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The most innovative products of 2018

Cameras that see in the dark, drones that follow you home, AI that manages your phone. Here's what wowed us in a weird year.

Juan Garzon / CNET

We know what the year's best gadgets were. But innovative tech is another measuring stick. 2018 moved fast and was full of chaos. And in the world of tech, sometimes products didn't seem to evolve as fast as you'd expect. But these were the best concepts and tech directions we saw and there's a good chance they'll indicate where the big trends are heading next.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Oculus Go: VR goes fully stand-alone and mobile

Facebook's had a terrible 2018, and it's getting to the point where it's hard to recommend any product made by the company. Nevertheless: Facebook's VR acquisition, Oculus, points to where comfy and small-scale VR is heading. Oculus' first stand-alone VR headset is basic, but surprisingly affordable and functional. Shrinking down virtual worlds into a compact, wireless phone-free design is an indicator of where VR will go next, starting with fuller-motion rigs such as the Oculus Quest early next year. 

Oculus isn't the only one going standalone: The Lenovo and Google-created Mirage Solo headset and the HTC Vive Focus point to where the winds are blowing next.

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Josh Miller/CNET

Skydio: Self-flying drones are getting scary good

To look at demo videos of the Skydio R1 drone in action, you'd think you were watching a professionally filmed aerial chase sequence. But this drone flies itself, and can follow people from behind, ducking through forests and around bends. It can even be controlled via Apple Watch. Instantly available autonomous mini-vehicles are here, and as computer vision and navigation technology improves, this is just the beginning of where things will go for drones and robotics.

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James Martin/CNET

Apple Watch ECG: Wearables gaining FDA clearance

There aren't many smartwatches and fitness devices that qualify as FDA-cleared health tech, but that's going to change fast. The Apple Watch Series 4 broke ground by putting an FDA cleared ECG in the watch, making it effectively an over-the-counter health device. Will blood pressure monitors and medical-grade sleep studies come next for smartwatches in 2019?

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Magic Leap One: The next step for AR headsets

Magic Leap's wildly hyped augmented-reality technology finally emerged in a real product in 2018, and it amounts to more of a step-up improvement over Microsoft Hololens than anything massively new. But the company's focus on artists and creative experiences over enterprise has resulted in a more playful set of ideas from developers so far, from alien gardening to hauntingly real holographic assistants. As augmented reality expands beyond phones and into mass-market glasses and goggles someday, and as immersive entertainment and theater continues to explore the real world, Magic Leap's first steps forward could end up being a milestone, especially as Microsoft readies a next-gen Hololens and Apple's rumored developments in an AR headset continue to loom.

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The OnePlus 6T and its in-screen fingerprint reader.

In-screen fingerprint readers: Soon to be everywhere

Samsung's Galaxy S10 phone could include ultrasonic fingerprint reader tech made by Qualcomm, and it's just one of several in-screen fingerprint readers that emerged this year. Full-screen displays without buttons or back-mounted fingerprint scanners are likely to become the norm, and could change how phones look and act in 2019, while Apple and others simultaneously pursue face-unlocking biometrics. Maybe they'll make their way into dashboards and wearables too.

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Bose

Bose AR audio glasses: AR isn't just visual

We think of augmented reality and imagine Pokemon and holograms. But Bose's prototype sunglasses using spatial audio, arriving as a real product in 2019, show how audio can be used as a tool to augment reality. The few demos we've had with these glasses in 2018 impressed us with the audio quality and personal audio experience provided without in-ear buds. Immersive audio is on its way fast.

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Foldable phones are becoming real (and roll-up TVs, too)

The best way to get a big-screen device into a pocket might be to fold it. That's the plan for a number of companies promising foldable phones with bendable or hinged screens. Royole has the first foldable phone out of the gate, but Samsung teased its future device in November at its annual developer conference. Gorilla Glass-maker Corning, meanwhile, is developing bendable cover glass to top future foldable phones. Now there's only one question left: Will you want one? Meanwhile, TVs could also be rolling up soon. LG's massive roll-up TV demonstrated at last year's CES could point to how screens of all sizes could bend, roll or tuck themselves away.

Google Night Sight: The year's most magical photo tech

Think you know what a good low-light photo looks like? You do if you've tried Night Sight mode, the leading example of Google's computational photography skill. Use it on the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL and the scene in front of you transforms into a picture more clear, detailed, and dynamic than you've seen from a phone yet. It's no stretch to say Night Sight can practically see in the dark without flash. The effect is stunning, useful and bound to arrive in more phones in 2019.

Google Duplex: Your AI is calling

Nobody knew what to make of Google's futuristic Duplex demo at its 2018 developer conference. An AI making calls to a restaurant to make reservations? Is this a nightmare or a dream come true? It sounded impossible, but now it's a feature on Pixel phones for some users in limited test cities. The future of assistants is bleeding over into the real world in whole new ways.

Apple's A12X chip: The future of PC processing

The iPad may not be a full computer replacement for everyone, but that's a matter of software, not hardware. Apple's latest A12 and A12X processors are ARM-built 7-nanometer chips that blow mainstream Intel processors out of the water in benchmark tests. This heralds an immediate future of far smaller and impressively powered computers. (What is a computer, again?)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Google's spam call filter: Fighting bots with AI

Robocalls are a scourge on our existence, and it's getting worse. Google's ingenious call-screening feature on its latest Pixel phones screens calls and saves you the trouble of answering, transcribing the call instead and offering phone owners the choice of answering, ignoring or even blocking the number. We might never directly answer our phones again.

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