will.i.am launches dial: The Black Eyed Pea gives an exclusive preview of his new smart wrist device

Musician and entrepreneur will.i.am likes dabbling in technology – not always to critical acclaim. But now his 'dial', a manly new wrist device, might change all that. David Phelan meets him and puts it to the test

The front man for Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am, has just launched a wearable gadget. Don’t be fooled - will.i.am’s latest project is a world away from the vainglorious folly of a hip hop star who fancies himself as a tech expert. It’s called the dial, a name which seems to have mislaid its capital letter. He has invested heavily in making this new wearable a legitimate gadget enterprise. 

His company, iam+, has teams in Singapore, Bangalore, Los Angeles and Tel Aviv, with more than 160 staff in total. The result is a slick watch that works on its own, that is, with no mobile phone nearby, unlike many wearable gadgets. It connects to the outside world via a sim card on board or through wi-fi. It makes calls, sends texts, gives you directions, counts your steps, and reads out your messages. Oh, and it tells the time, naturally. 

It has a solid, masculine look to it, which may feel too chunky for some wrists (though several sizes are available) and there’s only one design – it doesn’t have the wide range of straps of, say, the Apple Watch. But if you like the look of it, the dial has a lot going for it, and does stuff nothing else does.

That’s down to the software platform, called AneedA, which is entirely voice-based. And, oh look, AneedA has an extra capital letter, so that evens things out. 

There is a virtual keyboard on the 1.63-inch screen if you really must tap out a message, but this is best reserved for when you are correcting something AneedA has misheard. 

Mostly, though, everything is done via speaking to it. Find out current tweets by asking AneedA to tell you what Twitter is saying on a particular subject. Create a playlist on the go by telling AneedA what you want to hear. Follow up one question with another, knowing that AneedA still knows what you’re talking about. Get the latest news by saying “What’s going on with the EU referendum?”

When will.i.am was introducing his new gadget, things didn’t work perfectly 100 per cent of the time, though that’s not uncommon during demos of pre-production tech. But what it showed was that  AneedA has the potential to be something huge. 

As he pointed out, it works in several directions at once. “A lot of those voice assistants are apps on an operating system, built to do vertical tasks. So because our voice actually is the OS, it works differently. If I say, ‘Call my Mom when I pass La Cienega and Beverly’ that means AneedA is doing vertical and horizontal tasks, priming a call here and waiting for that GPS instruction that we’re in the right place and bang, there you go it’s done.”

Using the supplied Bluetooth in-ear headphones, you can take a call on your wrist without the outside world hearing both sides of your conversation. With the dial you can monitor your outdoor run with GPS accuracy but without a heavy phone slowing you down. Heck, you can even wear skinny jeans and not have the pocket malformed by a hefty smartphone’s bulk.

Will.i.am is passionate about what the dial might bring. As he explained, with the breathless pride of a father cooing over a new child, the limitation on screen size on a wrist-worn gadget is what inspired the new system: “That’s what armed us with this big opportunity to create the most amazing voice platform. Because the screen was small, actually the user interface needs to be the voice.”

He says this will lead to different kinds of gadgets. “Eventually there are going to be screenless devices – a speaker is a screenless device. I need to talk to it, have a conversation with it, not just blurt out commands and boom she does it. The internet is so huge, it’s like the ocean and it’s going to take so long to sniff through it to find things that are relevant. So I want to be able to talk to something that is actually an embodiment of the internet in this persona. Where she has access to the internet as her DNA. Where I could speak to her.”

The dial goes on sale in the UK in April, exclusive to the Three network. Some details are still unclear until closer to launch. Like the music deal: dial can store music (the gizmo has 32GB total storage built in) which it can play to those headphones. But it can also stream music – the number of tracks available is so far unknown, but expect music streaming to be part of the monthly tariff. 

Similarly, the dial offers a way to make calls over a data connection so wherever you are in the world, it’ll be charged as a local call. More details to follow on this, too, but it proves at least that will.i.am’s aims are not modest.

There’s a camera on board – just 2 megapixels but enough for a quick selfie which you can tell AneedA to upload to Instagram. 

The success of the dial may come down to something as basic as battery life. The dial has a strap that’s half battery and that’s not expected to last a full day. But it’s designed so that you can switch one strap for another in seconds – maybe buying an extra strap in a different colour will be the answer, though ultimately a longer battery life would have been a better solution. 

Until it’s out, there’s room to improve performance for battery and voice recognition (which is powered by Nuance, by the way, the leading company in this field which does work for Apple and many others). And more skills will come along. Aneeda has skills where phones have apps. As will.i.am explains, “The last paradigm was the apps thing. You use a mouse on a computer, and apps are for smartphones where the interface is touch. And for this next paradigm, the interface is voice.” So developers will use AneedA to bring their apps to life using voice instead of touch.

It’s a departure from the apps situation we’re used to. Will it one day mean we’ll be prepared to manage without smartphones and just work with a smart watch? That possibility seems radical just now. 

But the dial could be a move towards that. Leave your phone on your desk or in your bag and you could focus on the dial for music, sending texts, getting directions and so on. Shift back to a phone or tablet when you need a bigger screen. We’ll review the dial in full when it’s out but for now it’s an intriguing prospect.

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