Musician will.i.am was on hand at International CES, the tech industry's largest convention, to talk up his new wearable device, the Puls. Puls is a standalone wearable that lets you send e-mail, text messages and social media updates as well as make phone calls -- all without having to pair it with a smartphone thanks to a partnership with AT&T. The gadget runs a custom Android-based operating system called AneedA, which is also the name of its voice assistant software. The device pulled a lot of criticism when first announced in the fall, but will.i.am's company, i.am.plus, showed up at this week's show with a much more polished version. Right now the gadget is in a sort of beta mode, and those interested can apply to purchase it online for $399.
The recording artist -- whose company designed the cuff with voice recognition firm Nuance Communications -- describes it as a a "fashion first" computer on the wrist that pulls inspiration from classic Chanel, Fendi and Gucci bracelet designs. He spoke to The Switch's Hayley Tsukayama about the Puls, the wearables market in general, and the tense relationship between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hayley Tsukayama: Looking at the wearables market, fashion is something that has been lacking. When you looked at designing this, what were some of the fashion elements you wanted to have?
will.i.am: We wanted to make it reminiscent of 1980, 1990, 2000's pop culture. This is everything from a punk rock [wristband] but the silver spikes. It's everything from high fashion -- the only thing that's missing are the designers' initials.
The folks in the tech world ignore the fundamentals of fashion. They never had to adhere to them because they never made anything you put on your body. They didn’t say, “here’s this laptop, wear it as a hat.” They didn't say, "here's a smartphone, wear it as a tie." Now we’re entering this world where someone is suggesting that I put a piece of technology on my body. Fashion should be first, and that’s what we took into consideration.
Let's talk target audience. Who will want to pick this up?
There’s fashionistas, anybody that has a Chanel cuff. Those cuffs are big -- the same size as this -- and they do nothing at all. That’s our audience.
And anyone trying their hardest not to pick up their phone in the car, who really wants to communicate without having to touch a button. That’s our audience. Anybody that’s on a hike, walking up a mountain. That’s our audience. Anybody at the club with their phone in a bag, who then goes home and argues with their boyfriend or girlfriend — “I didn’t hear the phone ring, ‘cause it was in my bag.” That’s our audience.
Could you show us, maybe just send a tweet over the watch?
[To Puls] Compose tweet.
ANeedA, on the Puls: Sure, what’s your tweet?
[Dictating] Get ready to rock at live tonight dot dot dot I’m DJ dot dot dot Bring the freaks dot dot dot Bring the geeks.
You’ve become fixture at CES, you’re here all the time. But the music industry and tech industry don't always get along. You have really embraced these partnerships; can you talk about that?
Southern California and Northern California have always been at odds with each other. Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley and Silicon Boobs. They’ve always been fighting with each other. And that’s because of lawsuits.
But our industry forgot that they were [originally] technology. The music industry, in 1990, forgot that RCA was the first Apple. RCA came from GE. And GE was [Thomas] Edison. Now in today's industry it's [Google founders] Sergey [Brin], Larry Page -- Steve Jobs was Edison. But we forgot.
It was [in the 90s] when Napster came around, I remember. We were in Santa Barbara and someone says, "Oh, I like your new Black Eyed Peas album." And I was like, “You don’t have that. It’s not even out yet.” And they were like, “Oh, we have it on Napster." Well, what the hell is Napster? I remember all the lawsuits flew from Southern California to Northern California.
Then, I remember, I walked into a club in 2001, some girl was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the guy that created Napster.” So I went up to Sean Fanning, and we became friends. He’s the guy that introduced me to Larry [Page] and ever since then, I made friends with the folks in Northern California. Few of us have been accepted, because for years our industry sued the hell out of the Bay. And they didn’t need to.
Why is that?
Lawsuits were more effective in their brains instead of recognizing a new paradigm. In my opinion, we were never selling music. Our music was on hardware — vinyl or CDs — and we were selling hardware the whole time. It rings true now. On iTunes, we just sell more iPhones and iPods. And Apple products.
We all forgot and thought the product was the song, because of how much money we made when we sold CDs -- because in the 90s everyone had to buy albums all over again. They got so greedy with this abundance of cash that was coming out of nowhere. Yes, the songs, publishing -- that's what remains still powerful [for the music industry] today. But publishing was always powerful because it sold sheet music, and sheet music sold pianos and violins. It was always hardware that music was supposed to sell.
That's the reason I’m so passionate about hardware now; it helped us start Beats. Music is something you do at a bar or at the club and you do for fun. Or you do it for passion and you write because you love it. Not because, you know, [of the money.] It should have never been that. There are a lot of musicians out there that say, "You don’t know what you’re talking about." But I’ve proven I know what I’m talking about because I understand the constructs of our industry.
Let’s go back to the wearables. Looking at the future...
Oh, wait a sec. Is this whole interview just gonna be the last thing I said, and nothing about the wearables?
No, no, I promise not.
Because that was juicy!
I promise! Looking at the wearables market in the next 5-10 years...okay, that’s a long forecast for tech, but you can adjust the timing as you see fit.
Let's say four years. Four years is…well, that's [the whole history of] WhatsApp. Eight years is Twitter. Twelve years is Apple, iTunes. So, looking at four years from now... Look, there's bunch of wearables right now. Some of them are terrible.
We won’t name names…
Some of them are terrible, some of them are cool. Some of them are clunky, some of them are chunky. Some of them are toys, some of them are promising. But that’s because it’s the beginning. Just like it was, like, 2002, and there was a bunch of mp3 players. Some of them were wack, some of them were big. Some of them were really awesome. It was just so early.
Right now we’re really early in the wearables space. Let’s say we’re like a year in, really. So four years from now, it’s not going to be [only] on your wrist, in my opinion. It’s going to start on your wrist and it’s going to grow. Up the sleeve, on the jacket, on the shirt. On a belt. You’re gonna have wearable attire. Apparel.
So all your clothes will be smart.
It’s going to be wearable apparel. Apparable.
You should trademark that right now.
Make a note...[indicates the Puls]
Send a text.
What do you want it to say?
[Dictating, after changing his mind about wording once.] Trademark apparable, like wearable. But everything apparable, with computing. Boom.
Okay. I changed your message to say, "Trademark apparable, like wearable. But everything apparable, with computing. Boom.” Now, do you want to send it?
That just transcribed a word you made up.
That’s that Nuance. Boom.
Okay, thanks. I think we’re good -- unless there's anything else you want to say?
No. I think that demo was pretty [redacted] awesome.