In this age of digital overload, efficiency is everything. That's why the public has embraced the iPad as a streamlined way to consume entertainment. Now companies are rushing to make the tablet a viable work platform. Next year, Research in Motion will release the BlackBerry PlayBook with videoconferencing and 1GB of RAM for better multitasking with apps, and Dell will unveil the DUO, a netbook with a touchscreen that rotates to become a tablet. The first-to-market alternative, though, is the e-reader-size Samsung Galaxy Tab, which, unlike the iPad, displays Flash-based websites, works with any major wireless carrier, and runs on Android, allowing it to sync with Google's Web-based programs. Echo, the updated smartpen from Livescribe, also embodies low-profile efficiency. The stylus brings note jotting into the information age, transforming handwriting into text files with its infrared camera, recording audio via a built-in microphone, and beaming the results to any PC or mobile device. Even the mouse is slimming down: Microsoft's Arc Touch flattens to the thickness of a business-card holder to slip into a laptop case or coat pocket.
The Way We Travel
Building a Better Car
FJ43 by Icon, from $105,000; icon4x4.com.
While Detroit's Big Three were fighting for survival, a trio of American upstarts were rethinking how cars are made. In Arizona, Local Motors (local-motors.com) is designing by committee: Pros oversee safety and performance while enthusiasts propose tweaks, from suspension components to body shape, on the company's website. (The first production vehicle is the Rally Fighter, a sports coupe with the stance of a monster truck.) In Kansas, H-Line Conversions (hlineconversion.com) is retooling Hummers and Escalades into green beasts that run on biodiesel, with new power trains that provide the boost of a hot rod. And in California, Icon is handcrafting 4x4s with parts from other industries—visors from Learjets, latches from Sub-Zero fridges, even fog lights from Mars Rovers. It's off-roading gone artisanal. "The standard suppliers' products are indistinct, plastic, and temporary," explains Icon founder Jonathan Ward. "Our idea was to revive art in transportation." Don't underestimate these indies' reach—Ford, for example, is talking to Icon about designing a badder-ass Bronco.
Electric Cars for All
For the first time, buyers are about to have real choice when shopping for electric vehicles. Chevy's midsize Volt is the world's first mass-produced, extended-range EV. Unlike a hybrid, it can go about 45 miles per charge, but it also has a gas engine that will take it another 300 miles—a combination that makes it more than just a commuter option. There are also fresh electric imports: From Germany, Smart's snub-nosed ForTwo Electric Drive micro-car (smartusa.com) will travel 82 miles on a single charge; and from Japan, Nissan's Leaf hatchback (nissanusa.com) will surpass even that, with a range of 100 miles. Industrial designers are also developing public- and private-use charging stations—the scarcity of which has been the biggest obstacle to adoption of EVs. San Francisco firm Fuseproject joined General Electric to create WattStation, which includes a commercial-scale LED-ringed cylinder and a smaller, oval version for the home, both of which slash charging times by two thirds. Frog Design, a global innovation consultancy, teamed with San Francisco manufacturer Ecotality to develop Blink (blinknetwork.com), an even faster set of chargers with iPod-esque contours. "We're becoming human-computer-interaction designers," says GM design manager Stuart Norris. "We have more in common with the consumer-electronics space than with automotive."
New Ways to Fly
Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner (newairplane.com) makes passenger comfort a priority: Engine noise is dampened, windows are 65 percent larger and feature passenger-controlled tinting devices, and cabin air is humidified and filtered for better breathability. Want to fly solo? After 20 hours of training, you can take off in the Icon A5 (iconaircraft.com), an amphibious two-person plane made possible by the FAA's new sport-flying category (it will be available in 2011 for around $139,000). Once you touch down (on land or water), the wings fold back, letting you tow it home as you would a Jet Ski.
The Way We Play
The Gaming Revolution
Nintendo forever changed how we play video games when it introduced the Wii in 2006. No longer were users bound by buttons; instead, they could control movement with the wave of a wand. This fall, Sony released its Wii-killer: the PlayStation Move, a cordless stick topped by a colored ball that lights up during play. It uses the PlayStation Eye, a camera that tracks the player's position in three dimensions, to provide far more accurate control, to better simulate real-life activities. Microsoft has taken things still further with Kinect, a sensor for its Xbox 360 console that captures motion and recognizes faces and voices, turning players' bodies into controllers. This allows for intuitive new games—like Dance Central, from the creators of Rock Band, which involves simply shimmying, untethered, before the TV—that appeal to players craving more than bloody first-person shooters. Kinect could also change how we learn, exercise, and even work—think Tom Cruise in Minority Report. "If we could remove the controller," says Albert Penello, Microsoft's senior director of product management, "we knew we could bring a whole new group of people into our world."
The Future of TV
The revolution will not be televised—it will be streamed. The players battling for control of your eyeballs are building a new model for personal entertainment that seamlessly combines TV and Internet, serving up whatever you want, whenever and wherever you want it. In one corner are the boxes, like Apple TV (apple.com), which was retooled this fall after a disappointing debut to include Netflix and YouTube access, cloud media storage, and the ability to stream from a computer or an iPad to your television. But upstarts Roku (roku.com) and Boxee offer even more third-party content, plus new sharing tools; the latter bills itself as a "social media center" that lets you recommend shows and post to Twitter and Tumblr. A complementary gadget, the "TV-anywhere" device Slingbox, now features a simplified setup (just plug in a USB cable) and a svelte, latticelike enclosure that reduces heat. In the other corner are the new TV sets, like Panasonic's Viera, which offers Skype, YouTube, Twitter, and Picasa. Meanwhile, Sony has integrated the brand-new Google TV platform into some of its sets, letting users search for programs, movies, websites, and apps via a full Chrome browser. Which approach will prevail? Even Gadi Amit, whose San Francisco firm NewDealDesign built the new Slingbox, isn't sure. "There are fights in my house over who gets to see what in which format," he says. "It's extraordinary to watch this cultural event unfold."
New Ways to Read
If you need help managing the flood of online information—RSS feeds, Facebook updates, photo streams—try Flipboard (above; flipboard.com), a free iPad app that lets you wrangle everything into an orderly grid. For iPhone-friendly ebooks, author videos, and a bibliophilic news feed, try Enhanced Editions (enhanced-editions.com). Or publish your own title by using Wikipedia's Book Creator (pediapress.com) to assemble entries around a topic of interest and have it shipped to you—for about $10.