Think In Blocks

Here’s what happens when the LEGO model is combined with crowdsourcing.


It always seems to come back to LEGOs, doesn’t it?

Earlier this year I wrote about Google Project Ara, the so-called “LEGO” smart phone architecture unveiled in April.

Project Ara uses the MIPI Alliance UniPro and M-PHY protocols as the backbone for a modular electronics architecture inside a smart phone “endoskeleton.” Using electro-permanent magnets (they don’t need a permanent charge to keep the bond), designers and consumers can affix various functional modules to build a customized smart phone—say, one with special radios or more-powerful imagers or other sensors.

Now consider Serge Vasylechko’s TEDx presentation. He’s a computer scientist at Imperial College London who loved LEGOs as a child. He said that the modular design of LEGOs “allows us to wander our imagination to the places we’ve never been before. And sometimes it allows us to do things that the creators never even thought about.”

Flash forward to this week: Vasylechko and his Imperial College friend Ali Tahmasebzadeh—leading a company of more than a dozen developers—launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the world’s first modular smart watch to market: BLOCKS. It broke its funding goal of $250,000 in just 56 minutes.

The pair two years ago began thinking about designing a smart watch, but debated for a time over the precise functionality.

Vasylechko was interested in working on sensors related to health and fitness; Tahmasebzadeh was interested in working on contact-less payment, gesture control, and cellular connectivity. Finally Tahmasebzadeh texted his friend at an “aha” moment: They could solve the problem with a modular approach, like LEGOs.

“Since people have different lifestyles, they had different expectations,” Tahmasebzadeh said. “There was no ideal wearable that worked for everyone.”

Block by block
“Wearables are not a must-have at this stage but there is always a unique need and a unique function that can make it an essential device for everyone,” he said. “Modularity is about letting people find and build a wearable that actually is useful for them.”

The core of the BLOCKS device is the clock and housing — the watch face unit — which uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 running ARM Cortex-A7 and runs Android Lollipop. Each module is powered by an ARM Cortex-M0 device, Tahmasebzadeh said.

The team chose Snapdragon 400, reliable and tested, because it is used in most Android-based smart watches, he added. The team went with Android Lollipop instead of Android Wear for cellular connectivity support and because it’s a little friendlier for modularization, he said in an interview earlier this year with TechCrunch.

The modules—which snap together to form the wristband—are the source of “customization,” if you will, of the device. (It’s not unlike the Pebble Strap concept). Users can add more batteries, or modules that, for example, add GPS features, an environmental sensor, a heart rate monitor, contact-less payment functionality (near-field communication, or NFC) and more. The low-bandwidth modules use the I2C bus, while higher bandwidth modules will use USB, he said.

“Not only are we making a product, but we’re also creating a new way to interact with technology,” he said.

Connectors and industrial design were the two biggest challenges the team face, he acknowledged.
“They have a lot of requirements: low noise, high bandwidth, high number of channels, rotation, it needs to be small enough to be comfortable but have enough space for the electronics,” he said. “It must have a low manufacturing cost and low number of parts. These make it very hard, but that’s where our know-how and intellectual property come in.”

Crowdsourcing the future
The coming days will tell how appealing the modularity idea is.

“As soon as we saw Project Ara, it was a sign that we are working on a serious project and even Google believes in modular consumer electronics,” he said.

But in August, Google delayed the release of Project Ara smartphone phone hardware until next year. Cryptically it cited “lots of iterations…more than we thought.”

Did the delay give Tahmasebzadeh and his team cause for concern? Not at all.

“The fact that Google has put itself forward to take on this brilliant project is a good sign,” he said. “There are always hardships and technical problems which cause delays, but modularity is close.”
It is that snap-together concept that could extend well past electronics design, which has embraced it since the earliest days of the system-on-chip methodology. Vasylechko says, for example, it not unreasonable that we should be able to take some classes from one college, others from another and customize our own majors.

It’s simple really: “Think in blocks,” he said.

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