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i.am, I said

i.am, I said
by Don Dingee on 10-20-2014 at 4:00 pm

The tie between rock artists and technology isn’t new. One of the first prominent rockers-turned-entrepreneurs is Tom Scholz of Boston, an engineer who has a couple MIT degrees and several patents to his name. Neil Young is currently out with Pono, attempting to make a higher-resolution audio format based on FLAC encoding to get past the overly compressed and clipped fare standard with MP3s.

When Intel announced Will.i.am as director of creative innovation at CES 2011, a few heads turned. That was the year Intel was all over transcoding with Sandy Bridge, capability to convert streaming video efficiently. They were setting up a partnership with BestBuy on CinemaNow, a service for digital movie downloads, since spun back out.

How did a hip-hop guy manage to photobomb that picture? Outside of appearances, there wasn’t a whole lot of impact Will.i.am had on Intel, at least that we can see. He might have had some influence on the latest tablet advertising campaign targeting a younger, multimedia-saavy creative type, or on the acquisition of Basis in digital health – hard to say. I suspect he was more of a sounding board for Intel management.

 I use the past tense “was” because the honeymoon appears over, or at least Intel is giving him a whole lot of rope to pursue other avenues. Type “i.am” into the Chrome address bar, and we see the answer. Will.i.am went on stage recently at the Dreamforce conference, which seems like an unusual venue until considering Salesforce.com is quietly becoming all about the IoT – the integration of mobile, social, and sensors with services.

Puls is a “cuff”, not exactly a smartphone or a smartwatch, but definitely a wearable. As the site claims, it can do many things – closer in philosophy to a Pebble than anything else so far. Few details are out there on exactly what is in this mystical device, but the buzz is off and running. The Next Web has a good preview on Puls.

It is Qualcomm Snapdragon based, with a 3G connection. It runs Android. It features a curved touchscreen, a trend we wrote about this January. It also has a voice-activated assistant called AnnedA, using Nuance technology. It definitely has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and Will.i.am showed off some “connected clothing” like a jacket and smart shoes.

Also inside the device are GPS and a MEMS accelerometer. The strap serves as both battery and speaker. This makes band changes easy, but the unit might also dock somehow. No mention of NFC, or wireless charging, or much else hardware specific. There are some app wrinkles. It is due for Humin, an app that takes Bump to the next level for contact context, remembering where and how you encountered people and allowing transfer to other Puls users. It also has some indoor navigation capability powered by ESRI.

Puls is coming to an AT&T or O2 store near you for the holidays. One UK pundit asked, not so tongue-in-cheek: why would we buy wearable tech from a musician? i.am+ has quietly assembled a team of 35 engineers working on Puls for over 2 years. Does the value of Will.i.am as front man translate to wearable success?

People laughed when I suggested Beats would go big places, powered by Dr. Dre and Colin Kaepernick and others turning the brand into a must-have. We see how that turned out with the Apple acquisition, after an abortive attempt from HTC. Beats had a much simpler mission: make portable music cool.

A big part of the i.am+ push seems to be fashion. I won’t even attempt to gauge that, but a good piece at Mashable highlights new videos and commentary on the fashion side of Puls.

If a multi-function wearable is going to succeed, it has to be about more than fashion or swag factor. The standalone factor missing in other smartwatches is absent for a reason: those vendors are still selling smartphones as the must-have. Puls being 3G says they are not trying to be a data-streamer for video.

Instead, they may be trying to siphon off the Dead iPod Society with a device less expensive than the iPhone but targeting the Beats crowd. One of the capabilities of AneedA is categorizing music on the device, by voice command instead of the funky wheel interface.

This also says that we may see tiering in carrier plans. The M2M crowd is well aware that 4G is way too expensive for most sensors that chunk data instead of stream it. No matter how convincing Lily is, 30GB of data to your wrist every month is complete overkill, especially if Wi-Fi syncs with Google Play Music or another service. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a “wearable plan” shortly, dialed back for 3G levels.

I’m not a hip-hop follower, but I can see Will.i.am having a lot of drawing power here from a marketing standpoint. Does Puls get your attention, or is it just so much noise?

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