Top products of 2013 – annual Breakthrough Awards

  • A: Pebble smart watch
  • B: Cub Cadet RZT-S Zero mower
  • C: Otherfab Othermill
  • D: Seiki 50-inch 4K TV
  • E: Thalmic Labs MYO
  • F: Makerbot Digitizer 3D scanner
  • G: Booster Boards longboard
  • H: BMW i3
  • I: Xbox One
  • J: Rust-Oleum Neverwet liquid repellent
Date:21 December 2013 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Whether developed in a garage or in the lab of a multinational corporation, these are the most innovative and transformative products of 2013, as recognised in PM’s 9th annual Breakthrough Awards.

A. Pebble smartwatch (R1 500)
It doesn’t promise the in-your-face info stream that Google Glass does, but at one-tenth the price, the Kickstarter-funded Pebble smartwatch may introduce more people to the benefits of wearable technology. The Pebble’s e-paper display links to a smartphone via Bluetooth, allowing users to control their music, view text messages or tweets, and screen calls. And thanks to a software development kit, programmers can create apps to run on the watch. With just a twist of the wrist, a user gets a quick and stealthy peek at the wider world.

B. Cub Cadet RZT-S Zero mower (R45 000)
The RZT-S Zero combines cutting-edge innovations: it’s a steering wheel-controlled, zero-turn mower that is entirely electric-powered. A 48-volt battery pack powers four brushless motors – two for the rear wheels and two for the blades inside a 107 cm deck. The design enables 60 minutes of near-silent operation, which is ideal for early-morning mowing, when temperatures are cooler. A steering wheel, rather than traditional lap bars, operates all four wheels for ultra-responsive control. Once the mower is fully discharged, it plugs into a standard wall outlet for overnight recharging.

C. Otherfab Othermill (About R15 000)
Desktop manufacturing isn’t limited to 3D printers. The Othermill brings affordability – and portability – to computer-controlled milling with a three-axis machine that’s smaller than a toaster oven and about as quiet to operate. The mill uses standard 3 mm shank bits, such as those used by Dremel rotary tools, to cut away layers of metal, wood, wax and plastic from above. Thanks to high tolerances of up to 0,025 mm, it’s well-suited for creating electronic and mechanical prototypes.

D. Seiki 50-inch 4K TV (R13 000)
Seiki who? When we first heard that this previously unknown discount television company would offer a 4K TV for less than R15 000, we were sceptical. Then we saw it with our own eyes, and it’s the real deal. Major electronics manufacturers were planning to introduce similar-size ultra-high-definition (3 840 x 2 160) sets at prices around R50 000, but Seiki beat them all to market with a no-frills TV that has no Internet connectivity and no 3D – just super-high resolution at a good price.

E. Thalmic Labs MYO (R1 490)
Just like the Xbox Kinect sensor and the Leap Motion Controller, the MYO turns human motion into digital control. Unlike those technologies, however, the MYO is not confined to a room or a desktop. The bracelet uses a variety of motion-tracking sensors to measure the position and orientation of a user’s arm in space. More remarkably, it senses the electrical activity of muscles that corresponds to finger movements, allowing for complex gesture controls such as pinch, point and grasp. The possibilities for this device range from first-person gaming to sifting through large data sets, Minority Report–style.

F. MakerBot Digitizer 3D scanner (R14 000)
One of the companies that made it easy to turn data into matter with 3D printing is making it just as easy to turn matter into data with a 3D scanner. The Digitizer creates a high-resolution 3D image of any object that fits within its 20 x 20 x 20 cm scan space, and then turns it into a virtual 3D model for editing and printing. At R14 000, the Digitizer costs a fraction of the price of industrial scanners and can sit on a desktop. When used with a 3D printer – such as its sister product, the Replicator 2 – it effectively becomes a Xerox copier for solid objects.

G. Boosted Boards Longboard (R13 000)
At 6,8 kg, this motorised longboard created by PM Backyard Genius honourees John Ulmen, Matt Tran and Sanjay Dastoor may be the lightest battery-operated vehicle on earth. But it’s no novelty: powered by two 0,97 kW brushless motors, the board has a range of just under 10 km, a top speed of 32 km/h, and a recharge time of 2 hours. It’s a smart, no-sweat form of alternative transportation for short commutes.

H. BMW i3 (R422 750)
With a range of up to 160 km from its lithium-ion battery pack, the BMW i3 is a lot like other electric vehicles. What’s innovative is the way it’s built: a passenger cell made from carbon fibre-reinforced plastic means a kerb weight of around 1 270 kg – light for any kind of car. And by re-examining the production process all the way down to the raw materials, BMW found a way to offer a car made from exotic materials for a little over R400 000. Affordable, mass-produced carbon fibre has the potential to make every vehicle safer and more fun to drive. The i3 goes on sale in Europe soon and will be available locally from April 2014. No pricing yet.

I. Microsoft Xbox One (R5 000)
Some products are evolutionary, others are revolutionary. The Xbox One is both. The most notable improvement is the new Kinect sensor, which is integral to the operation of the console. It can see in total darkness, track the fine movements of your hands and muscles, and even sense your heartbeat. Gamers may have taken issue with the Xbox One’s price and paywall restrictions (some features require a R500-a-year subscription), but technologically, it’s a huge upgrade from its predecessor. The platform is so advanced that developers have barely begun to grasp all its possibilities.

J. Rust-Oleum NeverWet liquid repellent (R200)
A spray-on coating may seem humble, but this superhydrophobic treatment is so effective that it has virtually limitless potential. NeverWet’s nanotechnology repels moisture at a high contact angle, meaning that droplets won’t flatten out and saturate a surface. It’s not a permanent finish and it doesn’t dry completely clear, but spray it on wood, metal, plastic, concrete or even circuit boards, and any water-based liquid that comes into contact beads up like mercury and rolls right off.

Related material
* Interview with Breakthrough Leadership Award winner Peter Diamandis
* Top innovators of 2013 | annual Breakthrough Awards