Wearing Android on your sleeve

Ted Ladd on "micro experiences" and wearable computers.

WIMM Labs concept watchThe people behind WIMM Labs believe we’re experiencing a shift toward information immediacy. To meet that shift, WIMM created a new class of personal devices that delivers information at a glance.

The company’s platform for connected, wearable devices is based on the tiny WIMM module, a wristwatch-sized Android-powered computer that has a capacitive touchscreen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, an accelerometer, magnetometer, audible and tactile alerts, and a 14-pin accessory connector.

An early-stage Silicon Valley-based company, WIMM is trying to lead the “micro experience” movement of wearable hardware. The company hopes to license its platform to brands in a variety of industries, including mobile, sports, finance and consumer electronics.

I recently spoke with Ted Ladd, director of developer relations and platform evangelist for WIMM Labs, about the convergence of wearable tech and micro experiences. Ladd will lead a session on “Wearing Android: Developing Apps For Micro Devices” at the upcoming Android Open Conference.

Our interview follows.

What shifts are driving society toward wearable computing?

Ted LaddTed Ladd: We are now connected to the cloud and to each other all the time. Wearable technology makes that connection more convenient and powerful. You can read a recent SMS or pay for your coffee with a flick of the wrist. Or you can track your workout — reps, calories, heart rate — without trying to strap a smartphone to your chest. These technologies are available today.

The value isn’t just from wearable technology; it’s also from the proliferation of Bluetooth-enabled sensors — from heart rate to proximity — and web services that can collect and interpret that data. Wearable technology provides the local hub for these sensors, allows the user to see and interact with the data directly via local applications, and then sends the data to the cloud (with the user’s permission).

What are “micro experiences”?

Ted Ladd: Micro experiences are subtle glances of immediately relevant information. It’s things like looking at your watch to tell the time, looking at the thermometer to see the temperature, or glancing at the speedometer to tell the speed. We have extended this metaphor to wearable computing to help developers design Micro Apps that deliver these glances. Since our platform is built on Android, the challenge when building a WIMM Micro App is not technical. Instead, the challenge is to rethink the features and UX of the app.

Are there downsides to the information immediacy that wearable computers provide?

Ted Ladd: Just like with a smartphone, perpetual connection to the office, to friends, to sensors, and to the cloud has its drawbacks. We are deluged with information. What we want to do is funnel only the most important information into personal snippets that fit subtly into our lives.

What do you see as the first killer app for the WIMM platform?

Ted Ladd: We are a platform company, so our business model is to help existing companies easily design and launch wearable products — using our module at their core. For a fitness company, the killer app is exercise tracking in real time. For the military, it is body sensing, location tracking, and communication. For a theme park, it may be real-time updates on the wait times for popular rides. For a consumer company aiming at business professionals, it might be a context-specific task list. As a platform provider, we try to enable our licensees to create the killer app for their industries.

Now, speaking only for myself, I love the calendar and the Starbucks Micro Apps. They are more convenient and subtle than the apps on my smartphone.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing the WIMM platform?

Ted Ladd: Our device is always on, displaying the time and other possible data on a reflective screen. In this “passive” mode, the device is running on a small microcontroller, which sips power. When I touch the screen, the device launches its full-color capacitive touchscreen and ARM 11 applications processor.

Designing this dual-processor architecture was not trivial. Happily, the user doesn’t see the complex hardware and software processes that make this work. The user only sees the time, and then with a touch, a full computer.

What are some of the obstacles to the adoption of wearable computing?

Ted Ladd: A common thought in the press is that wearable technology will not evolve because the smartphone has already captured the mass market. As evidence, the press cites the perceived trend away from wrist watches, especially among the younger, more digitally connected generation. I disagree. Once people see the current and rapidly evolving functionality of wearables, they will see the value for this class of products as a complement to their smartphones. And as major consumer brands add fashion and extra functionality via hardware and software, the value will become immediately apparent.

What kinds of developer tools do you provide?

Ted Ladd: We are launching our Software Developer Kit soon, which is an add-on to the Android Developer Tools, along with an emulator, sample code, design guidelines, videos, and forum. We also have a Hardware Developer Kit for people who want to design accessories that attach to a WIMM module.

We will also start shipping the WIMM One Developer Preview, which includes the WIMM module, a wrist strap, paddle charger, and cable. This product aims to help developers understand the platform’s capabilities.

Ladd shows off a WIMM module in the following video (demo begins at the 1:18 mark)

This interview was edited and condensed.


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