We live in the software age. But hardware isn’t dead yet.
As the 10 most important product innovations of 2019 show—from plant-based burgers to alternate reality headsets—the world still has plenty of room for innovation in meatspace. The brightest products of the past year aren’t just enticing or convenient for users. These products are often using design to question the ritual of consumption as we know it.
Motorola’s foldable phone
The original Motorola Razr (2004) changed the world of technology forever, turning clunky phones into sleek, fashion-forward objects of desire. The followup, 15 years later, features a folding OLED display. It’s a mechanical marvel, and the first flexible screen device that makes any real sense at all, because it turns our too-large smartphones into pocketable devices. The Razr offers an early taste of the bendable, ergonomic electronics to come. [Link]
Fun for everyone
Video game controllers are now so advanced that the military uses them to control tanks and drones. But they require fine motor control that can leave people with disabilities behind. The Xbox Adaptive Controller launched last year, with two giant buttons and lots of extra input options to allow users to connect extra buttons as needed. Then, this year, Logitech decided to actually make those extra buttons. Its $99 kit includes mix-and-match hardware that’s built less for profitability than the needs of diverse users. [Link]
My dad always said there was no problem too great that you couldn’t drink yourself out of it. Okay, that isn’t true. But carbon-capturing vodka comes pretty close. A company called Air Co. uses recaptured carbon in the place of yeast to produce vodka. Each bottle scrubs the air as effectively as eight trees breathing for a day. And as an added bonus, Air Co.’s production footprint needs just 500 to 1,000 square feet compared with the acres of land required by traditional distilling. Then take a sip while wearing this compelling, carbon-negative raincoat, and you won’t have to worry about spilling on yourself. [Link]
Voice assistants for first responders
First responders are going into some of the most dangerous places on earth, and in these places, your typical iPhone won’t do because it relies on an infrastructure of fallible antennas to work. Instead, first responders still rely on long-range walkie-talkies. A new walkie-talkie from Motorola Solutions, the APX Next, can be used both hands-free and without an operator on the other end of the line, thanks to a novel voice assistant that helps you access private information without direct internet access. Siri may be an overrated way to find sushi. But the APX Next can literally help save lives; as a firefighter or police officer uses two hands to free someone from a pile of rubble, she can use the APX Next to simultaneously call for help. [Link]
Compelling, quirky mobile gaming
The Nintendo Switch is the best portable gaming system ever made—thanks to a perfect size, a massive library of games, the option to seamlessly dock it to a TV, and controllers that put smartphones to shame. And yet, 2019 brought us two compelling handheld video game consoles (both expected to be released in 2020). Each proves that the independent spirit of hardware design is alive and well.
Analogue Pocket is a $199 Game Boy reboot, which runs vintage console cartridges but in an industrial design that meshes stark minimalism with a cutting-edge display. Oh, it’s also an instrument for electronic music. What? [Link]
The Playdate is another enticing bit of gaming hardware, but it’s more experimental. A surprising crank on the side offers a zany way to play games. And it’s being released with software partners who are designing new, bite-sized titles for the Playdate and the Playdate alone. Playdate teased a model in which you could buy new seasons of games in packs, and in doing so, Playdate is combining a closed hardware/software ecosystem in a way that only giants such as Apple and Nintendo have ever managed to pull off. [Link]
Better fast, fake meat
If 2019 was the year of anything, it was the year of fake meat. Beyond Meat and Impossible both made their mainstream mark. The Impossible Whopper was such a hit, it gave Burger King its best quarter in four years, cementing nearly a decade of investment in the biology, flavor, and mouthfeel behind a fully engineered burger. Even if faux meats don’t outright replace real meat, a little savings in the flexitarian market goes a long way: A pound of beef costs 1,800 gallons of water on top of all sorts of other environmental hazards, which is why experts would like to see beef consumption drop by 50% to save the planet. The Impossible Whopper might not be the best burger you’ve ever had, but then again, neither is anything else you get at Burger King. [Link]
AR that fits like a baseball cap
If there’s a more complicated industrial design story in 2019 than how Microsoft designed the Hololens 2 augmented reality headset, I haven’t read it. It’s an AR headset that goes on as easily as a baseball cap, making it easy and effortless to hop into the digital world. The combination of materials and hard and soft parts in this design is staggering. And it’s full of tiny decisions of ergonomics, which work in harmony with technology that requires picometer-level precision (if some parts of the headset come out of the tiniest threshold of alignment, it would literally make you want to vomit). [Link]
The headband is made from lactic acid produced by yeast. The ear padding is a bubbling protein produced by fungus. The leather is mycelium, or the core of a mushroom. And the mesh on your ears is biosynthetic spider silk. Dubbed Korvaa, this is the world’s first microbe-grown pair of headphones. And they are beautiful in their own way. As we reckon with our environmental footprint, projects such as Korvaa are a reminder that there really is another way than simply producing more plastic. [Link]
Old shoes that become new shoes
The Adidas Loop is a shoe that can be ground down at the end of its life and used to help make new Loop shoes. Whether it’s the textiles made from plastic, or the business model—which may require Adidas to incentivize buybacks of old shoes to make new ones—Loop teases an increasingly complicated future for consumer goods (and consumption) in which companies and customers alike are forced to deal with the long-term impacts of products. None of this would matter if Loop shoes were terrible, of course. But they are also a tantalizing garment in their own right, with a shimmery woven plastic that’s both beautiful and comfortable. [Link]