1. Oculus VR
For bringing back virtual reality. When Facebook acquired Oculus VR in March 2014 for $2 billion, onlookers were flabbergasted. No one expected that the company, which began life as a summer 2012 Kickstarter that raised almost $2.5 million, would be anointed as the future of computing interfaces by Mark Zuckerberg. “Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” he said at the time of the deal. “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play, and communicate.”
In the years since the deal, Oculus, which created a virtual-reality headset that puts its wearer in a realistic world with a 360-degree perspective, has been refining its technology and shrewdly courting partners to get people comfortable with VR and showcase what it can do. The second version of its developer kit, released last March, followed by a third-generation prototype that Oculus showed off in September, both dramatically improved the VR experience. It made a deal with Samsung to power its Gear VR device (the first commercially available version of Oculus’ technology), and it has been embraced by the likes of HBO (which used it to create a Games of Thrones experience at SXSW) and Marriott, which created virtual tours of Hawaii last fall. Oculus is already courting Hollywood production studios to make movies for it. In fact, when a giant-robot simulator based on the 2013 blockbuster Pacific Rim debuted at last year’s Comic-Con, it drew so much positive buzz that even the nerds couldn’t complain. And at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Oculus unveiled its Story Studio in-house production team as well as Lost, its first VR film short, which has garnered rave reviews.
For fostering creativity with computers. Twenty-four-year-old Alex Klein’s successful December 2013 Kickstarter produced a highly influential startup last year. Kano is designed to let anyone make their own computer and create their own stuff with it—and do so as easily as creating something in Lego. Kano has brought a level of sophistication and polish to the idea of using a Raspberry Pi controller as the building block of a computer, earning it a Cannes Gold Lion award for product design last summer. After raising $1.5 million to build and sell $150 make-your-own-computer kits (15 times his initial goal), Kano began shipping last fall. It’s found its way to 86 countries thus far.
3. Coolest Cooler
For bringing high-tech fun to the humble beach chest. Ryan Grepper’s supercharged beverage cooler (decked out with a blender, built-in Bluetooth speaker, and more) actually failed as a Kickstarter project in its first attempt in late 2013, falling shy of his $125,000 goal. Good thing he tried again last summer, when he set the all-time record for Kickstarter funding, raising $13.3 million. What changed in nine months? Better timing, for one: Frozen margaritas on the beach aren’t really top of mind heading into Christmas, but they are in the summer. Just as notably, Grepper also streamlined the Cooler, cleaning up its design, improving its speaker and rechargeable battery, and adding a cover for the speaker. Grepper also eliminated a grill that added an unnecessary layer of complexity to the product.
For creating an audio utopia. Roman Mars, the creator of the beloved design-themed radio show and podcast 99% Invisible, has long since proved himself a Kickstarter jedi, having funded the third season of his show in 2012 with a near-record-breaking campaign for publishing and journalism projects. But on the heels of his season four campaign in the fall of 2013, he pledged any funds raised above $350,000 to seed Radiotopia, a collective of storytelling-themed shows like his that together would try to develop the future of public-radio programming. Last fall, he and PRX (Public Radio Exchange, the distributor Mars works with) launched a dedicated Radiotopia campaign to fund a full slate of shows, including Criminal (think Serial but focused on one true-crime story an episode) and the science-and-tech-focused Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything. The campaign outpaced Mars’s first two efforts combined, raising more than $620,000, giving Radiotopia the funds it needs to pursue its promise of further innovating in audio.
For making learning Chinese both easier and more beautiful. ShaoLan Hsueh, a London-based, Taiwan-born entrepreneur, had already amassed a following thanks to her successful 2013 TED Talk, but to turn her idea—that you can break down the character-based Chinese language into building blocks and compounds to make it easier for nonnative speakers to learn how to read Chinese—into products. Her successful summer 2013 Kickstarter helped fund a book, flash cards, and postcards that teach her Chineasy method, which rely on beautiful illustrations to educate students on the most common characters they need to know. ShaoLan has since been able to release editions in English, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish—all in service of her goal of bridging east and west to foster greater understanding between cultures.
6. Superior Motors Restaurant
For trying to revive a town through its stomach. Braddock, Pennsylvania, has the tragic arc of your typical Pittsburgh-area steel town, one whose heyday was in the middle of the American Century and has seen nothing but a long, slow decline ever since. Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa, in conjunction with Braddock mayor John Fetterman, decided to try to open a restaurant in Braddock, a town that doesn’t even have a fast-food joint within its city limits. The mission was also to feed the community in other meaningful ways. The restaurant, Superior Motors, is the hub of what Sousa calls an ecosystem designed to create jobs and provide culinary training to local residents, produce a bustling urban farm, and support his neighbors in revitalizing a stretch of Braddock Avenue. Superior Motors is the sort of thing that once might have been verboten on Kickstarter because it’s overtly creating an ongoing business and is not technically a one-off art project. But its inspiring message resonated with more than 2,000 backers to donate more than $300,000 to Sousa’s restaurant, which will open this year.
For bringing back the beloved Reading Rainbow. PBS quietly canceled the revered children’s TV show in 2006 after 21 seasons on the air. In 2014, host Levar Burton reappeared, not on PBS, but on Kickstarter, with a simple plea: To help revive the Reading Rainbow franchise as an online platform and “reach a new generation of digital natives.” Riding a tidal wave of nostalgia, Reading Rainbow’s Kickstarter soon amassed nearly $5.5 million to fund its crusade against illiteracy, which would take place on computers, phones, and tablets. (Where the eyeballs are, in other words.) Reading Rainbow 2.0’s incredible success gives Burton the juice to do good where it’s needed most. “Five million gives us the ability to give Reading Rainbow products away to 7,500 classrooms that ordinarily can’t afford it,” he said.
8. Warhorse Studios
For bringing players into its game at every step. Games are a perennially well-funded category on Kickstarter, and 2014’s winner was this new Czech game studio and its highly ambitious game, Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The game, which pulled in nearly $1.7 million from more than 35,000 people, is a highly realistic role-play adventure set in 15th century Europe. And once the Kickstarter campaign concluded, Warhorse set about continuing the relationship with its new would-be players. It built its own crowdfunding site, took in $17,000 on its first post-Kickstarter week, and all backers gained access to the game’s alpha version. Most games’ alpha are just buggy, early versions, but Warhorse took a different approach: It is releasing what it calls “tech alpha” versions—essentially near-finished individual parts or mechanics of the game, updated every two or three months, so that funders can truly play around and get acquainted with their new favorite game.
For putting the best footwear forward. Brothers Rick and Neil Levine didn’t want to be just another Internet-based sock brand; they wanted to make the most technically advanced, superior socks in existence. The complexity of their undertaking surprised even them, as it took 13 months from raising just under $100,000 in their 2013 Kickstarter to fulfilling all the preorders. In the end, they “created and shipped 336 separate product SKUs, more than any other Kickstarter undertaking we’ve seen. We tested and dyed more than 100 color/yarn combinations for production, and knitted more than 6,000 pairs of socks on our own machines.” Over 37 sometimes agonizing and anguished updates to backers, they unspooled their story of designing their own machines, sock-design software, and all the necessary software and database backend needed to house all their threading diagrams and “every sock they’ve ever knit.” All that effort produced what is without question comfortable, durable, beautiful hosiery; late last year the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted XOAB a patent for design analysis and float reduction in knitted garments, and XOAB began selling a subset of their designs via Amazon.
For elevating the hardware startup Kickstarter. Sense is the polar opposite of, say, the Oculus Rift. Hello, the company behind Sense, an Internet of Things device designed to monitor your sleep, was a fully formed, venture-backed startup before turning to Kickstarter to generate buzz and preorders for its first product. Although this is still considered controversial by those who think Kickstarter should exclusively be for amateur hackers without access to venture capital, unlike Hello CEO and Thiel Fellow James Proud, Sense represents the maturation of Kickstarter’s platform as a place for all forms of creativity. In theory, products like it should ship closer to their target dates and be of better quality than their predecessors. Aside from what the company represents in terms of more ambitious product available for pre-order on Kickstarter, the Sense device itself is a leap forward in both experience and industrial design in the burgeoning category of Internet-enabled sleep monitors. Rather than having to wear a wristband or put a smartphone under the covers, neither of which are natural behaviors or necessarily conducive to a good night’s sleep, Sense clips a small sensor onto a pillow and then has a striking bedside orb that monitors noise and other bedroom conditions to give its user information on what may have disturbed their sleep so they can remedy it.