Phil Inagaki doesn’t like to call the Wove Band a smartwatch. The CEO and co-founder of flexible electronics company Polyera would rather call his team’s creation a “device” or a “digital canvas” than evoke the mental image of a wrist-worn timepiece.
That might strike you as odd. “Smartwatch,” after all, seems a perfectly reasonable moniker for a technologically enhanced bracelet that also tells time. And sure, on a very literal, unimaginative level, that’s exactly what the Wove Band is. But Inagaki’s careful choice of words actually makes a lot of sense, when you consider what the Wove Band does differently from every other smartwatch on the market. Which is, well, this:
That’s right, the Wove Band bends. Not along a rigid curve—like we’ve seen in some smartphones, monitors, and TVs—but in a truly dynamic way.
Unsurprisingly, creating the Wove Band has taken some doing. Inagaki says he first conceived of the device two and a half years ago, but Polyera has been developing the flexible transistors and display technologies that make it possible for a decade. And the result is undeniably impressive. A device with a large, pliable touch screen that can bend and flex repeatedly, without damaging the display, is a major first for wearable electronics. This week, Polyera announced that the Wove Band is slated to launch commercially in mid-2016. “I expect us to be the first company in the world to have actually solved all the challenges required to put a dynamically flexible display product into consumers’ hands,” says Inagaki.
When the Wove Band goes on sale (price TBD, though Inagaki says it’ll cost “less than the least-expensive Apple Watch”), it’ll feature many of the trappings we’ve come to expect from smartwatches, including a 1 GHz processor, Bluetooth connectivity, 4 GB of storage, a 9-axis motion sensor, and haptic feedback. But the device’s bendy touchscreen, which wraps most of the way around the wearer’s wrist, is clearly its most forward-thinking feature, and sets it apart from every computerized wristwatch on the market today. Whereas most of today’s smartwatches were designed to resemble a standard wristwatch, the Wove Band, says Inagaki, was engineered from the ground up to address fresh questions about how a wrist-worn wearable should function. And what they wound up with looks and functions a lot differently from today’s timepieces, intelligent or otherwise.
When we visited Polyera’s offices this week to get some hands-on time with their prototypes, Inagaki was quick to highlight the advantages of the Wove Band’s pliant form factor. The most important of those, he said, is size. “The surface area of the Wove Band’s touch screen is about six times the 42mm Apple Watch’s,” he said. When I said I was skeptical, he produced a pair of calipers. “Let me see,” he said, reaching for my wrist.
“The cover glass on these gives the impression that the display is bigger than it is” he said, carefully aligning the caliper’s jaws with the screen of my Apple Watch. “But see how the pixels don’t extend all the way to the glass’s edge?” I did see, yes. And sure enough, the final measurement on my smartwatch came to 24 mm x 30mm. That translates to an area of 720 mm square. The Wove Band’s display measures 30mm x 156mm, or 4680 mm square—a screen area that is, in fact, 6.5-times that of the Apple Watch. In comparing his display to mine, Inagaki had actually been gracious enough to round down.
The other important thing about the Wove Band’s massive display is that it’s always on. Pebble’s smartwatches have done this for years, and other companies have made the feature available as quickly as their power supplies will allow; but continuously running a screen as large as the Wove Band’s required a few compromises.
“When you move to a large display in a wearable, you have to think not just about flexibility, but total display technology,” says Inagaki. To accommodate all that real estate, Polyera outfitted the Wove Band with an energy-sipping, E-Ink frontlayer. Color prototypes are said to exist, but for now the screen is grayscale, and the pixel density doesn’t hold a candle to the majority of smartwatches on the market. But Inagaki says the energy savings will allow the Wove Band to provide the shallowest user interface on the market, one where continuously updating information is available throughout the day, on a display whose size obviates the need for active navigation.
Inagaki walks us through a hypothetical use case: You receive a text message, and a small notification appears on the portion of the screen atop your wrist. But rather than tap the notification, you rotate your arm. There, on the underside of your wrist, on a swath of screen twice the area of a typical smartwatch display, is the text message. “The fact that it’s in landscape mode means you usually don’t even need to scroll,” says Inagaki. How’s that for glanceability?
“The design philosophy behind the Wove Band is that it is a wearable first,” he says, adding that contemporary smartwatches are, in effect, small-screen extensions of a smartphone. He contrasts this with his company’s device, which he says will provide users a different kind of experience than a smartphone, albeit on a comparably sized display. “I would argue the latter is a much more interesting medium to explore a new relationship with digital content,” he says.
That relationship will hinge on the device’s ability to “bring digital content into the physical world,” a phrase Inagaki used multiple times to characterize not only the distinctive visual appearance of the Wove Band’s display, but Polyera’s larger vision for wearable technology. “We’ve developed a medium that looks more like fabric than the glass-topped displays we usually interact with,” he said. “It sounds cheesy, but when you show something to people that looks like it’s printed, that looks like it has texture, but that can also change digitally, it has a way of blurring the line between the virtual and the material.”
Inagaki wouldn’t name names, but said that Polyera is working with “several major successful app companies” to reimagine how their services could live on the Wove Band’s unique display. And this week, Polyera launched a program that could put prototypes in the hands of designers and developers as early as December. “We want to maximize the ways that people can contribute to it,” he said, be it in the form of graphics (personal style and expression are clear goals of the display), or applications, which Polyera is calling compositions. “You can’t go at this half-heartedly,” says Inagaki, referring to the importance of a strong developer community. “Without a nice polished experience that enables people to make, share, and wear their media, the Wove Band will never catch on.”
Developing that ecosystem of user experiences is just one of many challenges Polyera faces in the months ahead. A lot of improvements to the device are still in the pipeline. The screen, which today retains a somewhat glossy look, will eventually ship with a “very matte” finish that Inagaki says is vital to nailing the whole canvass-like aesthetic. Image quality and refresh speed are supposed to improve, too, though the resolution will stay the same. There will also be industrial design tweaks, he says, and build quality—which already feels pretty solid, albeit a bit clunky—will be refined, as well.
The software still needs work, too. Inagaki presented us with three Wove Bands to interact with, and while they were all impressive to behold, not one was usable in any meaningful way.
The devices will eventually run on an Android-based OS, but the ones we handled had been programmed to cycle through a series of non-actionable patterns and hypothetical screen layouts. One of them actually froze up while we were playing with it—a software issue Inagaki assured us, as he scooped up the device and ran it out of the room to be rebooted. And while we were encouraged to play with most aspects of the device—its endlessly entertaining flexibility, its clasping mechanism, the removable links of its metal wristband—Inagaki politely requested we stop short of fastening them around our wrists. “We’re going to release some official images soon that feature people wearing the device,” he said, referring to the importance of first impressions when unveiling a commercial product. (You’ll notice the Wove Band website features no images of anyone actually wearing the thing—the first images that feature the device as a worn object will surely be carefully vetted and painstakingly tailored for public consumption.)
Indeed, if Inagaki seems nervous about anything, it’s how the public will perceive the Wove Band. “I like to remind people this is just the beginning,” he says. “It’s gonna get slimmer, it’s gonna get color, it’s gonna get sexier.” But he’s equally proud, and excited, to push the device out into the world. “To me, you know what this is about? It’s about no more vaporware. No more renderings. I wanted to make something truly flexible, put it in the hands of the consumer, and start it. Once we’ve done that, we’re going to quickly iterate on improvements based in real-life experiences.”