Hiriko car

It’s been almost two years since Cloudera founder and former Facebook research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher lamented to Businessweek that “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Given that Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the word “app” dominated our attention spans in 2012, he likely doesn’t think much differently today. Nor is it likely that Peter Thiel would feel the need to update his gripe that, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

While it’s true that an app-oriented ecosystem produces app-oriented thinking – and that, consequently, much of today’s “innovation” is contained in, and constrained by, the semi-permeable boundaries of programs that we can control with a couple of taps – we are still surrounded by brilliant minds who dismantle conventional thinking; who dare to think in terms that are not just of the Earth, but also inter-planetary; and who are using the power of the Internet to recalibrate the world beyond cell towers and data plans.

Tech is getting boring? Not for me. In 2013, I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more technology that is barely distinguishable from magic, that pushes humankind into new frontiers of the imagination, and that makes the ad-supported Web 2.0 era seem like kindergarten fluff.

Let’s start with transport. German rail network Deutsche Bahn will this year begin testing a car-sharing program with foldable electric cars produced by Hiriko. The MIT-instigated two-seater car, which drives on the road as a normal vehicle and has a sliding rear section that folds into the front cabin when it comes time to park, is set to launch in the Northern Hemisphere Spring.

Meanwhile, Florida, Nevada, and California have all introduced legislation to make Google’s self-driving cars street legal. Even if those laws only scratch the surface, we can expect more states to follow suit in 2013, at which point we could be on our way to a Sergey Brin-imagined future in which self-driving cars will be a reality for regular folks within five years.

In China, by the way, BYD is selling a self-driving car for just $10,000 – remote control included.

Then there’s Tesla, which recently entered the mainstream mindset by winning Car of the Year for the Tesla S. More exciting, however, is that Tesla’s “supercharging” stations are popping up in California, allowing drivers to charge up for free using solar power (courtesy of another of Musk’s companies, Solar City, whose cost-friendly approach to personal solar energy is groundbreaking in its own right). This year is going to be huge for Superchargers. Tesla said in a September press release that it plans to install Superchargers in high-traffic corridors across the US, “enabling fast, purely electric travel from Vancouver to San Diego, Miami to Montreal, and Los Angeles to New York.” In the second half of the year, it will also begin installing Superchargers in Europe and Asia.

Because they’ve existed for a few years – as prototypes and early roadworthy models – it’s easy to sniff at self-driving cars and electric cars as old news. But these things are going to change the world, and that is going to become increasingly apparent this year, as the technology matures and gets into more people’s garages. These cars and alternative fuelling stations will make our lives safer, more efficient, and they will be much kinder to the planet, which is kind of essential to our wellbeing. That’s not as good as a world without cars, but it’s a reasonable start.

Beyond roads and California, there’s space exploration. Amazing things are happening there, too, and at a rapid clip. In October, Tesla founder Elon Musk – who will surely one day be remembered as far more important than Steve Jobs – found success with another of his companies, SpaceX, which sent its first rocket into space. This year, we’re going to hear a lot more from Musk’s audacious startup. Just a week ago, the company did a 29-second test flight of a reusable rocket that can be launched and landed, offering the potential for space tourism. Grab someone close to you and show them the video. This is the future, and somehow it’s happening now.

Not boring.

And while we’re in space, what about that startup that’s planning to mine asteroids for resources? That’s Planetary Resources, and it’s backed by Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, and filmmaker James Cameron. If the man who dived to the bottom of the sea and created porny blue-alien IMAX creatures is getting excited about tech’s potential to mine planets, then it’s probably a pretty decent sign that the industry as it stands is not especially boring. Then again, the same man is partly responsible for foisting upon the world the Celine Dion song “My Heart Will Go On,” so the jury remains out.

Humans as batteries. Add that to the list.

And while we’re on the clean-tech bent, check out Helsinki startup ZenRobotics, which has developed a brainy robot that sorts through construction waste to pick out all the best bits for recycling. Without going so far as to breach PandoDaily policy by embedding the company’s highly entertaining demo video, I will at least strongly encourage you to check it out to get a good sense of what the robot can do.

Leap Motion has started pre-orders for its $70 controllers that will allow you to control your computer with 3D hand gestures. Ten years ago, this stuff was the wild imaginings of a Hollywood movie. In 2013 it will be a consumer product that costs less than a dinner for two in a mid-market San Francisco restaurant (minus tips).

Three engineers in Santa Clara, meanwhile, have developed technology that will allow you to change the channel just by looking at a specific section of your TV screen; or scroll down an article just by looking at the bottom of your iPad; or play a game on your smartphone just by moving your eyes. The technology also allows your devices to recognize faces, even if they’re obscured and in the pitch dark. Cube26 – which recently changed its name from PredictGaze – is working on some pretty big partnerships right now that should come to fruition in 2013.

In China, a startup has invented a smartphone-controlled drone.

Jetpacks exist and they are now on sale.

Google says it’s treating its super-high-speed Internet project, Fiber, as a business, which could totally disrupt cable companies, starting right about now in Kansas City. With Google Now, it is disrupting the app-first mobile ecosystem and perhaps forging a new paradigm for mobile computing in the process. And Google Glass – now compatible, apparently, with prescription-lens spectacles – is making computing more or less part of our bodies. The first versions of the glasses will ship this year to the Google I/O attendees who ponied up $1,500 for the “Explorer Edition.”

Evidently, big things are happening in tech, and 2013 is shaping up to be a particularly juicy year for innovation. It’s true that if you look only at the lowest-hanging news stories, you will be inundated with inania about note-taking apps and photosharing squabbles and temporary pokes, to the point where you might well nod your head in agreement with Hammerbacher’s two-year-old assertion about the geniuses of our time being consumed with cost-per-click. But the most cutting-edge stuff is seldom the most obvious. It takes effort to find.

Great innovation is happening. It ought to be celebrated, pushed to the front of the attention queue, and not glossed over as a mere sideshow in an industry that has become mired in app-rehension.

Oh, and by the way – those flying cars Peter Thiel wants? They’re happening too.