Blocks’ Modular Smartwatch Designs Teased In New Video

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One of the more interesting wearables lining up to challenge the Apple Watch next year is Blocks, a modular smartwatch conceived by a couple of students from Imperial College in the U.K. — in turn inspired by the Phonebloks/Google Project Ara modular smartphone.

Blocks has released a new teaser video (above) showing a glimpse of how their modular design is progressing. There’s also a longer behind the scenes look at the startup in the video embedded at the bottom of this post via Intel’s Make It Wearable challenge — in which Blocks is one of 10 finalists.

The team has bagged $50,000 from Intel’s competition thus far, in addition to taking in a smaller amount from angel investors, with the chance of upping the Intel windfall to $500,000 if they walk away with the grand prize.

Blocks’ modular concept embeds sensors modules into individual watch links so the user can snap together a custom selection of sensing electronics to wrap around their wrist — with function tailored to their needs, whether that’s fitness tracking, health monitoring, notifications or something else.

It’s intending to offer an open hardware platform where others can build and sell modules to snap into — and extend — the Blocks ecosystem.

As I wrote when I last covered Blocks, the modular concept seems a better fit for the smartwatch category than for smartphones, given that wearable usage priorities are likely to vary more between people, and even day-to-day for the same user.

The consumer electronics space is currently lousy with all manner of wearables — be it step counters, fitness trackers, heart rate monitors or other personal quantification and/or notification devices. Problem is no one is going to want to rock multiple wearables on their wrists — which means a lot of the more generic and limited wristlets will fail as heavyweights like Apple and Samsung duke it out for mindshare, consolidating multiple functions into more capable and slickly designed wearables.

Blocks’ modular twist may just give it an edge in the wearable category over these less creative — and less open — competitors.

That said, the Blocks team told TechCrunch it is now expecting to ship the device at the end of next year — which has pushed on from the mid-2015 timeframe mentioned when last we spoke. And with Apple Watch due in early 2015 that timing puts Blocks on the back foot.

Still, you can’t accuse this wearable of being same-same so if the technical and aesthetic challenges of making a functioning and beautiful modular smartwatch can be overcome then Blocks should still have a shot at pulling in the punters.

“We have done A LOT of work on the aesthetic and comfort, and we are now in a good position about design. We have done tests on the connection protocols and we have finalized them as well. We have also done some work on waterproofing, but it still needs work. Right now, mainly we are working on the operating system and designing and manufacturing the circuits,” said a Blocks spokesperson, discussing some of the product dev challenges.

Blocks still has yet to settle on an OS for the device, and is actively testing different operating systems to see which best suits the concept.

“We are thinking of Tizen, Android Wear, Linaro (The OS Project ARA uses), and also developing our own OS on top of RTOS,” the spokesperson added. “We will do our best, so it can be compatible with Android, iOS and windows phone as we want it to be a truly open platform without limits.”

Blocks will be launching a crowdfunding campaign early next year to raise money to manufacture the product. The cost of the device isn’t firmed up yet but the spokesperson said a core block (i.e. including color touchscreen, processor, Bluetooth) will cost around $120 to $150, while other sensors (e.g. heart rate monitor, step counter) will be around $20 to $40 “based on type”.

Today it’s announcing what amounts to pre-registrations for this forthcoming crowdfunding campaign — for 1,000 people who want to secure the early bird pricing for the device.

It’s terming this a membership program, and charging $50 per member — which will be deducted from any purchase when the campaign does launch. Those signing up as members will also get priority shipment and limited edition fascia on their blocks. The membership scheme will open up to registrations this Thursday.

If you’ve grown tired of marketing dressed up as crowdfunding, this pre-crowdfunding membership scheme is not going to be a welcome development, adding, as it does, yet another layer of pre-production hype.

But, from the startup’s PoV, it’s a way to pull in another cash injection ahead of launching the crowdfunding campaign — in which people will expect to see a functional and pretty polished prototype. Bottom line: hardware development is a marathon not a sprint.

As is the case with any crowdfunding campaign, down-payment-putters should be aware they are pledging money to a product that does not exist yet. And may never make it to market in the way its creators hope or envisage. In short caveat emptor.