The 400 ambassadors and 5,000+ future owners of Blocks smartwatches are giving the Pebble community a run for its money. "They're all asking us if they can come work here," says co-founder Serge Vasylechko. "Actually a couple of them have started already. There's one coming tomorrow, a 16-year-old, he's a genius. There's a man with two kids and a family and he's still working for Blocks 24/7."
With two months until the Imperial College London startup ships its first product, Vasylechko and Blocks' industrial design lead Omer El Fakir allowed us a sneak peek at the (almost) final design of the watch and modules.
But over in Taiwan, everything is still being refined, from the connections between the core and the modules and the "baby soft skin" finish of the plastic modules to the buttons and pins – all are still being worked out.
"First impressions count. We want to iron out as many bugs as possible and the software will go through multiple rounds of quality assurance. But we know there's going to be problems when we ship," says El Fakir with a laugh. "If there's one little thing wrong, it kills the product and it ends up in the drawer." That is, Blocks' co-founder chips in, "Unless we have the best customer service in the world!"
If 1,000 people want a module…
Over Taiwanese sweets and coffees in Imperial's Innovation Incubator space, the young team explained how they plan to keep their users in control once the modular smartwatch ships.
"We envision running campaigns on our website or Kickstarter, probably next year, with multiple choices for modules," says Vasylechko, who video chats to Blocks backers around the world. "And basically if we can get 1,000 of any, we can produce it because that's our minimum production quantities. Even if it's the silliest thing you've ever heard of like a smell sensor, we can play with things. We can make some people happy."
It's clear that, while the task at hand is building a smartwatch that won't disappoint the backers who helped Blocks raise $1.6 million last year, there's still plenty more to expect in the next 12-18 months.
Leather or some sort of metallic module finishes look possible, as do new strap experiments. The Taiwan team has Flappy Bird and Temple Run running on the watch and Blocks is "reaching out to developers" as it isn't currently using the Google Play Store. That said, the team "hopes to work with Google in the future".
Allowing companies to build their own modules will come next year, says El Fakir, and Blocks' new head of partnerships is making his way through the list of everyone who has ever contacted them about doing just that. One wearable tech company that he has been in touch with is Pavlok – "There's so much information in these modules to tell if someone's been naughty, GPS, heart rate, microphone…"
Amazon's voice agent Alexa, a headline feature of the CoWatch, built by Cronologics which is supplying the OS for Blocks, is "not immediately usable" as there's no speaker – but the team reckons that with Bluetooth or a speaker module, it could work in the future. "Really the future lies in voice control, voice recognition," says Vasylechko. "Alexa and OK Google will change the way we interact with our devices. Omer's been talking to his phone for three years."
As for the future modules they'd like to see, think anything from body temperature and blood oxygen sensors for athletes to biosensors for medical researchers. An e-ink display for discreet notifications, Misfit style LED alerts or a UV sensor that makes sure you get enough Vitamin D. Even an analogue watch module is on the cards. Seen it on another wearable? You might soon be able to get it on Blocks.
Through the hype cycle
Blocks isn't announcing how many smartwatches it's sold since the Kickstarter campaign. Answers range from "not many" (compared to last year) to "tens of thousands of dollars worth of sales". But the team revamped its website last month and has doubled monthly pre-orders since then as well as running deals with the likes of TNW.
Backers and buyers are in the US (almost 50%), Germany and the UK (another 15% between them) as well as the rest of Europe, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan.
And the pop-up demo tour will be hitting most of these destinations when it begins in London at the end of July. The idea is to let backers play with the product they're waiting patiently for as well as enticing new customers. While I'm at Blocks HQ, a couple of the guys come over to show us some secret stuff they're working on but considering how open the campaign updates are, we're sure ambassadors will be playing with and testing these too before long.
There have certainly been some edits to Blocks' bold ambitions since 2014, whether it's a customisation partnership with British jewellery firm Tateossian put "on hold", or switching from Intel Curie to Qualcomm's Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor.
With so many plans for the future of its open, modular, wearable platform, it makes sense for Vasylechko to stress that Blocks is "in it for the long term."
"I think a lot of people have said smartwatches and wearables have gone through hype and now that's over," he says. "I totally disagree. Any new technology goes through two hype cycles, a small one and a big one. And the big one you don't usually even see it coming because people have already worked out what functionality is actually useful, rather than pure hype.
"Wearables have already gone through this initial hype where they've been in the news but from now, we'll actually see a lot of people getting it right."
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