Smart jewellery currently encompass a lot of functionality — some will track your sleep, activity and provide notifications, some smart rings focus on NFC, and some are discreet SOS devices.
One area that has yet to be explored in depth is voice communication. And in the same way that films have depicted spies' phone calls for decades, Hong Kong startup Origami Labs is looking to change the way you communicate through the power of bone conduction technology.
The company's ORII ring is currently doing the rounds on Kickstarter — smashing through its $30,000 target with weeks still left to run — and providing potential backers with a way to make calls, send messages and communicate with Siri or Google Assistant by simply holding their finger to their ear. Pledgers will receive a device for $119 if they can catch the early bird offer, which also represents a $40 snip off its eventual retail price.
We spoke with Origami Labs CEO and co-founder Kevin Johan Wong to find out the inspiration behind the smart ring, what makes it different to competitors and what the team is looking to implement in the future.
"Myself and three friends from university started Origami Labs. We set out to create out a device that could help my dad, who happens to be visually impaired and actually worked a lot within voice-to-text technology," said Wong.
"On one hand, ORII is trying to solve a problem and act as a screen-free device that lets you control your smartphone without looking, but it's also a continuation of what my dad was working on - making technology more accessible."
You'd be forgiven for experiencing slight deja vu here, since ORII isn't the first wearable device to try to take advantage of bone conduction tech to simplify your communication. After all, another campaign, the Sgnl smart strap, a Samsung C-Lab spin-off, struck a chord with the crowdfunding community and raised close to $1.5m in late 2016 with its wrist-based bone conduction accessory for both traditional and smartwatches.
As Wong indicated, though, this kind of placement isn't optimal for audio performance.
"We actually have a granted patent which concerns a device that sits on the wrist; that's how we started back in 2015. But we abandoned the concept because the audio quality wasn't good enough — for us it would never become a consumer product.
"The vibration has to travel a long way, through fragmented bone on your wrist and your five fingers. So one of the simplest things that we did was focus on something we call 'the last mile', in other words, one finger, which is better for energy consumption and sound quality.
"Audio is obviously measured by frequency, and by this measure we have two times the range of the wrist — it's 2kHz compared to 4kHz. That's still not perfect — audiophiles are not going to love it — but I think it's perfect for how we're using it. Also, this really impacts volume," he said.
The focus here is obviously on providing users with a different way to communicate with smart assistants, make phone calls and respond to messages, but also involved in the package is the ability to translate languages. However, as Wong explained, this is different from other startups, such as Waverly Labs' Pilot.
"We were very careful about what we built into the software side. There's a lot of products out there promising instant translation, and those are things that we've tried, but they're spotty at best. Once they actually get into users' hands, people will realise how inaccurate it is and realise how unsatisfying the experience is. And that's okay, it's the first generation of that kind of tech.
"But for us, it works how traditional translation would work — you would speak a phrase, say which language you want it translated it into and it will read back out that phrase to you. So it's based off much more fundamental tech, like Google Translation."
As always, whether you should back a project is the fundamental question we try and answer here.
In this case, it's easy to understand why ORII has been a hit on Kickstarter so far - it offers an innovative way to take calls and has the potential to, if it works as it promises, change how people do this in their everyday lives.
Smart rings are notoriously difficult to build. But with Wong noting that the team has worked through 17 prototypes to refine the device to its current stage, it also would appear to be a well thought out design that will begin its pilot shipping in November before its estimated arrival next February.
Between now and then, the company will be ironing out small firmware issues and aiming to meet the stretch goals of its campaign. However, Wong and the Origami Labs team also have one eye on the future, admitting that there are some features that would likely have to wait for the second generation of the ring.
As for the price, it always pays to be an early adopter. And with most devices in the smart ring field operating within a similar price bracket, and perhaps offering less functionality, this certainly doesn't feel like a raw deal. Whether you take the plunge and back the company's bone conduction smarts, of course, is up to you.
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