Smartwatch FM interview with Chris Walker, CEO of Secret Labs (Agent)

This conversation is with Chris Walker, CEO of Secret Labs, the company behind the Agent smartwatch.  The conversation took place in summer 2013.  

Full Transcript

Smartwatch FM: You were developing this technology and at some point you decided you wanted to commercialize it, and one of the first big steps was Kickstarter.  So talk a little bit about development, and why you decided you're going to bring this out to the market, and why you decided on Kickstarter.

Walker: Interestingly enough, one of the last steps was going onto Kickstarter.  A lot of technology projects go on Kickstarter and they create a quick prototype, they outline their vision, they get backers, and then they figure out how to build the product.  And that's fine, but that's a very long process, and the problem is that when  you don't understand how you're going to make something really sophisticated before you go on Kickstarter, you can ask for too little money and then you're stuck in a position where you can't actually make it because you either didn't ask for enough, or it's like ten, twelve, eighteen months before you can deliver the product after you're on Kickstarter. 

You know for us, we didn't want to go on Kickstarter, especially as a company who has you know existing products and customers and a reputation to uphold, we didn't want to go on Kickstarter until we had technology which we had designed and tested. We wanted to know that we could build a product, know how much it was going to cost to get it to market, and then go out and ask for people to help us make that a reality. 

The reason we went on Kickstarter is because it's massively expensive to build inventory for a watch like this, let alone the FCC and everything else. But in the end the smallest costs are  your FCC and your tooling and all this. If it's a successful product, your biggest costs are actually building enough inventory to be able to sell it knowing that you have to order the parts three to six months in advance. You're effectively making a gamble with money you don't have yet, unless you go somewhere like Kickstarter. 

With Kickstarter, it enables us to not only build the products, get a community of people involved who we love and were amazed that so many have come out and supported us we think it's really awesome, but it also enables us to build some extras and forecast for pre-orders and all that in the future as well and build a real ecosystem around it.

Smartwatch FM: Let's talk about, lets step back and talk a little bit about the idea of the watch.  So we can get into features and stuff, but I want to understand why secret labs decided to build a smartwatch.  What was the inspiration, what was the idea there?

Walker: You know I love smart watches, and I've been a big fan from like the Timex and the Casio Databank, Timex Datalink. watches, the 80s and 90s, the Spot watches from a decade ago, you know I've always been a high tech watch fan.

Two years ago I was actually talking to Marc de Vinck, who was at MAKE (Makershed), and we were talking about new products and MAKE was interested in building new products. We'd been looking at the platform that we were developing, and I told him one of the things I've really wanted to do was a smartwatch and this is like the perfect platform for it.  And he said 'well one of the things I want to do is a smartwatch'.  And so, we actually started talking about building a kind of a maker watch. Since then Make's spun off become their own company (MakerMedia) and their focus hasn't really changed as far as what they're doing in that they're you know aggressively building out and creating new opportunities for makers and doing some really cool stuff, but making a smartwatch was no longer on their radar.  So I said, well then let me make the watch that I really want to make for me, and lets just make the watch that could be the ultimate platform. 

And then we saw some you know some smartwatch products on Kickstarter in 2012 and we're kind of watching them, and we're like 'we want to say something, but we can't' because this isn't a product yet. You know even at that point,  the chips didn't exist, they were only in the lab for what we needed.  They weren't power efficient enough they didn't have the capabilities we needed, it wasn't until earlier this year that the chips finally started shipping, so we've just kind of been like sitting back going we're really excited but we're just kind of watching the market and seeing what happens.

Smartwatch FM: And so it did start, and I see the connection now. Being kind of this shop that is interested in developing maker hardware and open source hardware, it sounds like the Agent watch had those origins.  You wanted to make it the maker watch.

Walker: Yeah,  we wanted to make a watch that people could customize.  You know and the original vision was, 'here's the watch, you can write your own apps, you can share them with friends'.  And the ecosystem has kind of evolved to, what people are asking for and they can't really get today, is 'we want tools, everyone can develop apps, and then we can sell them online we can give them away for free online, but is something with the kind of capabilities of an Android or Windows phone but in a watch form factor.' 

So our thinking has actually evolved a little bit over the last year and a half as to what kind of capabilities we wanted to offer, and once we hit around a million dollars in Kickstarter it actually gave us the funds to build out a real app store.  You know, Agent will effectively be the first smartwatch that runs real apps, but you can still see what time it is.  It's a great watch, it's wirelessly rechargeable, all these things together that no one else has been able to do.

Smartwatch FM: And so you guys are going to seed the app store with some of your own or are you going to basically trust your community to build all the apps that go into the app store?

Walker: Well so the app store itself, all the apps are free. There are different restrictions on different phone platforms, for in app purchases and out, and all this works.  So we just said 'look all the apps are going to be free in the app store', it will be a great place to discover and search for new apps for your watch. 

However, we're also making it possible for you to charge for apps and then side load them.  One of the really important things for us, is we looked at the watch as a long term investment for someone buying it and not as you know the year's latest technology gadget you're going to throw away in a year.  Part of that's from an environmental aspect, we're concerned about people buying things and then not ending up in landfills very quickly, which is why everything's recyclable too. 

But the other part of that is, I still own watches I bought 10 years ago and some of the smartwatches or I should say hi-tech watches, they don't work anymore, and I have to get a soldering iron and some pliers out to take them apart and replace the battery or whatever it is to bring it back to life.  So we made the battery replaceable we made it so you could sideload apps, so in 20 years if the technology has moved on, and the app store's no longer compatible, you'll still be able to get out some old smartphone and you know still be able to get on the Internet and you'll still be able to put your favorite apps on that watch and you don't need us to do that.  We wanted to give the developers and the people who wear the watches the freedom to do whatever they want with their watch.

Smartwatch FM: You have a developers site, and are you pushing developers now to build for when the launch comes out?

Chris: So what we're actually doing now is getting their feedback on what they want, because in the lab say 'here's what an SDK should look like', put it out there and say 'build stuff'.  But we're in a unique position where we've already announced the product, and we have a community of about 5,500 backers who are invested in the project, and want to see it succeed, and they would love to offer their feedback and we would love to deliver a developer kit which really suited the kind of applications that they want to have on their watches, as well as the developer experience they want. 

So we put out our first SDK as a preview, kind of the first cut for 8 hours.  It was the night that the campaign ended. We actually released the SDK that same day.  And so we've had people that have already started building watch faces. There's dozens of them up there now. People starting to create apps. I saw someone actually made a remote shutter app.  People have created just cool apps where you use the gyro in your phone and it actually flips images on the screen of the watch. But they've been giving us the feedback we need on 'here's how we want you to make it so we fill polygons', 'here are the kind of Bluetooth low energy devices we want to talk to', 'we would like to be able to launch background tasks'. So we're looking at the privacy implications, the resource implications, how that is exposed to the developer and we're building out that functionality so when the watches do ship later this year, we can have a couple of hackathons, people can come and build and test their existing code on real hardware, and then when watches get on people's wrists this winter, you'll be able to wear them and run apps already.  And we do have an emulator today, people are actually writing and testing apps on their computers.

Smartwatch FM: And how many, can you give me any idea how many SDKs are out there how many people are developing?

Walker: I don't know that number

Smartwatch.FM: Ok. So the Kickstarter folks who pledged are going to get it first, and from what I understand, mass production starts in December.

Walker: Late November

Smartwatch.FM: Ok, late November. Do you have any idea when those who were not in on the Kickstarter are going to have access or be able to buy Agent watches and when they may get them in their hands.

Chris: So on today there's a reserve link where you can reserve a spot in line.  Once we get closer to the launch date, we'll open up the option to pre- order and those people who have reservations will get the first spot in line for those pre-orders. 

I personally like setting lower expectations than trying to meet or exceed those expectations. I preferably exceed so people aren't waiting a year when they pre-order something you know to get that product.  And so right now we're just taking reservations we're not giving a day, we want to make sure we can take care of our Kickstarter backers first, and when we do take pre-orders it will be closer to the delivery date than now, just because we don't want people to place a pre-order, six months later get something and go 'oh yea I ordered this six months ago.' 

You know on Kickstarter, it's a investment that's community experience, but with pre-orders, we really want to keep that period time shorter where people are feeling like when they pre-order, they're going to see it sometime in the very near future.

Smartwatch.FM: Makes sense

Walker: We just want all happy customers.  We want everyone wearing an agent watch to wake up in the morning and put their watch on if they didn't wear it to bed and we want them to smile. We want them to love that watch

Smartwatch.FM: What's the long term plan for distribution? Are you going to look at some point brick and mortars, are we going to see it on Amazon at some point?

Walker: Already done. 

So, we have relationships already at Secret Labs with lots of online websites.  The thing about Agent is it's a fashion watch, so it's not appropriate to put it at Fry's on a bulk shelf.  That's not the kind of product it is.  Agent is a premium fashion smartwatch. 

So you'll see it in premium electronics stores. You're going to see it in fashion retail clothing stores, you'll see it online. Amazon is a great place to sell these kind of products because Amazon has excellent customer service, and people going there already understand kind of what they're buying. 

We're already working with some of the premier electronics store and we're setting up distribution agreements.  We have to fulfill the Kickstarter rewards first, and then we have the pre-orders and then we have retail distribution, but yes, lots of people reaching out to us. It's been a little bit of a whirlwind.

Smartwatch.FM: Well you guys did a great job. Let me ask you -  I'd love for you to give me your definition of a smartwatch. Because a lot of people think it's technology centric, but I think people who have thought about it realize a watch is just as much a fashion accessory.  How do you define a smartwatch and how much is it fashion accessory versus a piece of technology?

Walker: You know I think that has the word watch in it really needs to be beautiful.  If I'm going to wear it on my wrist, it needs to be something that is a piece of jewelry as much as it's a watch. 

To us, the word smart added to watch is the same thing that the word smart means added to phone.  If I have a smartphone it better be a great phone, and then it runs a world of connected applications that I can load onto it.  If I have a smartwatch, it'd better be a awesome watch that I can also load a world of connected apps to it. 

You know there's a lot of feature watches out there, which have you know proximity detection, or you can put a bunch of different watch faces on.  Some that have been on Kickstarter in the last year, some that are ages old.  I think we're actually getting into a world where we're starting to differentiate between different types of technology watches, and I think people are going to start seeing smartwatches move toward the fashion side, move toward the applications you can run on them side, and kind of the rich smartphone type of experience without the phone on your wrist.  And we're going to see the feature watches being the electronics that you can put on your wrist, or even some fashion type items but that don't have that rich app ecosystem that are limited in kind of the set up things that you can reasonably do with them.

Smartwatch.FM: Very much maybe the information appliance, maybe some of the fitness things very kind of centered simplistic.

Walker: Well like Google's, Google's watch today. You look at the MOTOACTV, it's a great fitness watch, but that's really more of a feature watch than it is a smartwatch.  I think these are going to start getting differentiated more and more as time goes on.  The ecosystem that's really kind of hot right now, people are really interested in the technology, I'm just excited that we're able to be a part of that and able to offer a real engineered from the ground up for apps and app developers fashion piece. And made in America

Smartwatch.FM: Yea very cool, and manufactured in NY or where?

Walker: So we have, well different parts were manufactured in different parts of America a lot of electronics come from overseas.  In fact, technically, I should say manufactured or assembled in the USA because it's pretty much impossible to make an electronics product from all components that are made in America.  Even the chips which are made out of silicon harvested out of mountains in the USA end up going to China or the Philippines or somewhere to get inside their plastic shells.

No electronics are every truly made in America, but we're getting as close as we reasonably can.  Yes, we do do assembly, we have several assembly houses which are validated. One in NY state actually, but we don't do any circuit board assembly ourselves for these kind of products. We use real high end machines at large assembly houses that we have for QA procedures around. And we have Netduinos which actually have testing. In our Netduino line, Netduinos actually test every Netduino to make sure they pass all of our QA inspections, and they're hand evaluated as well, and we're doing the same thing with the watches where we have Netduinos running automated test jigs which test every feature of the watches too. 

There's a lot of things we do so that the defect rate in the field is far less than 1%  but a lot of companies they just kind of ship and then they take care of returns as they come back.

Smartwatch.FM: I'd like to know what feature you think should be in a watch in terms of like communications, you know location, what should be on a smart watch and what should be on a phone and kind of where do you think that balance fits?

Walker: You know I think that putting your microphone on speaker in a wrist mounted device is interesting, but I think it's also like the world's worst speaker phone, and most uncomfortable arm position.  We looked at so many things that we chose not to put in the Agent smartwatch because they compromised the quality and integrity of the experience, of the product itself.  Not to say that as microphone technology improves, it might not be interesting to talk to Siri or Microsoft or Android's equivalent of Siri, that they run on their own phones, to pull up information that way. 

But I really don't see a headset on your wrist, even though Dick Tracy had basically a phone with a headset on his wrist I don't really see that as being something that's so awesome.  I think really having one in your ear is a lot better experience with noise cancellation and it's already mounted to your face.  And it's acceptable in society, people understand when you're talking to yourself you're on the phone. If you have your arm up talking to it. I'm all for you know pushing for new social norms, but that just doesn't seem like one that's going to catch on anytime soon. 

You know, I think that we're going to move into more sensors in wrist based devices. For us, we're interested in wearables as a larger ecosystem.  Watches are a fantastic piece of that ecosystem, but I also see room for other type of wearable devices with sensors that measure natively. You know your blood pressure that mount on different parts of your body that help you analyze your gate if you're a runner to become as close to an Olympic type training experience as you can get with low cost equipment.  I think that there's going to be a lot in the pet industry that happens around wearables. 

As far as watches though I think really what we developed it's going to move eventually to color, it's going to move eventually to you know storage for music because battery power will get even more efficient with microelectronics, and you'll be able to listen to music off your watch, but I don't really see it turning into Dick Tracey's watch

Smartwatch.FM: Got it

Walker: You know that's not to say that eventually we don't all have a phone which is strapped onto our wrist, that has the technology which beams sounds into our heads and then picks up vibrations off our body when we talk, which actually isn't so far fetched that technology's here it's just not evenly distributed yet. 

I think eventually we all want that communication experience, and that data experience, and that connected to the world experience to whatever device we have, but  we have real world constraints, so as we can knock down those real world constraints we'll continue to innovate in this market.

Smartwatch.FM: Could you I mean not necessarily hologram, but could you envision with really advanced motion sensor technology like Lead Motion, for example, or something put into a watch where you could expand the watch face virtually above it?  

Walker: Alarm clocks do it on the ceiling.  You could do it on the ceiling for sure.  Yes, there's technologies to do the hologram type things. I don't know how practical those are for a wrist mounted device. Again, I think that you have watches and you have wrist mounted devices. In the future may be a world where we don't wear watches but we wear things on our wrists which are wearables that do other things. 

You know with Agent we're really focused on, lets make the world's smartest fashion timepiece.  You know that's what Agent is today. I'm not the one to say that wristwatches are going to be here forever.  Pocket watches were fantastic things, but one day someone said 'what if I put this on my wrist' and there's kind of a wholesale change across the entire industry where everyone started wearing wrist watches instead of putting watches in their pockets. And you had some for nostalgic reasons that kept pocket watches.  Well here we are today. We took the watches off to put it in our pockets and realized that that wasn't so optimal for telling time, but we didn't really you know if all we were using our watch for was telling time, we didn't mind taking out our phone to look at the time.  But now that we have more functionality on the watch, we're putting it back on to our wrist.  I can't forecast the next step, but we're going to try and lead the industry to get there.

Smartwatch.FM: So what's the next generation of smart watches going to bring us?  I mean can you look five years in advance, is that too far to look do you have any ideas of where this could go?

Walker: I would love to share our future... with you but I think it's a little premature for that.

Smartwatch.FM: Truly keeping true to the Secret Labs.  Hey well Chris Walker, CTO and co founder and CEO of Secret Labs, Thank you for taking time.

Walker: Thank you so much...