Four inventions that the world is only just now catching up to

Try to read about the Internet of Things (IoT) online, and you’ll find no shortage of breathless talk about a new “fourth industrial revolution” and promises of something “bigger than the Internet.” Limited only by our imaginations, it seems, the IoT-driven future will solve more problems than we ever knew we had. Best of all, if it’s done right, we soon won’t even think about it.

But after the press moves on and the hyperbole dies down, how often does talk like that ever come to anything (I’m looking at you Google Glass)?

It turns out, we’re surrounded by technologies that did just that.

Innovations that while once full of promise, seemed to fade in the background or trudge along, often quietly became part of our lives in a bigger way than most of us could have ever predicted.

Consider these inventions you encounter every day:

  1. The shy LED light

Light-emitting diode (LED) lamps were once considered too costly and out of reach for many consumers and businesses. They were fine as indicator lights for the front of your stereo, but few of us saw them doing much more. Nowadays, they’re still a bit spendy but are worth it with a lifespan and efficiency several times better than incandescent lamps and most florescent ones. The LED lamp market is projected to grow from $2 billion in the beginning of 2014 to $25 billion in 2023.

And they’re not just hanging from kitchen and hallway ceilings. You find LEDs in huge stadium displays, in streetlights, and as landscape features. They also look amazing and save a boatload of money and energy. Score: LEDs:1 incandescent: 0.

Corpus Christi’s Harbor Bridge–Landscape lighting taken to a whole new level with LED technology.]

  1. Modest space-age fabrics

Raise your hands: How many of you (OK, us) dreamed about wearing a full-on space suit when you were a kid – the big puffy, white boots, huge gloves and a sleek helmet. NASA, you know, the organization that engineered a moon landing with a computer with less processing power than your cellphone, was tasked to developing suits that kept its astronauts safe. And since then, their suits have evolved. Astronauts now wear suites made from ortho-fabric, aluminized mylar, neoprene-coated nylon, Dacron, urethane-coated nylon, tricot, nylon/spandex, stainless steel, and high-strength composite materials.

If some of those materials sound familiar, it’s because many outdoor sports clothing retailers now use the same materials and technology. In fact, you’re probably wearing some space age fabric right now. Talk about a full circle.

  1. The humble bicycle

Yes, the automobile has eclipsed the bicycle in terms of use and sheer numbers, but bicycles are making impressive inroads in cities around the world and the U.S. Think about it: their design is simple, not a lot of moving parts and gears (unless you want that), and human-power can get users from A to B. Basically, bikes work like they did a 30, 40, 50 years ago. But what’s changed is the infrastructure being built for bikes, including bike shares that let people rent a bike for an hour or more. In fact, PTC Creo customer Smoove Bike Share has lead the way in designing, manufacturing, and selling bike share equipment in cities. That the bike was considered a recreational device just a decade ago and is now used to run errands and commute to work is a testament to its technology.

  1. Unassuming solar panels

From an engineering standpoint, it’s amazing how solar panels are manufactured. Without going into too much detail, the process involves growing crystals, charging, melting, then cooling into a crystal ready for action. The technology hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades but what has changed are enormous facilities across the globe that are producing panels for rooftop arrays. And these arrays are powering more and more homes than ever before. Just in the U.S. alone enough panels were installed in 2014 to reach 22.7 gigawatts of total installed capacity, enough to power 4.6 million American homes. That’s a lot of homes. The mighty solar panel has come a long way since 7th Century BC when magnifying glass was used to harness the sun’s rays to make fire. The panel’s future is, erm, bright.

Personally, I think it won’t take long for IoT to join the ranks of these technologies people take for granted. How could it not?  But what do you think? What other not-so-obvious technologies being developed today will become part of the fabric of our lives 5, 10, 20 years from now?