Spotlight on BLOCKS: “The world’s first modular smartwatch”

07 OCT 2015

It is set to be a busy few days for Alireza Tahmasebzadeh, founder of BLOCKS, who is preparing to take his creation, “the world’s first modular smartwatch”, to a US Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign next week.

The 22 year-old Iranian start-up entrepreneur, dubbed as the man taking on the Apple Watch, studied at London’s Imperial University on human interaction and neutral interfaces, before founding and inventing the wearables start up in November 2013.

BLOCKS, based in London and arguably born in Tehran, will launch its first round of crowdfunding next Tuesday, and Tahmasebzadeh is confident, claiming  “there is definitely capacity for a multi-million campaign given the amount of interest we’ve had already”.

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Ahead of the launch, Tahmasebzadeh and his team have been working to secure vital partners, which now include Taiwanese supplier Compal to manufacture BLOCKS at mass scale, as well as Qualcomm to power the device core with the Snapdragon 400 chipset. The smartwatch will also run on a modified version of Android Lollipop.

Tahmasebzadeh spoke exclusively to Mobile World Live ahead of the long-awaited campaign. Here, he provides our readers with an insight on the advantages of BLOCKS over an Apple Watch, his hopes for the kickstarter campaign, and some of the other technologies that could come to this innovative wearable in the near future.

MWL: What is BLOCKS? How has it been developed to be ready for your Kickstarter campaign next week?
Tahmasebzadeh: Basically, we are creating the world’s first modular smartwatch. The problem with today’s smartwatches and the technology available is there are too many different features that can be put into a wearable device, but the whole device is limited by size. No company can put all the desired features and sensors into a watch. Users are then forced to compromise on the features they really need, and select a few of the sensors that fit their idea of the ideal device.

We thought that this needed to change.

So our smartwatch is based on the core, and this watch face has all the functionality of other smartwatches. This includes notifications, activity tracking, voice notes, voice replies, etc, but the key difference is the band. The band can have different sensors and users can choose what they want. They can then connect them together, connect them to the core, and thus make the smartwatch what they want it to be.

MWL: So what other sensors can be added? What has been developed so far?
Tahmasebzadeh: On launch we will have seven modules for sale in the Kickstarter, and this includes extra battery modules, so you can have as many as you want in the band, and keep your watch going for longer. We have a GPS module, meaning you are not dependent on the smartphone to be connected to your smartwatch for this capability.

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There’s an NFC payments module, allowing for contactless access, and there’s also a heartbeat monitor to provide a health assessment of the body. With launch we will also have an adventure module, more for outdoor activities and extreme sports.

On launch, we will also reveal the other two more as part of the Kickstarter campaign.

MWL: How many modules can you have in the watch at once? Are you worried about the fiddly nature of such a thing, and the fact it could be damaged by constant customisation?
Tahmasebzadeh: You can fit up to five modules on the band at once, and with the testing we have done, I believe we have designed a device that will last a very long time.

MWL: How can developers get involved? Is BLOCKS open source?
Tahmasebzadeh: Yes it is. We are inviting any company or any individual to develop modules and platforms, and we will be providing guidelines. We have already partnered with a lot of different companies and had about 1,500 developers sign up.

MWL: What are some of the most interesting ideas being brought to you for the different modules?
Tahmasebzadeh: One of the main things is a module for a SIM card for cellular connectivity. This means the smartwatch can stand alone without a smartphone. There are other things like programmable buttons to trigger your camera, your phone, an SOS function for elderly people. There are also fingerprint authentication capabilities for payments, LED modules for notifications in different colours, or even indicators for cycling. Also a lot of interest around biometrics, blood group monitoring – a lot around e-health.

MWL: Are there any well-known developers? Which mobile players are you working with?
Tahmasebzadeh: We can’t reveal this now, but we will after the campaign. In terms of mobile players, we are working with one of the biggest ones in the US, and one of the biggest ones in the UK. We will work with them for cellular connectivity, and they will also allow us to sell the device in their stores.

MWL: What is your target for next week’s campaign?
Tahmasebzadeh: Our aim is to raise $250,000 but we definitely think there is a capacity to get it up towards a multi-million dollar campaign because we’ve had a lot of people sign up. We have 38,000 people on Facebook, 15,000 Twitter followers, and over 30,000 people on our mailing list. This is a serious amount of attention.

MWL: How would you convince someone to buy a Blocks Watch or an Apple Watch?
Tahmasebzadeh: In our opinion, 40 million tons of e-waste is created each year by companies such as Apple.

BLOCKS is all about choice and more features. The Apple Watch, for one thing, doesn’t have GPS. Its battery life is also low and it doesn’t have sensors. With BLOCKS you can choose what you want, and most importantly, it is future proofed. You’ll have to pay $400 for a low end Apple Watch and then they’ll release another in September, making your one redundant. The technology lifecycle for an Apple Watch is short, and you need to pay a lot of money to keep up.

With BLOCKS, you get the core, then you get the modules you want, and the modules, as they develop, will always be compatible with the core. You just keep changing and updating the modules, rather than replacing the watch every time. A module cost will vary between $20-$45, and the watch costs between $250 and $275, depending on when you order.

MWL: It sounds like a very innovative idea. How did you come up with it?
Tahmasebzadeh: Once upon a time I was working on gesture control for a smartwatch as research. At the time I began to think, if I could put more features and more sensors in this, it could become the ideal device. I then teamed with my co-founder (Serge Didenko) who was into fitness tracking and sports activities. From this, in December, the idea of modularity just made sense, and solved our problem.

The idea of this is to give the power back to the users, allow them to connect the modules they want and make it an open platform for the world, not just us, to develop this idea.

Author

Kavit Majithia

Kavit joined Mobile World Live in May 2015 as Content Editor. He started his journalism career at the Press Association before joining Euromoney’s graduate scheme in April 2010. Read More >>

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