LOS ANGELES—Will.i.am sounds congested and subdued, his batteries running low after a high-octane appearance on The Ellen Show earlier that day. He’s longing for 2025, when an artificial intelligence will be able to tell him to take it easy.
“Will, you sound like you are stuffy,” he says in the voice of this fictional AI. “What did you eat recently? Stay away from sweets because they are causing you more mucus. You should get some rest tonight. I’m going to cancel your appointments from 7 pm. I’ve already bought you some epsom salts from CVS. Go and pick them up.”
“That’s what we aim to do with AneedA,” he says.
AneedA is the next big thing from Will.i.am’s consumer technology brand i.am+, known for bizarre flops like a $400 iPhone case and the bangle-like Puls wearable smartphone. The company hails AneedA as a device-agnostic virtual assistant with a conversational interface to the Internet, apps, streaming music, and other services. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the Puls used a basic version of the tech.
The latest version uses Nuance’s speech recognition, Wolfram Alpha’s knowledge engine, and a proprietary machine learning technology secured through the acquisition of Tel Aviv startup Sensiya. Will.i.am plans to pack AneedA into a variety of products, starting with another bangle-like wearable, Dial, that effectively functions as a replacement for a smartphone. Its tiny touchscreen displays minimal information; to launch an app, just to talk to AneedA. Users will pay for a monthly 4G data plan, just as they do for a phone. The device debuts in the UK on May 11 and in the US … later.
But first, Aneeda makes its debut in a tuxedo that Will.i.am will wear to tonight’s Met Gala in New York. This theme of the event, “Manus x Machina,” celebrates the intersection of fashion and technology. “People will probably be walking around with 3-D-printed exoskeletons,” says Adam Derry, Will.i.am’s creative director, “and you might expect Will to hover in and be lowered out of some sort of device, glowing. But we wanted to take a quieter, classic approach.”
If the Suit Fits
When I visited i.am+, a version of the jacket was hanging on a mannequin in small room filled with sewing machines and swathes of fabric. The components driving AneedA—a Qualcomm chipset with cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity, a battery, a mic and a speaker—fit into flat 3-D printed casings embedded into the shawl collar. Pressing a tiny button and speaking in natural language activates the virtual assistant.
Given Will.i.am’s background, it makes sense that AneedA works best with music. She features an unlimited streaming service with a library of more than 20 million songs.
You can ask AneedA to provide news updates, play music, send emails and texts, book flights and order takeout. She remembers previous questions and comments so she can handle complex requests. Tell her “I want to fly” and she’ll ask, “What’s your destination?” Say “New York” and she’ll ask when you’d like to depart, then provide options. The demo worked relatively well, provided you don’t mind shouting at inanimate objects. AneedA offered the occasional unexpected response, including pronouncing Beyoncé with a hard ‘C,’ but company co-founder and president Chandra Rathakrishnan, says the tech will grow smarter as more people use it.
Given Will.i.am’s background, it makes sense that AneedA works best with music. It features an unlimited streaming service with a library of more than 20 million songs. At your command, AneedA will find songs, add them to playlists, book tickets to shows, and find the latest news about your favorite artists. UK mobile carrier Three has said it won’t count the streaming data against a customer’s monthly allotment.
But will that convince people to wear the thing? Sure, millions of smartwatches have been sold, but they are deeply flawed devices with a set of new rules that we’re still figuring out. The wrist-worn wearable is a complicated niche; one that Will.i.am and his cohorts have waded into before.
Second Time Around the Wrist
Reviewers eviscerated Puls, calling it a “wearable nightmare” and “the worst product I’ve touched all year.” Despite launching with great fanfare, the i.am+ team insists Puls was a beta product never intended for mass release. The company stands pretty much alone on this, but whatever the case, it faced an Everest-like learning curve.
“The bottom line is the last product didn’t have a reason for existence and it wasn’t good enough. We are the first to acknowledge it,” says Rathakrishnan. “Having a phone on your wrist just to have a phone on your wrist is not a reason to own another device.” That was the problem: Puls didn’t do anything your phone doesn’t already do better. It was ugly, too, with an atrocious screen and abysmal battery.
This time around, the team tried to design something that offers functions you can’t get on your phone, and emphasized AneedA as voice-based operating system so you don’t have to fiddle with a tiny screen.
The Dial is sleeker than the Puls but still enormous for something you wear on your wrist. Of course, you can only make something so small when you’re working with an AMOLED touchscreen, a front-facing camera for video calls and a removable strap that doubles as the battery pack. Beyond being big, it’s ostentatious. Will.i.am can pull it off, but Chad in HR probably can’t.
Rathakrishnan insists the team used an unusual form factor to push people away from tapping and swiping. Only then will they embrace a new way of interacting with a device. “If you can’t circumvent the behavioral pattern you won’t get anywhere,” he says. “Having AneedA on the Dial, where there is limited screen real estate is the way to be successful with a voice interface.”
The Bluetooth earphones that come with Dial are unremarkable from a tech perspective, but the design stands out. Each earpiece is topped with a distinctive branded disk that contains a magnet. That lets you clip them around your neck when you aren’t using them. Handy. The earphones are immediately recognizable, just like the iPod’s white wires or Beats’ candy-colored headsets.
I wondered aloud if Aneeda could work within the headphones, like the earpieces in Spike Jonze’s Her. Various people on the team nod, suggesting they’re headed in that direction.
“AneedA can live in anything,” Will.i.am tells me later, mentioning a feature, enabled through a separate smartphone app, that lets users “send” AneedA to a tablet or TV screen for a better visual experience. This is important if AneedA is to be embedded in anything without a screen. Like, say, a tuxedo.”If the suit is the device and I need to see a picture, I can tell AneedA to go to an iPad to I can check it out—Wow, thanks—then I can go back in the world with my suit on.”
Another idea is slipping AneedA into a sculptural bust that you might use like the Amazons Echo. “It’s mouth moves and lights up and you can see through transparent black glass into her brain. Yes we’re doing that shit. Maybe you won’t sell millions of them but it shows what’s possible. We have to inspire developers to make stuff for us.”
A talking head. This is the future Will.i.am envisions.
Despite his failed products and clownish persona, Will.i.am is a skilled producer and marketer—it’s easy to forget that he was a founding investor in Beats and instrumental in its inception and success. Sure, those cans didn’t get great reviews and they don’t sound that great, but people love them. Love them. That counts for something.
Still, he’s acutely aware that his celebrity is a help and a hindrance to launching a hardware company. “It’s a gift because it gets you to places you probably wouldn’t have gotten as a startup and it’s a curse because the tech community doesn’t take it seriously. At first it used to bother me. But now, who gives a fuck? Right? Because we obviously have attracted amazing investors and talent.”
And, as they say, haters gonna hate. He’s used to that, too. “If it was about reviews, the Black Eyed Peas would have never been able to sell out stadiums,” he says. “At some point you have to have a thick skin.”
A thick skin, or a really intelligent tuxedo.
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