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Let Will.i.am be a cautionary tale: Celebs should use tech, not design it

i.amPULS
Image used with permission by copyright holder
There are few people left on Earth without some sort of opinion on Will.i.am. Like Bono or Kanye, he’s reached a level of celebrity that makes him impossible to ignore. Some love him, some hate him, but at this point, we’d all be disqualified from sitting on a jury for a case involving the man.

Here’s what I’ll say about Will.i.am: I met him at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show. There, the Black Eyed Pea was officially named the Creative Director for 3D-printing powerhouse, 3D Systems. We met in a little walled-off area on the upper-level of the company’s booth and proceeded to discuss 3D printing for 15 minutes.

In spite of whatever thoughts I had about the man’s music or celebrity endorsement in general prior to that conversation (and believe me, I had plenty of both), I came away with the sincere belief that Will.i.am was truly passionate about technology. He’s passionate about how it can shape young minds, transform society and, naturally, make him look like Star Wars character.

I came away with the sincere belief that Will.i.am was truly passionate about technology.

Celebrity tech endorsements come and go (anyone remember the Lady Gaga Polaroid team-up?) but Will.i.am sticks around. Intel named him a creative director, he helped design a hideous iPhone case that improves the camera, he wrote a song for NASA’s Curiosity rover, and most notably, he bizarrely appeared as a hologram during CNN’s 2008 election coverage.

Listen, they can’t all be hits. But as his own site puts it, “technology is infused into the world of Will.i.am as an essential element. It powers everything that he does.”

Of course, all of this preamble is a nice way of easing into the fact that Will.i.am, for all of his passion, has introduced the world to what is almost universally regarded as one of the worst pieces of wearable technology of all time: the i.amPULS standalone smartwatch. Sorry, “computer on your wrist.”

First and most important, the i.amPULS is still in the early stages. The product’s “Make it Great” program (Godspeed, brave beta testers) is like Google’s Glass Explorer program, in that the company is sending out the product in extremely limited quantities for a sort of public beta testing — a testing that will cost you a pretty penny. In the case of the i.amPULS, that’s $400.

The company sent out the first batch toward the end of last year and a few more recently, which is why you’ve seen reviews pop up here and there. But while the timing is staggered, the hyperbole is pretty similar across the board. As with Glass, such public testing has its positives and negatives, but those notions shift greatly with a product like this.

i.amPULS
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Google, at the very least, had the wind in its sails. People were willing to give the company a little slack based on its track record. When your biggest product to date is I Gotta Feeling, the tech press will be less inclined to find optimism for a product that, on the extremely large face of it, appears to be a train wreck.

But this is a learning experience, right? “We are at the beginning of this journey,” Puls writes with the sort of gravitas deserving of a space race or a celebrity-endorsed wearable. “We are the underdog. We invite you to join us in Making It Great.”

Puls’ product may not have built much excitement around its initial pre-pre-launch without a music star attached, but would that have been such a bad thing? If Puls just wanted product testers, surely it should have waited to pull out the big guns until it had a more usable product — particularly given the fact that Mr. i.am’s track record is starting to get fairly spotty when it comes to tech products.

But let’s take this as a learning exercise: How can Puls and wearable fans learn from the early release of the i.amPULS?

The biggest takeaway is that ever so important and tenuous line between form and function. This is Will.i.am we’re talking about here. Clearly the guy wanted a product that made him look like an intergallactic bounty hunter — or, at the very least, Leela from Futurama.

True story: most people aren’t Will.i.am. For most people, a bracelet the size of one’s forearm just isn’t a realistic solution for day-to-day use.

True story: Most people aren’t Will.i.am. For most people, a bracelet the size of one’s forearm just isn’t a realistic solution for day-to-day use. This is why wrist-worn wearables popularly take the form of watches. Their design has evolved over hundreds of years to present the relevant information while sitting comfortably enough on our persons to go largely undetected when not in use.

Function doesn’t fare much better. As a self-proclaimed wrist-worn computer, i.amPULS users have two unsavory options. One: Walk around carrying a smartphone while wearing what is essentially a second smartphone on your wrist, complete with calling functionality and the secondary carrier subscription. Two: Just ditch that smartphone altogether and rely on the i.amPULS for everything.

It’s tough to know which scenario is less likely, but I’m going to go with number two, seeing as how, by all accounts, the i.amPULS is running a nightmarish UI on a tiny, low-res screen, which makes typing, along with most other things, a hellish chore. There’s a reason most wearable manufacturers regard their devices as being supplementary to the smartphone experience. And yes, there’s a reason smartphone screens keep getting bigger and bigger.

Google’s Explorer program was designed to create apps for what was essentially a blank canvas, a new platform waiting for the right programs to justify its existence. The result was a mixed bag, to be sure, but the company did have some wins with big-name partners.

It’s hard to imagine that the Puls will have won many developer fans by the time it makes it to store shelves. And unless the company manages to pull the most dramatic shift since the Black Eye Peas transformed from an alternative hip-hop group to unabashed pop-stars, the Puls will likely be viewed as a sort of cautionary tale:

Just because we live in an age where any celebrity can conjure up a tech product, doesn’t mean they all should.

Brian Heater
Brian Heater has worked at number of tech pubs, including Engadget, PCMag and Laptop. His writing has appeared in Spin…
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