If you’ve ever fancied creating your own smartwatch, with features tailored exactly to your needs, then Blocks might be right up your street.
It’s a smartwatch, powered by a version of Android, that has a strap made up of interchangeable sections, like links in a normal watch strap. Each section contains different technology to perform a specific function. The watch face itself connects to your smartwatch to deliver notifications, but the strap modules will allow you to add on extra functions such as GPS, NFC for contactless payments, or even extra batteries.
The idea is that you can pick and choose exactly the features that you want and simply clip them together to form the perfect smartwatch for your needs. I find Blocks an intriguing concept — being able to pick and choose only the features you want means you’re not paying for additional hardware (such as heart-rate scanners) that you may never use.
How you can get it
Blocks made its debut on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, where 5,000 backers pledged $1.6 million to bring it to life. The Kickstarter campaign has come to an end, but you can preorder the watch with worldwide delivery expected sometime in June 2016.
For $295 (around £195 and AU$410, based on a direct conversion) you’ll get the watch face in red, white or black colours, plus a choice of four interchangeable modules, each delivering a single feature (more on that in a minute).
Blocks has also said it will partner with mobile phone network EE in the UK and AT&T in the US to bring data service through a SIM card, as well as providing physical retail space for the watches to be on display. Expect to be able to get an in-person look of your own in EE and AT&T stores from July 2016.
I went hands-on with the early prototypes of the watch, as well as taking a closer look at the finished version that will ship next year.
Smart functions, and then some
The watch itself is pretty similar to Android Wear watches you might have seen. It’s actually running a custom version of Android and will work with both iOS and Android phones. The round watch face will show a variety of different digital watch face styles, plus your incoming notifications, emails, calendar appointments and so on. You also can reply to messages using voice dictation. So far, it’s pretty much the same as Android Wear on watches such as theor .
The modules are of course what separate this watch from the competition. Right now, there are five different modules available: a heart-rate monitor, extra battery, NFC, GPS and one called “Adventure” which includes an atmospheric barometer along with an external temperature sensor. Swap a module in, and the watch will be able to immediately make use of the additional technology, without even needing to restart.
The modules allow you to tailor the watch specifically to your needs, explained Blocks founder Serge Didenko.
“The variety of sensors out there is huge so you can’t put everything in a single smartwatch. Not everybody wants health or heart-rate sensors — we wanted to allow users to build something that’s unique to them, rather than just buying it off the shelf,” Didenko said.
Beyond a SIM card module for mobile data, Blocks is working on a variety of further modules — Didenko discussed a programmable capacitive button module with me at our meeting — and the company will take suggestions from the public, too.
“We have people coming to us with lots of ideas for modules,” explained Didenko, although the company isn’t in the position to be able to put them into production just yet. “Right now, we have to say, ‘Great, we will be working with you in the future.’”
Further modules will be announced online and people can register interest in the ones that get developed, much like how the initial Kickstarter project worked.
The most obvious benefit of a modular system like Blocks is that when new features are developed for the watch, you can simply swap them in — without needing to buy an entirely new watch.
The watch has come a long way since its first prototype. The finished watch face itself is circular, fully touch-enabled and the modules are around 8mm thick while weighing very little. As the whole band is made up of the modules, it’s naturally thicker than a leather band you’d have on a regular smartwatch. That said, it was fairly comfortable to wear, although the flat sides of the modules means they don’t sit quite as snugly against the rounded sides of your wrist as a fully flexible strap would.
The prototype modules were enormous however, not to mention heavier, as they had much larger internal components. The early blocks (pictured above) connect to each other using 3.5mm headphonejacks but Blocks founder Serge Didenko said the connectors weren’t stable enough to support data transfer between modules. Instead, new models will use thin, flexible circuit boards that poke out of each block to easily slide inside another.
I quite like the design, too. It’s dramatic, and clearly isn’t designed to hide the smart capabilities away in order to pretend it’s a traditional mechanical watch. The face and the modules are all built from plastic, so it doesn’t have the same premium feel as the Apple Watch with its metal link strap, but it is considerably cheaper. The coloured plastic tops of the modules and the plastic surrounding the watch face can be clipped off. Blocks also is currently talking with various designers to bring different materials, including metal, and more fashionable designs to the watch.
Existing smartwatches, including both Android Wear devices and the Apple Watch, try to cram in as many features as possible into the one unit. Most do a good job of it too, but I certainly think there’s room for a customisable device like Blocks that allows you to tailor your wearable device specifically to your hobbies as well as your lifestyle.
If you’re something of a couch potato and don’t care about a heart-rate sensor for accurate monitoring of your workouts, then why pay for it?
That said, such heavy customisation of tech doesn’t appeal to everyone, so it’s likely to still have something of a niche appeal. Android users who have rooted their device to install customised software will likely be frothing at the mouth at the concept of a smartwatch they can hack like their phones. On the other hand, if you want to simply buy a device as is, and use it as it’s intended, you’ll find a standard smartwatch more suitable.
Either way, I’m certainly looking forward to spending some proper time with the Blocks smartwatch, and I hope to see a range of new modules being developed over the coming months.