Posted: 12:01 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, 2013
By Jeremy Quittner
Scrappy wearable computing upstart Pebble is best known for its record-setting fundraising campaign. But can it survive as the big boys move in?
Okay, maybe it’s a first world problem, but Eric Migicovsky was tired of taking his phone out of his pocket every time he wanted to check social media or know what was going on in the world.
So he did something about it. Riding a wave of new technology, he developed the Pebble Watch, which lets users see their Gmail and their Facebook feed on their watches, via a Bluetooth connection. The company is perhaps best known for its groundbreaking 2012 Kickstarter campaign: $10 million in customer pledges, more than 100 times the company’s goal.
You are what you wear is about to take on an entirely different meaning with the advent of wearable computing. "Five years ago this kind of technology was not possible, because you did not have a smartphone in every pocket with a 3G Internet connection," Migicovsky says. To date he's sold 85,000 watches, which cost $150 each.
Wearable computing has defined itself so far as a niche for sports enthusiasts and the medical industry but is about to leap out at you from everywhere, whether through your 3-D glasses, contact lenses, or other wearable devices that will bend and shape the environment around you, explaining what you are seeing, where you are seeing it, and what you can do with it.
Still, a lot has to be mapped out before the futuristic products become a mass-market reality. Always-on connections have to be managed--dependability is notoriously an issue away from dedicated network sources. So too is power--battery life can be pretty short in mobile devices. And consumers need to be convinced they need a watch to check their Facebook feed.
Migicovsky, who took his concept through the Y Combinator business accelerator program in 2011, says that consumers' wrists are the perfect place for wearable computing, since wrists are easy to see and they're typically real estate that's wasted on things like bracelets and bands.
"At the end of the day, if everyone has a smartphone they can have other devices as an Internet connection," Migicovsky says.
If you want to get into this business, it helps if you come from an engineering design background. Or, at least, you should be interested in the future of technology, as Migicovsky says he was. He also happens to be an engineer by training, majoring in systems design at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Migicovsky says it took him five years to develop the concept for the watch before he launched Pebble. Though the company is quite small--with only 11 employees--it had $10 million of revenues in 2012, an amount Migicovsky says he hopes to surpass in 2013.
"I am a really big Sci-fi geek, and I'm interested in how technology becomes part of your daily life," Migicovsky says.
So are a lot of people. A number of the obvious big technology companies are experimenting with similar devices and leading the way in the new industry, which Juniper Research estimates did about an $800 million in sales for 2012, a figure on track to double in the next year. Google and Apple are both working on digitally enhanced glasses. Other mainstream consumer companies, like Nike, are jumping into the fray, too. Nike already offers Bluetooth connections between certain sneaker models and iPhones, iPods, and watches that calculate details about your workouts. (It’s all about creating a "scoreboard of your daily life," explained a Nike spokesman in an email.)
For now, Migicovsky says he has his eyes on the competition to see what they are up to. Reportedly next for Pebble will be the opportunity for third-party Pebble apps. But it's not all smooth sailing: The first shipment of watches has been peppered with reports of defective units.
But more than anything, their entrance into the space is "an extreme validation" of his own concept, Migicovsky says.
"We were one of the first ones with a smartwatch out there, and this is an opportunity, and we are running with it," Migicovsky says.