U.K. hardware startup Blocks Wearables, which is in the process of building a modular smartwatch — shown off in concept-form in this teaser video last fall, and originally inspired by Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone — has confirmed the device will run on a modified version of Android Lollipop, rather than the Google Wear platform.
Also today the team has revealed the device’s core module will be powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 chipset, with peripheral modules using ultra-low-power ARM processors.
The basic idea is to build a customizable smartwatch which allows the owner to choose the individual modules that make up the bracelet to tailor its functionality. (Such as adding in additional battery capacity, or selecting a heart rate monitor for fitness tracking.) The first core module (aka the watch face unit) will be a circular color touchscreen unit.
Blocks is also partnering with U.K. luxury menswear jewelry brand Tateossian to offer further user customization on the design side — via a range of colored/textured shells to jazz up the look and feel of individual modules.
A crowdfunding campaign to help get Blocks’ concept smartwatch built and shipped was due to kick off early this year but that still hasn’t happened — although the team has already taken in some pre-registrations for pre-orders. It now says it’s aiming for a summer crowdfunder.
“It took us some time to sign a manufacturing agreement with [Taiwanese ODM] Compal… to produce Blocks in mass scale at launch,” says co-founder Alireza Tahmasebzadeh, explaining why the delay in launching a crowdfunder. He adds they also decided to wait to get Qualcomm on board, and have been working on refining the connector design (which is used to link the different modules of the smartwatch) in the meanwhile.
“The production will go much faster since we already have secured a manufacturing partner; and all the components and circuitry of the core module (the most expensive and difficult to produce) have already been finalized. The next step is to finalize the details of our modules and start manufacturing. The device will be shipped 7-8 months after the campaign,” he adds.
Blocks is opting for Lollipop rather than Google’s wearable flavor of Android because the former supports more functionality. “For example, Android Wear does not support cellular connectivity, at least yet,” says Tahmasebzadeh. “That’s why we are basing Blocks on a version of Android Lollipop, optimizing it for power consumption, changing the User Interface for a circular display, and adding the necessary changes to Android’s Linux kernel to reflect modularity.”
“Another important reason for using Android Lollipop rather than Android Wear is because we wanted Blocks to be compatible with both iOS and Android (and possibly WP). The future of Android Wear compatibility for iOS is still not certain,” he adds.
What’s left to do in terms of development work at this stage? “Finalizing hardware modules” and, on the OS side, checking the performance of the core module with peripheral modules, according to Tahmasebzadeh.
“The most difficult piece, the core block with process, display and bluetooth, is fully designed and tested. The modular power management system (a system we had developed so that you can attach any number of batteries, regardless of how much charge they have, anywhere in the chain) is also designed and tested. The batteries can be charged individually or all together when the watch is connected to the adapter,” he says.
“The modular platform, communications and power is tested and works as we intend it to. The connectors and the design works and is very comfortable.”
The current Blocks prototype looks like this:
Ultimately, the hardware and software complexities of putting together a functioning modular smartwatch may end up as nothing to the challenge of finding a market for such a highly customizable and therefore necessarily fiddly product — at least outside niche gadget enthusiast circles.
The other key question will be cost, especially as Blocks will be competing with smartwatches (and smartphones) being crammed with ever more sensors as is. So the concept of swapping certain modules in or out might end up being eclipsed by the rising capabilities of rival devices. Not least because of the time it’s taking to get the product to market. (Even Google still hasn’t put Ara in consumers’ hands yet.)
Modularity seems like a fascinating idea on paper but it remains to be proven out in the consumer electronics space where devices needs must be robust and upgrade cycles are punishingly brief.