Blocks modular smartwatch plans November launch, possible Android-based OS, and waterproof design

Jared Newman

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LAS VEGAS—Looking at a chunky prototype of the world’s first modular smartwatch, it’s hard to believe we’ll see a finished product this year. But Blocks Wearables is still planning to ship by November, preceded by a Kickstarter campaign in June.

The five-person startup is building a smartwatch that users can customize through links in the watch band, each containing an optional component such as an extended battery, a heart rate monitor, a microphone, or a cellular radio. These links then form a chain with the core display unit, which also houses the processor, battery, Bluetooth connection, gyroscope, and accelerometer. At Intel’s CES booth, I spoke with Hakeem Javaid, Blocks’ head of business relations and user experience, who brought me up to speed on how the project is going.

Surprisingly, Blocks isn’t certain whether it will stick with Intel processors for the finished product. Blocks has a good relationship with Intel, having won some funding from the chipmaker in a design contest last year, but Intel’s current Edison chip is the main contributor to the current prototype’s excessive bulk. Javaid said that Intel has promised a smaller chip in the future, but Blocks hasn’t ruled out switching to an ARM-based Qualcomm chip.

blockwatchfinal Blocks

Blocks says the finished product will be much svelter than the current prototype.

As for the links in the watch chain, Javaid said Blocks is switching from its current connectors—which plug into one another through headphone jacks—to something more stable. While he wouldn’t say what type of connection it will be, he said it will allow the watch to be waterproof.

I didn’t get a detailed look at the software—its limited functions were all being controlled remotely by keyboard—but Javaid demonstrated how Blocks’ menu system could add or remove features automatically based on the links in the chain. And while the team initially said it would use Tizen, Javaid said Blocks is now considering an Android-based operating system. (The ultimate decision will depend on Blocks' choice of processor, which should be finalized in the next month.) In any case, the plan is to support connections to an iPhone, Android phone, and Windows Phone.

Why this matters: So far, Blocks still has an air of vaporware about it, as we’ve yet to see it fully functional even in its jumbo prototype form. But among a sea of bland smartwatches and trackers in the halls of CES, the modular designs stands out. I’m hoping Blocks can pull it off eventually, regardless of whether it all comes together in 2015.

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