Black Eyed Peas rapper Will.i.am has just announced his first wearable. Called the PULS, it’s a bangle-sized entombment of bad design thinking so laughably absurd it sounds like a Funny or Die sketch. Heck, even the product’s name sounds gross and unwholesome, as if Will.i.am settled on PULS because he’s saving GLANS for an even more questionable product. But no, this is a real gadget, albeit a stupid one, and Will.i.am is deadly serious about it.
The PULS is billed as a SIM card-equipped, fully functional Android smartphone that has been curved into a donut you wear around your wrist. You can run custom Android apps on it, and make phone calls, send texts, and use the Internet without tethering it to a smartphone. It even comes with a voice-recognition service called Aneeda–yep, Will.i.am has ripped the name straight from a prank phone call by Bart Simpson.
But don’t call it a smartwatch. Will.i.am openly scoffed that such a pedestrian moniker could apply to his shiny new bangle. “This is not a watch, by any means,” Will.i.am said . “Watches don’t have SIM cards.” Instead, he insists it should be called a smart cuff.
It’s self-evidently a stupid semantic distinction–like watches, cuffs also don’t usually come SIM cards. In reality, this is exactly why Will.i.am keeps on getting people to pay attention to his designs. “Of course! Of course! Why didn’t anyone else think of that?” But it’s not really that no one else thought of making a smartphone you could wear on your wrist. Rather, everyone else has already had that idea, and then rejected it. Why? Because it can’t be done well.
Let’s leave aside the issue of whether or not, like Will.i.am, you want to have all your phone conversations by loudly shouting at your wrist. Let’s talk about size. Smartphones are as big as they are because cellular modems need big batteries to operate, and their antennas have to be fairly large to connect to wireless networks. When you try to shrink that down to something the size of a watch, you quickly run into issues, which is why companies like Apple and Motorola tether their wearables to a smartphone over Bluetooth to wirelessly connect to the Internet. The alternative is to make a smartwatch that is as big as a smartphone.
That’s exactly the stroke of questionable genius that Will.i.am seems to have had. And it comes at a cost. First of all, the PULS is huge: a wearable only in the same sense that a plasma screen TV is wearable when affixed to your torso with enough duct tape. Even then, though, the tech is junk. For all its size, Will.i.am says it will only last five hours on a single charge. Compare that to the Moto 360, which is less than half the size, gets days of battery life, and can still functionally do anything the PULS can do, just by offloading the cellular connection to a smartphone.
Apple designer Jony Ive once characterized the design process as being a thousand no’s to every yes. The point he was trying to make was that great design is about restraint. For Will.i.am, though, design is excess for the sake of excess. The PULS therefore represents a design ideology where every no was outnumbered by yes, 1,000-to-1. Yes to a big screen. Yes to bad battery life. Yes to making it the size of four acrylic Claire’s wristbands. Yes to everything!
Not everything’s bad. The UI seems fluid and easy enough to use, at least in promo videos, although it’s worth noting that we really haven’t seen it in action yet. The keyboard is said to be surprisingly accurate. And there’s some whimsical little touches in the software, like Will.i.am singing the numbers out as you dial them. But overall, this is a product that seems destined to be almost immediately forgotten by everyone–including Will.i.am.
Because you see, the PULS is not Will.i.am’s first product design. In 2013, Will.i.am released a $475 iPhone accessory called the i.am+ foto.sosho V.4 (ha ha ha!), a product which CNET charitably described as looking like it was scraped off Liberace’s shoe and which Gizmodo said was even stupider than the name implied.
In the end, only 2,000 foto.sosho’s were made, and it’s unclear how many were actually sold. Yet at the time, Will.i.am was incredibly dismissive of critics. “You don’t listen to their aesthetics, because their dress and what they buy don’t make sense,” he said in an interview at the time. “[Critics] don’t buy Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and all these other things, so therefore, who cares what they say?”
Fast forward a year and a half, and Will.i.am and his company refuse to talk about what happened with the foto.sosho. Even so, it’s clear from the announcement of the PULS that Will.i.am has learned nothing from his previous debacle. He’s still designing half-baked products that solve problems no one but Will.i.am has, and like the foto.sosho, my guess is a year from now, Will.i.am will probably prefer to pretend that the PULS never happened.
“The PULS is awesomeness untethered,” Will.i.am brags. Untethered to reality, maybe. Untethered to the principles of good design? Definitely. Let’s get retarded, indeed.