ELECTRONICS MANUFACTURERS ARE LEAPING FROM MAKING THINGS WE CAN BUY TO MAKING THINGS THAT ALTER OUR VERY WAYS OF LIVING, SUCH AS PHONES WE UNLOCK WITH OUR THUMBS AND ROBOTS THAT TEACH OUR CHILDREN TO CODE.
For changing the way we view the world (and TV). The $350 billion giant has proven that it is working in both the short and long term to change consumers' lives through hardware. Its clever (and incredibly cheap) dongle, Chromecast, lets users beam web video to their TV screens, while Google Glass brings the ultimate possibilities ofwearable computing--and all those '90s sci-fi action movies--to life. Its $3 billion acquisition of smart thermostat maker Nest provided an inkling that Google might eventually bring homes to life, as well.
For using sharp marketing to become China's biggest smartphone maker in just three years.While skeptics point to the Apple-like cult image CEO Lei Jun portrays (he even wears the Jobs-esque outfit of dark shirts and jeans), Xiaomi also poached Hugo Barra, Google's VP of Android product management, to help the company expand its influence overseas. Its products are as in demand as Apple's, selling out its newest phone, the Red Rice, in less than 90 seconds and piling up more than 7 million preorders, leading to more than $5 billion in revenue in 2013.
For reigniting customer passion by transforming its mobile OS and desktop.Besides flattening things out with the beautiful iOS 7 and constructing an ultrapowerful tank of a computer in the redesigned Mac Pro, the king of Cupertino also broke its sales records with the iPhone 5s and 5c--more than 9 million flew off shelves during its first weekend--and brought ultralightweight design to the standard-setting iPad Air. But perhaps its greatest achievement in innovation wasn't its devices, but rather the device controls: The iPhone 5s's fingerprint sensor adds yet another degree of accessibility (and purchase point) to its most coveted product.
For turning tech support upside down. With its Kindle Fire HDX, Amazon not only created a true iPad competitor, it potentially revolutionized customer support. The Mayday feature on the Kindle Fire HDX allows device owners to connect to an on-screen representative in less than 15 seconds, further sharpening Amazon's renowned and relentless focus on customers.
For cracking the mainstream by courting action junkies everywhere. The action-driven camera company strapped its tiny, nearly indestructible, Hero cameras onto just about anything and anyone, including an eagle or two. By putting its HD cameras in the hands of athletes, adventurers, and daredevils, GoPro sales grew to nearly $1 billion in 2013. The company also built out its app, allowing users to seamlessly share their videos with others--just as the marketing-savvy company would like them to--and began a partnership with Microsoft to bring an action-sports channel to the Xbox this spring.
6. LEAP MOTION
For letting users sculpt, sketch, and play with the wave of a hand. While we've yet to see truly radical motion-control technology, Leap Motion, which officially launched last summer, is leading the pack in getting us there. With a tiny flash drive–size controller that costs just $80 and tracks a finger's movement within 1/100 of a millimeter, the company has already become an authority on gesture control in theconsumer-electronics space, snatching up partners like HP and ASUS to incorporate its tech into their laptops. But Leap Motion's Airspace store--where creative apps like DRUMair (for the wannabe rocker) and Freeform (for the hopeful sculptor) abound--is where the real innovation is revealed.
For listening to fans when creating its sleekest, most powerful console yet. The next-gen console war found its gladiators in the PS4 and Xbox One. Amid criticism of its rival being too heavy on the entertainment (and too lean on gaming), Sony released the PlayStation 4 with new sharing and multitasking features--along with a price tag $100 cheaper than the competition. More than 4 million customers chose Sony as the victor.
For changing the definition of "play." These blocks aren't just for kids. Last year, Lego released Mindstorms EV3, its smartest line of robotic creatures yet. As a reward for boldly placing tech like Linux and infrared sensors in the hands of both youngsters and adult fanboys, EV3 has become one the company's fastest-selling lines, and thanks to a partnership with the nonprofit FIRST, roughly 350,000 students in 70 countries are now learning robotics from programmable toys like SPIK3R and R3PTAR.
For reinventing the vacuum (again) and tackling mopping too. IRobot upgraded its Roomba and Scooba lines--the vacuum that squeegees and scrubs the floor. But the company also introduced households to the Braava: a floor-mopping robot that uses recyclable or disposable microfiber clothes to make quick work of dirty floors. Its commitment to invention--and its smart foray into security and military work--helped iRobot's revenue climb by roughly $50 million in 2013 to almost $500 million, while its stock surged 85%. Those are some serious bots.
For rolling out new robotic toys that dart between the digital and the physical.Sphero the robotic ball is so addictively fun, even President Obama has taken it for a spin. But last year, the Boulder, Colorado–based Orbotix wowed kids and geeks everywhere again with the Sphero 2.0, an upgraded, smartphone-controlled orb that moves twice as fast and has double the Bluetooth range as the original. The Sphero 2.0, which interacts with almost 30 smartphone apps that treat physical objects and digital obstacles, helped Orbotix more than double its revenue in 2013. Not one to be stuck in one form factor, Orbotix evolved (again) in January and announced the Sphero 2B: a tubular, two-tired robot that can tumble across rough terrain and leap from steep inclines.