What's The Next Hot Invention?

Technology buffs always want to know, "What's next?" Back in 1984, a brick-sized cellphone was a cutting-edge gadget. So what new gizmos will 2008 ring in? Our Cover Story is reported by science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg:

What inventions will change our lives this year?

How about a revolutionary computer screen? Cars powered by hydrogen? Books we can read electronically? Better football helmets? More efficient buildings?

With the Consumer Electronics Show getting underway in Las Vegas, this seemed like the perfect time for a high-tech look-ahead to the new year.

High-definition TVs barely thicker than a credit card … a solar-powered charger for all your electronic gizmos … and global positioning systems, or GPS, are everywhere.

In the coming months, we'll start finding GPS in all kinds of gadgets, according to Lance Ulanoff, editor in chief at PC Magazine.

"Everyone gets lost," said Ulanoff. "And you can get lost far away and near your home. So you want every device you have, whether it's for the big trip or just while you're outside the office, to help you get where you need to go."

One of the most intriguing inventions is the media wall, which could completely change how we all relate to our computers. Whether you're exploring a map, or the human body. the media wall literally puts it at your fingertips.

Jeff Han created the giant computer screen, which can display anything you can put on an ordinary computer. You don't use a mouse or a keyboard; you touch it, using as many fingers … or as many people … as you want.

And it can be yours…starting at $100,000.

"I really foresee a future where we have these kind of displays wallpapered everywhere," Han said. "It's just casually in a hallway without thinking, oh yeah, that's one of those displays up there. It's just there."

There's probably already a bit of touch-screen technology in a pocket near you: the Apple iPhone. Last year it was a cool gadget. This year it could change our whole conception of cellphones.

Brian Cooley is editor at large at CNet, a Web site where they test and review all sorts of new stuff.

"Talk to any of the researchers out there who do market research, and they'll say, 'Oh, what do you know? '08's gonna be the big year of the smart phone,'" Colley said.

Cooley believes another new device could change the way we read books. He showed us the Amazon Kindle, "a complete library of books available at your fingertips, because this thing is wirelessly connected to Amazon headquarters at all times. And they've got about 90,000 books you can buy from this reader for $10 or less."

But the Kindle carries a lesson for all inventors.

"I don't care how amazing a technological achievement this is for $400. It's maybe the most amazing thing since the Manhattan Project, if you were to dig into it," Colley said. "But if it doesn't help my life, I don't need it."

What's needed on the football field these days is better protection from concussions. A new helmet might help.

Vin Ferrara is a former quarterback at Harvard. He had an "a-ha" moment when he went to his medicine cabinet.

"The source of my inspiration was the squeeze bottle," Ferrara said. He came up with a cushioning system using air-filled shock absorbers, instead of the usual foam.

The X1 Football Helmet, the first product to use the adaptive head protection system, should be on the field sometime in the spring and early summer.

Also this summer, expect to see a new high-tech prosthetic foot, with a mind of its own. The PowerFoot One uses robotics. It was developed by Hugh Herr at MIT, who lost both feet in a mountain-climbing accident.

"It is like I am attached to a robot and it is walking me," Herr said. "It is the most extraordinary feeling."

Development of the Powerfoot One was spurred by the war in Iraq. Army Specialist Garth Stewart, who was hit by a landmine in Baghdad, was one of the first to test it.

"It's giving you that extra push, or it's thinking and telling how much push you need," he said. "So that you don't have to do the extra work with your hip and back. That's a big improvement."

What's next on the road? Automakers have been scrambling to make more efficient cars, and last year we heard a lot of talk about hybrids. But Brian Cooley of CNet says hybrids have already become almost ho-hum. It may be time for a new, non-polluting energy source.

Hydrogen fuel cells are just starting to come into cars now. Honda has just begun to lease a car called the FCX Clarity. Several hundred people in Southern California will start driving the FCX in the coming months.

They all happen to live near sources of highly-pressurized hydrogen, a fuel that's a blessing and a curse.

"It sounds like the ultimate car," Cooley said. "The only problem is it's extraordinarily expensive to make because it's in almost a prototype stage right now. And how do we move hydrogen around? It's a big infrastructure issue for the nation. That said, it could be the ultimate way to power cars."

Powering industry - without harming the environment - brings us to this new frozen foods plant. It goes into full production this week in Los Angeles.

It has solar panels on the roof, air-locks on the loading dock, and recaptures heat from the refrigeration system.

John Z. Blazevich, the company's CEO, believes they'll cut their power usage and pollution emissions almost in half. And he says it's a lesson for inventors everywhere: keep pushing the envelope:

"And at every single stage, I don't care if you asked the person 20 times, you had to ask 'em again one more time: 'So what about in this system? Is there anything that we can capture that we can reuse and redirect this to help our overall energy consumption be reduced?'"

But inventing can't be all work and no play.

Here's a new take on flying toys, based on one of nature's oldest concepts: The FlyTech dragonfly flaps its wings instead of using a propeller.

And the New Year will surely see more inventions that are fun, but also a bit, well, stupid.

Gary Apple invented Stupid.com.

"Some inventions that we like to sell on Stupid.com, they're intended to make life easier," Apple said. "That's what an invention is for. But somehow, sometimes it makes things more complicated."

Like the mechanical ice cream cone?

"I mean, who wouldn't want something like this?" he laughed.

Or the talking toilet.

Stupid they may be, but Apple says even the dumbest inventions still require a lot of inventiveness.

We'll see, in the coming year, which of these inventions will wind up being a part of our lives.