We children of the 20th century have seen our fair share of disappointment in the technology world: we’re more than a decade past the millennium, but we have yet to witness the hovering skateboards of Back To The Future, the flying cars of The Jetsons, or even widespread use of wireless charging in our mobile devices.
Fortunately, not all aspects of our existence are so beset by first-world problems. Today, we carry smartphones with more processing power than desktop computers from just a few years ago. We use tablets whose screens bear a higher resolution than our living-room televisions. And both of these device categories are powered, at their core, by portable radio hardware undreamed of just a few decades ago.
The existence of those powerful radios was presaged by fanciful works of fiction stretching back over sixty years. Many graphic novels, short stories, television shows and movies contributed to pop-culture’s conception of future technology, but none had such a profound impact on the wireless world as did the Star Trek TV series of the 1960s. Motorola’s Martin Cooper, widely regarded as the inventor of the modern-day mobile phone, cited Captain Kirk’s handheld communicator as the prime inspiration behind his work (seriously; look it up). While it wasn’t necessarily apparent at first …
… the connection eventually became clear once the miniaturization of electronics allowed for it:
But the days of the venerable flip phone are largely behind us, and the hinged clamshells of yesteryear now appear as outdated as 1966’s conception of futuristic technology. Fortunately for its credibility, Star Trek foresaw this. Its second incarnation, The Next Generation, launched in 1987 and traded the clunky handheld communicator for an impossibly small metal button worn on the chest, delivering two-way audio communication with the tap of a finger. It was called a “combadge.”
It’s taken twenty-five years, but life is once again imitating art.
Charles Krimstock, an inventor and self-described “technology advocate” based in Laguna Niguel, California, leads a five-person team dedicated to building a 21st-century version of the futuristic communicator pin. The device, a 39mm-by-13mm cylindrical module pinned to a shirt or hung from a neck lanyard, pairs with an iPhone or Android smartphone via Bluetooth and functions as a portable, wearable speakerphone. Its name, of course, is “CommBadge.”
Krimstock recently sat down with me for a phone interview, where he told me about the inspiration behind CommBadge, where he sees the project going, and why it’s more than just a fancy speakerphone.
“When I show this to people, and they see it for the first time, it’s kind of jaw-dropping that no one has done this before,” Krimstock says. When I ask him about the project’s science-fiction roots, he admits and embraces the connection, but is keen to point out that CommBadge is mostly about utility and convenience for regular users, not just Trekkies– especially those who use voice-interface technology like Siri and S Voice.
“I know a lot of people pan [Siri] and even some of my close friends hate it and don’t use it,” he says, “but I happened to adapt to it pretty well -I use it in my car all the time- and I asked, ‘why can’t I just have a speakerphone to wear?'”
I’m about to ask Charles why he doesn’t use a wireless headset, but he beats me to the punch in his next breath: “I hate Bluetooth earpieces,” he says. I don’t bother asking why, because in eight-plus years the little wireless earpieces haven’t exactly become ubiquitous, at least here in America. Whether it’s a matter of comfort, self-consciousness, inconvenience, or some combination thereof, Bluetooth headsets remain something of a rarity in the mainstream market. And portable speakerphones, especially ones small enough to be wearable, are practically nonexistent. “I surfed the internet, I tried to find one, and there’s nothing anywhere,” Charles says.
So he decided to build one.
“Basically, I thought of just taking a Bluetooth headset and putting on a big speaker,” he says. Starting with over-the-counter parts, he cobbled together enough working components to put together a crude proof-of-concept prototype, which verified that a tiny, wearable speakerphone was possible and practical. He tells me about the prototyping process, which involved many trial-and-error passes to create a speakerphone chamber with enough internal volume to produce usably loud output. The final CommBadge models will exchange the off-the-shelf internal components for a custom-designed PCB of Charles’ own design.
He tells me about CommBadge’s effective audio range -it needs to be worn on the upper half of the body to function well- and I use the opportunity to ask him what kind of customer he’s targeting with this voice-centric device, in an era where voice calls have taken a back seat to texting and other forms of messaging. His answer is a surprise: while he initially had corporate users at the center of his sights, the more people he showed the product to, the more they asked him whether CommBadge was available without the employee-badge lanyard/reel attachment. The slimmer, reel-less iteration of CommBadge “seems to be the one that’s most popular,” he tells me. That seems to indicate that -in Charles’ sample sets, at least- the device has a shot at turning the heads of the mythical Average Consumer.
That’s especially if those Average Joes see value in voice-assistant software. “The emphasis is really being able to use Siri,” Charles says, “and being able to multi-task and not hold your phone in your hand … there’s a lot you can do without having to pull your phone out of your pocket.” Indeed, the promo video on CommBadge’s IndieGoGo page places a heavy emphasis on Apple’s polarizing digital assistant:
But you don’t need to carry the latest hardware from Cupertino to look forward to a CommBadge in your future; an app will be developed allowing the accessory to interface with Android devices as well. When I ask why an app is necessary for something as simple as a Bluetooth peripheral, Charles reminds me that there’s no control interface on the device itself; settings and additional features, like the “phone-left-behind” alert, need to be controlled from the smartphone. Also, thanks to the enhanced Google Now API available to developers, CommBadge can be set to an always-on mode when paired to an Android device, in which it’s constantly listening for a wake command. While this would slice the estimated day’s worth of battery life to about a half-day, it’s a handy feature some might find useful.
These app-enhanced features sound enticing, and I’m momentarily concerned that Charles and company won’t bring support for these “deluxe” features to other platforms. I ask specifically about Windows Phone 8, which Charles tells me the company does plan to support. “We actually have talked about doing an app for it,” he says. “Our view has definitely taken a 180 on the Windows Phone scene [since version 8 was announced] … it’s something we’re planning for early next year.”
There’s a lot of ground to cover between now and then, and Charles and I talk some about the Indiegogo fundraising campaign that will provide the necessary dough to push CommBadge into production. At the time of this writing, the company sits at a little over 1% of its $100,000 goal, but its campaign just started; 38 days remain until the contribution window closes. I ask Charles about his confidence level in reaching his funding goal. “It is lofty,” he says, “but we feel we have a great product; it’s just [a question of] getting the message out there. And that’s what we’re all doing right now, is really pounding the pavement and getting the word out there.” It seems to be working, at least on Twitter: the official CommBadge account has been online only since February, but boasts over 15,000 followers.
Of course, all those followers will turn from asset to liability in the blink of an eye if CommBadge, once funded, misses its delivery estimates. That’s what happened to the Pebble Smart Watch, the Kickstarter record-breaker I pre-ordered and expected to arrive in September, but which has faced significant production delays in the transition from aspiration to reality. I ask Charles whether he thinks his company can bring CommBadge to life by its announced February 2013 release date, and he’s confident that his collaboration with consulting firm Dragon Innovation will result in an on-time delivery. I don’t discover until after our call that Dragon is the same company behind the Pebble’s manufacturing process; we’ll see how that pans out. (UPDATE: According to Charles, Dragon told him the company was brought in to assist Pebble only after its Kickstarter timetable was locked in and couldn’t be changed.)
In the meantime, there’s plenty to keep the CommBadge team busy. Pricing has been roughly outlined -Charles tells me it’ll probably be in the same neighborhood as the Indiegogo preorder tiers, between $80 and $90 per unit- but distribution still needs to be worked out. “We’re actually targeting Apple stores to get it in there … that would be a key spot for us,” Charles says, but the company will work on getting CommBadge on other retail shelves as well, in addition to the typical online storefront.
All that is of course contingent on CommBadge reaching its funding goal, or at least getting close. Indiegogo differs from Kickstarter as a crowd-funding platform in that it’s not exclusively all-or-nothing; on a flexible funding campaign like CommBadge’s, the donated money goes to the aspiring company whether the goal is reached or not. So we still have 38 days to see whether CommBadge will become a reality.
I hope it does. Not just because I’m a hopeless geek who wants a “real” communicator badge, and not just because it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of the television show that birthed the concept. I want to see CommBadge succeed because despite my frequent protestations, voice interaction is still valuable. And because the old idea of the “personal-area network,” with multiple connected devices working together to deliver a unified communication experience, is still a cool one. And because there are tons of accessories on the market that deserve to be there much less than something this geek-tastic. CommBadge might not be right for everyone, but like the Pebble Smart Watch, it’s just too cool not to be given a fighting chance.
Martin Cooper info source: Time
Star Trek screenshots via TrekCore