Spin-orbit coupling (SOC) describes the relativistic interaction between the spin and momentum degrees of freedom of electrons, and is central to the rich phenomena observed in condensed matter systems. In recent years, new phases of matter have emerged from the interplay between SOC and low dimensionality, such as chiral spin textures and spin-polarized surface and interface states. These low-dimensional SOC-based realizations are typically robust and can be exploited at room temperature. Here we discuss SOC as a means of producing such fundamentally new physical phenomena in thin films and heterostructures. We put into context the technological promise of these material classes for developing spin-based device applications at room temperature.