Behind The Scenes With The Judges: Products

From a flat-pack kayak to cheeky vibrators for women, the products this year ran the gamut--challenging our judges to weigh novelty against practicality. Here's how it played out.

Our Judges

Jake Barton, Local Projects
Joe Gebbia, Airbnb
Stephanie Wu, Warby Parker
Linda Tischler, Fast Company

The Finalists

Leap Motion: Three-dimensional gesture-control technology that could replace the computer mouse
Oru Kayak: A flat-pack kayak suited to cramped city living.
Dyson Airblade Tap: A faucet and dryer in one, for a cleaner public-restroom experience.
Automatic: A smartphone-enabled driving assistant for greater gas efficiency.
The Ice Record Project: An album that poetically melts as it plays, by the band the Shout Out Louds.
Lapka: iPhone accessories that can sense if your environment is healthy (or not).
Makey Makey: A circuit-board invention kit that can turn (almost) anything into a mouse and keyboard interface.
Nike Vapor Laser Talon Cleat: The first 3-D-printed football cleat, weighing in at 5.6 ounces
Smile Makers: Cheeky vibrators for women, based on four erotic characters.

The Winner: Leap Motion

Judges in the product category struggled as they weighed ideas with big potential and slender track records versus solid products that were less ambitious but got the job done. Along the way, they took time to salute projects that likely had small business impact but were intriguing solutions to everyday problems--from storing bulky sports equipment in small apartments to selling feminine pleasure devices in family-friendly stores.

Oru Kayak

Joe Gebbia: I might actually consider buying one of these. There’s something nice about the lightness of it. I’m used to seeing cars go by with roof racks, and you look at them and think, Oh yeah, I want to get a kayak, but I need to get a roof rack. This product has kind of sparked something. It actually isn’t that much weight on your shoulders.

Stephanie Wu: In terms of rethinking ways people use or transport a kayak, not only is it really good looking and super functional, but it couldn’t be put in a tiny package.

Jake Barton: How do we think about this in terms of business impact? I don’t think I’m leaping to conclusions to say the kayak market isn’t a big part of the U.S. economy. I have a love/hate thing with the twee aspect of kayaking around an urban space. It feels like an elitist sliver. It’s a game changer in a recreation market, but not in the real world.

Barton: Quite apart from the product itself, this entry shows how the role of video is really transforming things. You see this thing on the water, and the narrative quality really makes it for me.

Lapka

Gebbia: What inspired me the most, when I saw this, is how beautifully they merged these online/offline experiences, striking a beautiful relationship between physical and online worlds. It got my brain thinking, Wow, what else can we measure? What else would we be intrigued to measure? The execution of the hardware is phenomenal. The plastic, the wood, the cord. The little details.

Barton: I think it was the best example of an app. At its core it takes an essential ephemeral, digital experience, then wraps it in a body or carriage, and then wraps that in another digital container which is the storytelling that surrounds it.

Linda Tischler: What if it starts measuring things that we find alarming in our environment?

Gebbia: I think that’s what they intend to do. They just updated the app, and they’re starting to aggregate data.

Tischler: That means it has potentially a big impact in ways that are yet to be realized.

Dyson Airblade Tap

Gebbia: I was so delighted by this. If you look through the lens of innovation, here’s a company and design team that several years ago addressed the issue that anyone who’s gone into a public restroom faces: they made the Airblade. It leap frogged over those horrible blowdryers that were already in restrooms. And now I love how they’ve outdone themselves again.

Wu: This is functional, very original, very innovative, and has a clear business impact.

Barton: Part of the problem with Dyson, if we’re thinking in terms of the top prize, is that this is not even close to Dyson’s most impactful work. It feels like a minor leap forward in the general Dyson oeuvre. The Airblade and vacuum cleaner, and then his fan as well. They’re totally beautiful, engineering based, and functional, but there’s something about it to me that feels like a tweak. Still, that’s cool, and it’s amazing to see a top designer continue to improve himself.

Automatic

Gebbia: This team designed a bridge between a smartphone and a car, two objects where there was kind of a one-way conversation before, and now the car can communicate back to you. If you ever talk to a Prius driver, one of the consistent things they say is that their driving behavior has changed because of the live feedback. What I appreciate is that this has allowed anybody--even those without a Prius--to adopt that behavior.

Barton: The fact that it’s not embedded in the car makes me skeptical. The Prius gets a group of people who care, but the number one design thing they got right is making the object in your vision and ever-present. I was thinking about this product with a certain skepticism because if it’s your phone, you’re not supposed to be looking at it while you’re driving.

Wu: I’m not sure what actionable things the driver should be doing?

Barton: It’s an interface problem. It’s an opt-in thing for what should be an ambient thing. The Prius works well because it’s installed.

Tischler: But not everyone can afford a Prius, so this would give them the opportunity for that functionality for much less money.

Smile Makers

Barton: I thought the campaign was really cute. Within the American world, it’s hard to imagine how to make this type of a product that is appealing and direct but not strange.

Tischler: it’s not being ghettoized into Babes in Toyland. It’s going to be in Sephora, which is not as sleazy as if you’re sneaking up to the second floor somewhere in the East Village. The retail distribution strategy is a great idea.

Wu: It’s a product that’s always been behind the curtain, and they said they can reveal the functionality. They’re taking over a space that traditionally has been very taboo.

Barton: I’m impressed that they’ve taken something that’s been marginalized, and turned it into something that could live at a Target or CVS. That’s pretty powerful. Politically, its lack of apology for female sexuality is pretty impressive.

Gebbia: The packaging design is so strong, I caught myself thinking about giving this as a gift. Then I was like, wait, what?

The Ice Record Project

Barton: It’s such a crazy outlandish experiment that’s working, and if I were GE, there’s a lot to learn. It’s such a boutique piece.

Wu: The packaging is gorgeous, and it’s a smart way to engage.

Gebbia: I love the conceptual nature behind it.

Leap Motion

Barton: Leap is kind of strange in some ways, and to comment hinges on a lot of things: It’s a little hard for me to distinguish between this as product or interactive, because it’s clearly packaged as a product and its experience is digital/interactive. Having said that, the Leap at this point has a lot of promise, but it’s very unclear how much utility is coming out of this. If gesture-based interfaces have significant functional impact, the Leap is right there.

Wu: I completely agree. There have been so many poorly done ones in the past. If it works really well, there’s so much potential. There are so many other things that could build off it and use the technology and it seems like a tool for others.

Barton: Relative to other the contenders, the promise of reinventing the mouse is everything these awards are about.

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