Consumer tech is languishing in a limbo created by cliché marketing and a refusal to innovate. And this is why the past year too saw a flurry of products across various categories — especially smartphones — that were almost predictable. However, there were a few exceptions that came as a breath of fresh air. Here is our pick of the most innovative tech products of 2023.
Apple Vision Pro: Before its debut, many theories were circulating, suggesting that Apple was making a mistake by launching a headset with no clear purpose. However, after the headset’s announcement, those who were criticising suddenly had a shift in perspective. The success or failure of a product is one thing; the Vision Pro is set to launch early next year and will retail for $3,499. No matter what people may say, Apple has taken a risk with the Vision Pro mixed-reality headset when the iPhone is at its peak. Now, whether the iPhone will coexist or get replaced by the headset, we don’t know, but at least Apple has taken a bold step by switching to a platform that could be the beginning of the spatial computing era. Sure, early hands-on demonstrations of the headset (and those who tried it) seem positive, but the truly exciting part of the Vision Pro is how you interact with the device. Just like how the iPhone brought pinch-to-zoom and made it the default form of interaction on mobile, Apple has figured out a way to interact in 3D space using your eyes and without a control device. That is a head-turner, which is why the Vision Pro made it to our list of the most innovative devices of 2023.
Humane AI Pin: Time is running out for smartphones – at least, that’s what Imran Chaudhri from Humane tends to believe. Chaudhri, a former Apple designer, shocked the world when he announced a $700 AI Pin, pitched as a smartphone alternative. However, there’s a catch – it’s only a viable alternative if you are willing to clip the AI Pin to your shirt. It uses voice controls, touch controls, and a camera to sense the wearer’s intentions, listens to your requests like Google Assistant, searches the web, translates your speech, and projects an interface right onto your hand. The AI Pin behaves like a smartphone but attaches to your shirt instead of being in your pocket. It could be a great hit and replace the smartphone with a clippable AI wearable, or become the biggest hardware failure of our times. Whatever outcome may come, the AI Pin does highlight the need for a replacement of smartphones, which have become predictable and boring. Alternatively, it could be the worst idea to replace our smartphones, which are already so good at what they do.
ChatGPT and Generative AI: The arrival of OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI Chatbot is both exciting and fearful at the same time. Unlike Google, ChatGPT can have long, open-ended text conversations on virtually any topic using prompts, making the technology feel more human. However, the large language models behind this technology raise obvious questions about the future. Will AI take our jobs? What happens to human creativity? Despite fears of artificial intelligence and how one looks at where this technology is headed, generative AI—or conversational AI—will be embedded inside every product that’s going to be released in the future.
Journal app: Journaling is extremely personal; it holds some of the most haunting memories as well as memorable chapters of a person’s life. It’s a choice of habit, not a forced one. The practice of keeping a daily journal is nothing new, but when Apple announced a dedicated Journal app for the iPhone, journaling made it back into popular discourse. The purpose of the app is to get started with journaling and pen down personal entries whenever you feel like it. It’s a “feel-good” app which makes a point that you prioritise journaling over other mindless activities. The app may be too simplistic but gets better with suggestions and prompts based on your photos and locations. Journaling is a great way to heal your wounds when you pour out your thoughts with no filters.
Sony Access controller for PS5: Sony’s access controller for the PlayStation 5 might not have made as big of a splash as a highly-anticipated AAA title, but it definitely is a conversation starter. After nearly five years in development, the adaptive gaming controller, formerly known as Project Leonardo, is designed to make gaming easier for those living with a disability. Its design is more accessible than a DualSense controller for the PS5, featuring a joystick along with 22 swappable components that allow players to fully customise it. The controller is round, lightweight, and compact, and can be placed on any flat surface instead of being held or gripped like a traditional controller. Although not the first accessible gaming device, Sony’s access controller shows that our tech products should be designed in collaboration with disabled people and experts so that everyday tech limitations don’t impose barriers on players who don’t fit into a specific use case.
Nokia G22: In a tech landscape where brands have made smartphone repairs extremely complicated and expensive, here comes a phone that can be fully repaired in a few minutes, all by yourself. The Nokia G22 was born of the idea to make common smartphone repairs easy—be it replacing a broken screen, charging port, or battery—without needing to go to a specialist. It’s a big deal because smartphone manufacturers have intentionally made phone repairs overly complicated, leaving people with no choice but to upgrade to a new device if the older one breaks or stops functioning. That’s why the launch of the Nokia G22 was a stepping stone in making phone repairs accessible using just a few tools.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom: If history has anything to tell, sequels of popular games have been hit-or-miss. But Tears of the Kingdom – the latest game in Nintendo’s Zelda series – was an exception. Nintendo spent six years on Tears of the Kingdom, and the hype was real. Not only did the game break many records and bring in billions of dollars, but Tears of the Kingdom also drew attention to a different mechanic that could have a mammoth effect on the franchise at large. What makes Tears of the Kingdom so different, and unlike other blockbuster games, is that it pushes the potential of open-world gaming and requires a tinkering mind to solve a huge sandbox puzzle.
Teenage Engineering TP-7: The TP-7 is made as a field recorder, meant for capturing audio during interviews, sampling sounds, recording music performances, or capturing voice notes, but using this device could be an experience in itself. Like Teenage Engineering’s other products, the TP-7 is weird, beautiful, and expensive. It gives you a vibe of an old-school device like a tape audio recorder. What’s intriguing about the TP-7 is the disc in the centre (or a wheel) that spins like a tape reel while the device is playing or recording. It’s made from a brushed steel case and an orange leather back that gives it a premium feel. The TP-7 comes with an iPhone app that transcribes spoken word recordings without any charge. The existence of TP-7, essentially a fancy dictaphone, shows that Teenage Engineering doesn’t conform to market norms. It feels like a product such as the TP-7 can coexist with a smartphone that can capture audio. But the difference between Teenage Engineering’s $1,499 tape audio recorder and what others are doing is the zest to do things differently on your terms.
OnePlus Open: Foldables are not yet so mainstream, and the OnePlus Open won’t change that immediately. However, the OnePlus Open has fixed certain things that had plagued past flagship foldables. That itself is positive news for foldables as well as for the smartphone market, which is going through a rough patch. OnePlus Open was the company’s first attempt to break into the foldable market, and the device didn’t disappoint. Not that the OnePlus Open was perfect; it too had issues, but what it did right was bridging the gap between a foldable phone and a normal phone. Users wanted a thin-and-light foldable with good multitasking support and a nearly crease-less screen, and OnePlus delivered on that front.
iPhone 15 Pro’s Action Button: Not the camera, the performance, but a little programmable Action button was the most innovative thing about Apple’s flagship iPhone 15 Pro. It may not be fancy technology — it’s just a button — but its impact was so huge that it changed how one could use the iPhone differently. Think about using ChatGPT or your favourite app by pressing the Action button. By default, the Action button on the iPhone can only trigger one action at a time but can be additionally programmed to activate other features, including the camera or opening a note. The Action button is both a clever and interesting hardware feature in years and perhaps the best feature of the iPhone 15 Pro.
Sonic Lamb headphone: Created by an Indian startup, Sonic Lamb is a high-fidelity headphone that rethinks how audio is delivered to the user. It uses an additional proprietary driver that converts audio signals into mechanical impulses, transforming its unique earpads into a virtual diaphragm. This means users and listeners can now feel the music through what it calls “wooferpads”. To innovate in the audio space is difficult, and for an Indian company to do that is laudable.