Amazon, EA, Microsoft, others win 'Popular Mechanics' Breakthrough Awards

In its fourth annual selection of the best in science and tech, the magazine highlights innovations that make differences in people's lives.

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Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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The Around View Monitor, from Nissan's Infiniti division, is designed to give drivers a 360-degree view of their car while parking. The monitor was among the 10 products that won a 'Popular Mechanics' 2008 Breakthrough Product Award. Popular Mechanics

Popular Mechanics magazine will unveil on Wednesday its Breakthrough Awards, the publication's annual celebration of the brightest innovators and innovations.

This year's winners include tech that lets you read books on a thin, digital device, see all around your car as you park, and explore outer space through your imagination.

Logan Ward, a contributing editor at the magazine, said that he and a team of fellow researchers scour the country looking for 30 to 40 candidates that are then winnowed down to the eventual 10 winners. The magazine also identifies 10 individuals for special innovator, leadership, and future-looking awards.

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To identify the potential candidates, Ward and his team contact most of the country's research institutions, including universities, engineering organizations, robotics labs, government labs.

"The thing that's most important in looking at all these tech advances," said Ward, "is what is its impact...So when we evaluate innovations, we really look at how it's going to change people's lives for the better.

Of course, given that Ward's efforts take him through a wide variety of science- and technology-related fields, he has had to develop competencies in an equally wide spectrum of disciplines.

"I think I'm a very good generalist and a pretty good journalist," Ward said of the challenge of having to understand so many different kinds of science and technology. "I bring my curiosity to the table. I ask a lot of questions...And I'm honest about my limitations. If something comes across my desk and I don't understand it, I'll reserve judgment about it until I do."

All in all, though, Ward's journey through the best innovations of each year leaves him "with a sense of awe at how technology really can improve our lives."

Photosynth, from Microsoft, is a software application that creates 3D models by analyzing a series of individual photographs. The resulting model is browsable. Popular Mechanics

This year's awards go to these 10 products:

  • The M-Spector Digital Inspection Camera, from Milwaukee Tools. This device is designed to give people trying to do home repairs a way to see behind walls without cutting holes first. It features a 17-mm-wide 2x zoom lens and a 2.5-inch LCD. It costs $259.

  • Spore, from Electronic Arts. The long-awaited evolution game from famous designer Will Wright tasks players with evolving from single-cell muck to outer space, with stops along the way as individual creatures, small tribes and city-size civilizations.

  • The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen. This pen-size device allows its owner to take notes on special paper while simultaneously recording audio. Later, by tapping on a specific section of notes on the paper, users can get a playback of that section of audio. It can also perform simple language translation as well as other functions.

  • Potenco's PCG1 power generator. This user-driven device allows anyone to power up small devices like mobile phones with their hands. Pulling on the unit's cord for two minutes provides 40 minutes of power-up.

  • Intel's Atom processor. Microprocessor powerhouse Intel has built a low-power chip designed to give high-performance capabilities to mobile devices and light laptop computers.

  • The Craftsman Nextec Multi-saw. The well-known toolmaker is giving buyers a combination jigsaw and reciprocating saw. It is powered by a 12-volt lithium-ion battery that can drive the unit to cut in a variety of places difficult to reach by any single tool.

  • Microsoft's Photosyth. This free software from Microsoft allows people to create a browsable 3D model based on a series of related photographs. The software stitches the pictures together, creating the model based on overlapping elements of the images.

  • Amazon.com's Kindle. An e-book reader from the famous online bookseller, the Kindle allows people to read books, newspapers, and other documents on a thin, light digital device. It has been panned by some, while others have written rapturously about it. Either way, it is sparking innovation in e-readers.

  • The Around View monitor from Nissan's Infiniti division is designed to give drivers a 360-degree view around their cars while parking and backing up. The system features a series of ultra-wide-angle high-resolution cameras that produced images that are aggregated to give the driver a top view of the car and the area around it. It is hoped that the monitor will save lives, especially those of children, who are difficult to see from inside a car, especially when they are behind a vehicle while a driver is backing up.

  • The Caroma Profile dual flush toilet. This system pipes gray water from a bathroom's sink into the toilet's tank, cutting down on water wastage.

CBS Early Show video
Glenn Derene, senior technology editor at Popular Mechanics, talks about the top
technological inventions of 2008 with Harry Smith and Julie Chen of CBS.

In addition to selecting products, Popular Mechanics is honoring people as well.

Amy Smith won the Breakthrough Leadership Award. Smith, a senior lecturer at MIT, was cited by the magazine for research into water purification and both boosting the quality of medical care and reducing daily work burdens of rural women. Popular Mechanics said, "she is leading a movement to tackle complex problems with simple technology."

Rudy Roy, Ben Sexon, Daniel Oliver, and Charles Pyott are the co-winners of the Next Generation award. Recent graduates of Caltech and the Art Center College of Design, the four have made names for themselves with a technique that makes wheelchairs for residents of developing countries out of inexpensive bicycles. One major benefit of their innovation is that the wheelchairs can be repaired in any bike shop, unlike normal chairs.

The Livescribe Pulse Smartpen records audio as a user takes notes on special paper. This allows the user to later tap on a particular point in his or her notes and hear an instant playback of that section of the recording. Popular Mechanics

And for Ward, what is the most rewarding part of the annual project?

"A combination of talking to all of these really incredible people," he said. "People who are at the top of their game, but people who also care about others, people who are trying to solve some of these problems we read about in the headlines. So I always get a sense of hope at the end of this project. You know, there are people out there making a difference."