​Does modularity work for wearables?

And if it's where things are heading, what exactly will it look like?
​Does modularity work for wearables?

From Lego to making a sandwich; there is something deeply appealing about assembling something to your tastes from separate components. And this concept is now trying to find its way into the tech world.

Sure, fancy DSLR cameras and high-end PCs have always have a semblance of modularity, but we are now seeing it creep into everyday gadgets to stand out from the crowd and cut down on the churn of tech.

Google's Project Ara took a punt at this; the search giant attempted to create a modular smartphone based on swappable components, like cameras, battery packs, and speakers that can be slotted into a base handset on the fly. The concept looked great, but sadly Google had to can the project this year after it became unfeasible to bring the concept to consumers.

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LG was left to pick up the modular torch with its G5 flagship. The smartphone sports the ability to slot in a bigger battery pack, Hi-Fi speaker unit, and a camera extension. It's not quite the customisation mix project Ara promised but LG at least gave it a whirl.

So, it's no surprise that modular tech is now finding its way into smartwatches, fitness bands and smart jewellery. But it's still to be seen if modularity can succeed with wearables, when it has failed a bit with smartphones.

Ben Woods, chief of research at CCS Insight, told us that despite the appeal of customisation that modular wearables offer, the challenges and faff around dealing with multiple components makes him sceptical that modular wearables will live up to their promises in the cold light of day.

"On paper the concept of modular devices provides benefits on numerous fronts. Foremost amongst these is the ability to modify your device whenever you like allowing completely flexible configurability as well as a smooth upgrade path to new technologies," he said.

"Additionally it is frequently contended that modular devices offer a more environmentally friendly [option] as you do not need to dispose of a device completely when you want to upgrade it.

"Unfortunately, the reality tends to be that modular devices tend to be a compromise. You get a bulkier device that struggles to offer a refined experience with technology that lags integrated [products]."

So are you better off sticking with swapping the straps of an Apple Watch rather than assembling a smartwatch in the tech equivalent of a flatpack Ikea wardrobe?

Building Blocks

Does modularity work for wearables?

Well, there is one startup that could make modular wearables work: "Since the demise of Project Ara the main company we are watching is Blocks which has been working for some time developing a modular smartwatch," said Woods.

"This is a project we backed on Kickstarter at its inception as we felt it was one of the more interesting efforts to push the envelope on modular tech. As with all similar projects it is significantly delayed but we wait with eager anticipation to see the resulting product," he added.

We had a gander at Blocks earlier this year, to get a feel for the modular smartwatch the startup is developing. While we had to reserve judgment until the device is complete, the idea that you can hot-swap modules that form the watch's strap, to opt for a boosted battery, GPS component, heart rate monitor or even an environment sensor, means you can create a smartwatch customised for specific situations.

Basically, Blocks' approach means you can have a smartwatch with functions you want to use, rather than redundant features; think the bloody Stocks app Apple took forever to remove from iOS.

Better still, Omer El Fakir, Blocks' industrial designer, told us there's more to come from the ambitious startup.

"Modular wearables also open the doors to an open platform, which is what we envision with Blocks; giving developers and third party companies the ability to also build modules for the device, that could allow incredibly novel technologies to see the light of day much sooner than if they had to be built into a completely new wearable device," he said.

If Blocks manages to pull-off this open source approach then we could be looking at all manner of interesting modules appearing.

Fancy more fitness features for your Blocks watch, then you could potentially opt for a Nike+ module; want to contactless payments but Blocks doesn't offer it? No problem, just add on the payment module. There's no shortage of potential if Block can establish a community of enthusiasts and big companies all working on modules for its wrist wearable.

Nex big thing?

Does modularity work for wearables?

Community is the key to Mighty Cast's Indiegogo-funded wearable, the Nex Band, which has also adopted the pix-and-mix modular approach.

Looking a bit like a costume prop for a budget sci-fi show, the Nex Band is a modular wristband designed to control a smart home.

Similar to Blocks, the band houses five small modules called Mods, which each have a touch sensitive colour display and can be programmed to carry out what the company is calling ''hacks'.

In truth these hacks are little more than a means of using an IFTTT web interface to programme chains of conditional commands known as recipes into the Nex Band's accompanying app. Different taps, swipes or basic gestures on modules can be made to trigger functions such as answering a call on a connected phone to interacting with a whole range of smart home devices, including Philip's Smart Hue connected lighting system.

While the Nex Band is focussed on smart home controlling, its overarching goal is to create a community of hackers working on adding more functionality into its modules. These could include social features and Mods linked to games, as well as Mods from big companies using them as add-on items to their apps, gadgets or other services.

This community concept has worked before in the tech world with people making all manner of systems with open source code and Raspberry Pi microcomputers. Gamers have turns into amateur designers after developers like Valve opened their game engines for so-called modders to mess around with to create add-ons and overhaul existing games. There's no reason why this can't work for wearables, especially if common programming tools are used.

The Pebble Smartstraps offer a middle ground of third-party swappable straps for the Pebble watch to add in new functions like GPS, heart rate monitoring and contactless payments.

Fashion darling

The biggest hurdle for modular wearables seems to be on the hardware side. Blocks may offer a more interesting take on the smartwatch than the likes of Samsung ant Motorola, but there's no getting around the fact that its modular approach makes it chunkier than less customisable wristwear.

This added bulk makes it difficult for modular wearables to win in the aesthetics arena, which could be a problem if they want to find mass appeal.

The Apple Watch got popular partly because it looks stylish, so what modular wearables need to do is take a few cues from the fashion world, after all people do like to assemble and customise the outfits they wear.

Imagine a necklace with health monitoring modules hidden in pearls, or a bracelet made up of concentric rings, each one offering a function like step counting, vibrating alerts or near field communication (NFC) but hidden behind a tasteful Dior-style design.

Apart from the Altruis modular smart jewellery system, unfortunately smart jewellery tends to be a tad gaudy or limited to basic and fixed functions.

And Woods doesn't reckon that's going to change either, with fashionistas likely to stick with Omegas and Mulberry accessories rather than the latest crowd-funded wearables.

"We believe modular wearables tend to reside in the geek-ware rather than fashion-wear category. They have huge appeal to early adopters but at present have little chance of becoming a mainstream phenomenon," he said.

Ain't easy being different

Does modularity work for wearables?

Another big hardware challenge is the practicality of making modular wearables. Manufacturing loads of different components at scale is a pain, even if you're an old hand at it; Samsung and the exploding battery problems it had with the canned Galaxy Note 7 is a good example of that.

Tooling factories, offering support and simply lugging around multiple modular components presents a logistical nightmare.

And what does a company do when it produces a dud module that won't sell? Sure, the motion tracker module of your smartwatch might be in high demand but what happens with all the sundial modules you produced; perhaps that was a step too far for the targeted hipster market. Modular wearables might cut out the need for near-annual upgrade cycles, but having warehouses full of unwanted modules doesn't exactly cut down on tech wastage.

Blocks is looking at working around this, but delays to its launch demonstrates the modular route isn't easy.

"To produce modular wearables at scale requires some elements to be standardised to ensure their compatibility with each other, and also to ensure that they can be sustainably manufactured," said El Fakir.

"In our case, we designed and developed our own proprietary connector technology to enable our core and modules to be combined together. The design of our modules and embedded electronics has also been standardised, with allowances made for the different features that could potentially be built into them. Most importantly, we developed our communication protocols to ensure that they would be able to support any type of module feature for the forseeable future. These different elements took years to finalise, and were definitely the most challenging aspects of producing such a device."

Modular future?

Lego has survived in the face of games consoles and iPads, because children and adults, yes adults, like to assemble things in the way they want, and with Blocks appearing to have overcome some of the challenges to making modular wearables, the appeal of customising your own tech is not likely to go away.

However, modularity isn't going to find its way into Apple or Samsung wearables any time soon, according to El Fakir: "The short product cycles and planned obsolescence that dominates bigger companies makes it incredibly unlikely that they would pursue a more modular approach like Blocks."

But that means there's more scope for smaller tech makers to spread their wings in pushing modular tech into other wearables and win favour with Kickstarter backers.

"We can see modular wearables easily extending to our clothing, particularly in fitness related applications. Trainers with pressure sensor modules or advanced accelerometers, sports attire with all manners of replaceable bio-sensors, or other features such as GPS, NFC or built in cameras," he said.

"Smart helmets, or AR and VR headsets, could all be built as modular devices, allowing users to add or remove features as they see fit. We truly believe that a modular revolution is upon us!"

We'll have to wait and see if Blocks is right about that. If it is the case, longer-term modular components might be the shot in the arm wearables need to move fully beyond the now familiar smartwatches and fitness bands.


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