn't yet have approval to launch its drones, it has been legally testing them, and the day seems closer. But even if delivery drones don't happen soon, the commercial use of drones is exploding. Wal-Mart, for example, has petitioned the FAA to use the unmanned flying machines for inventory purposes.

Delivery drones aren't here yet, but 2015 was the year drones broke through from being toys for hobbyists to viable commercial products.

The article 2015's Biggest Tech Breakthroughs originally appeared on Fool.com.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook and Microsoft. He owns a Virtual Boy. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon.com and Facebook. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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