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I Tried Will.i.am’s PULS Band, the Most Unusual Smartwatch at CES

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

LAS VEGAS — Many of the dozens of smartwatches on display at CES suffer from the embarrassing defect of looking too much alike.

The i.amPULS certainly does not.

For one thing, it’s no mere watch: This $399 cuff includes a phone inside, while most smartwatches simply connect to your existing smartphone. For another, it doesn’t come from any of the usual industry suspects: It’s a project from musician and entrepreneur Will.i.am, introduced at the Dreamforce conference in San Francisco last October and now in a private beta-test program.

He came to CES to give people a peek at the wearable device that he and a staff that now numbers over 50 started work on more than two years ago. So we stopped by to do just that and follow up on our earlier conversation with the man.

The PULS is a chunky band — too thick to wear under many shirt cuffs — that snaps closed around your wrist with a satisfying thunk. A sharp color display arcs across the top and accepts touch input, which itself isn’t like other touchscreens: While many of its controls are the usual taps and swipes, some navigation requires tracing various paths across the display. 

Where Apple and Google’s mobile interfaces look increasingly flat, the PULS employs depth. For example, when you select an app, a shadow grows under it; Will.i.am said that was meant to evoke a sundial. It includes contacts, calendar, maps, photos, messaging, music, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram apps.

“Two years ago, I told myself we have an advantage that we are not bound by tradition,” Will.i.am said. “We don’t have to adhere to yestertools.” 

You can enter text on a tiny onscreen keyboard that tries to guess your next word, but voice input seems more practical. Will.i.am sent a text message (the PULS transcribed it correctly) and then dictated a tweet (I’m pretty sure that the posted phrase “all this text off” was supposed to be “all this tech-off”). 

The PULS includes a speaker that’s good for more than just speaking the synthesized voice of its Nuance-developed virtual assistant AneedA. Will.i.am asked his to play Miles Davis’ “So What” and it complied; a request for Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” took two tries. The PULS includes 16 gigabytes of storage.

He decided upfront that this device would include a phone instead of pairing with one: “If I leave the house and I don’t have my phone, I’m not panicking anymore.” AT&T is providing service for it in the U.S., with O2 doing the same in the UK.

Including a full-fledged phone in a wearable device carries a high cost here: battery life. Will.i.am said he has to charge his PULS two to three times a day. (Disclosure: Since this is CES, I’m charging my own phone about as often.)

So far, only a selected audience of beta testers have been able to buy the PULS as part of a “Make It Great” program that began Dec. 18. Other wearables-industry types have had chances to play with it; Will.i.am said one Apple employee complimented the device “because it doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen — you’re not copying us.”

The PULS isn’t Will.i.am’s only work at CES; he also serves as chief creative officer at the 3D printing company 3D Systems, and here that firm is printing with chocolate. He said he hoped to check that out firsthand, but prior experience had him slightly wary of a show-floor trek: “Last year it was every 30 seconds, ‘Can I take a selfie?’ ” 

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.