Give a Hand to the British Robot Mitt Up for a $1.3m Wearables Prize

By Matt Hill on at

Technology prizes are two a penny nowadays, the likes of Kickstarter and Dragons' Den raising the profile of entrepreneurs who know their apps from their elbows considerably, not to mention the size of the audience who actually wants to learn How Things Work.

But Intel's Make It Wearable competition, which is encouraging the development of tech's buzz sector as long those who are playing pack an Edison chip inside, is intriguing for various reasons. The first is that three of the 10 finalists are Brits – each scooping a not-inconsiderable $50,000 to have got this far, and with eyes on the main part of the $1.3m prize fund being handed over at the San Francisco final in November – and the other is that even between the trio, their business aims are just so intriguingly varied.

A £600 robotic hand arm for amputees, a Project Ara-esque modular smartwatch and a motion- and voice-sensing control pendant are the UK's great hopes up against a fitness-heavy judging panel that includes Nike Fuelband clever-man Stefan Olander and tennis ball whacker Venus Williams. We tried out the tech to see if any of them have a chance…

Open Bionics

Trying to tackle the prohibitively expensive world of robotic prosthetics is Joel Gibbard's Open Bionics, which wants to create a £600 version of the up-to-£60,000 current offerings that the NHS very much doesn't stock alongside its two-hook budget limbs.

"The hand is the most refined, perfect human design there is," says Gibbard, who's quick with a nice, practised sound bite. "We took an X-ray of a human hand and stole nature's million years of development. Luckily, it's made that open source."

The tricks here is 3D scanning and printing, which keeps the cost of the main "puppet" part of the hand down, and allows them to be customised easily, too. The 16 joints are currently powered by six actuators, although the aim is for three in the final product: one powering the thumb, one the index fingers, and another for the other three.

That's my hand above dishing out a fairly solid handshake, and the robotic mitt returned in kind, the fingers wrapping round firmly and individually. The tendons are made from steel cables coated in nylon, while the digits themselves are made of strong but flexible NinjaFlex (see below). Gibbard wants it to be able to support someone doing a pull-up eventually (50kg each), although a recent prototype broke while carrying 6kg of shopping, so there's a way to go.

To 'fess up, it's hard not to favour Open Bionics for the prize in that the others involved seem to have enough funding for their primarily commercial needs, whereas without further investment, these genuinely life-changing creations just won't happen. There are some real clever tricks, too, with wireless connection letting you change grip patterns on your smartphone, so you can set up presets for the office (mouse clicks), shopping (bag hooking) and home (gripping keys). It's very much taken the approach, learned from research, that amputees treat their replacements as multi-tools, not just new hands.

It's also rather cleverly modular, with the electronics and mechanics a separate unit, the printed hand and socket (where the Lithium-ion battery is placed) being replaced as and when you need. This is of particular use to children, with the above Iron Man number aimed at making kids feel like superheroes rather than intimidated. "They've not got a limb deficiency, they're limb different," chimes in Gibbard. Marvel, alas, has said no (Boo, hiss, etc).

Open Bionics plans to release a robotics market-only version next February with a "late 2015" date pencilled in for a £1,500 initial consumer hand.

Blocks

The modular high concept for Blocks is undoubtedly Google Project Ara for smartwatches – so you buy a "core" block with lots of blank links that can be snapped out and replaced with ones that actually do stuff. The core block contains the basics – screen, processor, battery, motion sensor, Bluetooth – but if you want the longest-running watch in existence, you just load the strap with extra battery links. Simple.

Blocks is unsurprisingly making this open source, to get others' expertise to add weight to the idea – the makers mentioned how they'd love to get the Ritot projection watch guys involved – but it already has some impressive partners on board. Barclays is creating a contactless payment block, fitness tracking firm Misfit is making a fitness app for it, while Orange and Verizon are in talks to work on GSM blocks.

Above is the SLA nylon prototype on my wrist for scale, although the team are still experimenting with materials and even screens, with e-ink being tried alongside LCD. The finished product will have a lower, rubbery layer for comfort and a removable, customisable top cover that designers will be encouraged to make an army of accessories for.

Despite it all seeming very Google-like, the operating system will actually be Tizen, not Android Wear, due to its being an easier route to market, though Blocks' Hakeem Javaid said they would be able to add an Android Wear block at a later date. Ah, the wonders of the modular…

Blocks is aiming for a price tag of $150 for the core block – yes, even though British, these entrepreneurs talk in cold, hard dollars – with additional blocks at $20-$50, kicking off crowd-funding next January with shipping planned for autumn 2015.

Arc Pendant

This was the only product that didn't have a prototype in attendance, so, unfortunately, there was no trying it on for size. Evolving from the Vumbl sports-focused fitness necklace, the Arc Pendant rises above the Misfit Shine imitation it looks, it being more a connected, gender-neutral wearable for all seasons. Arc CEO Tom Shrive's rather lofty aim is to get people to take their eyes off their smartphone screens, but it has a number of ways to try at least.

First, the inside of the waterproof necklace has six haptic nodes that vibrate at 16 different pulse levels to guide you around when synced to appropriate apps, pulsing on your left-hand side to tell you to turn left within the Google Maps-linked Arc Explore app like a ghostly satnav.

Second, that Home button-looking, magnet-attached, anodised-aluminium sensor disc has the usual accelerometer, gyroscope and heart-rate monitor inside for classic fitness tracking in the Arc Body app, although they reckon the placement of it means it can also correct posture. Then there's two mics inside that power the Arc Home app, so you can also close blinds and turn on heating with your voice, with ITTT integration to boot.

Unlike Blocks, there's no partnerships in place here as far as we know, but the likes of voice-controlled snapshots with GoPros or palpable run encouragement from Strava were thrown out there as potential applications. It goes without saying that this baby is open source, too (we're just surprised it wasn't modular as well). Indeed, much of the business model is based on others making both software and hardware for it – the latter for stylish covers to customise your disc in particular.

The test units are just running on iOS at the moment, exporting direct to HealthKit, but will also be on Android at launch. The Arc Pendant utilises pin charging, though there will be a micro USB dock, too, with a month's use on a single charge the aim. We've also been assured it will be two-thirds of the size at launch, which, going on the images, is necessary.

With $200,000 worth of investment already in their entrepreneurial pockets, the plan is to manufacture a full prototype – hopefully one we can actually try out – in December for production next March. The price? £120-ish.