Kickstarted is a Radii series covering new technology from China that’s been successfully crowdfunded and is on its way to a wider audience.
“Say goodbye to your keyboard,” everyone keeps telling me. Holograms, VR goggles, retinal scanners, skin-hearing… the general thrust of future-reaching hardware development is away from the trusty old screens ‘n’ keyboards that live in all our pockets and towards virtual vapor. While a direct brain-computer interface is still a ways off — and my job of translating thoughts into words via a keyboard is safe for now — there are a few trailblazing new products currently springing off the design workbench and into real-world production, stepping stones on the way to a screenless future.
One of those is ORII, a slick piece of wearable tech from Hong Kong startup Origami Labs that made waves at TechCrunch Shenzhen in June, and has smashed a $30,000 fundraising goal in a Kickstarter campaign that’s netted over $200k to date (still a bit over 24 hours to go as of this writing).
ORII is a “smart ring” that connects to your device over Bluetooth, and utilizes bone conduction to allow clear audio reception no matter the outside volume. Basically, you place the tip of the finger wearing this ring to your inner ear and conduct smooth, clandestine conversations 007-style, using your skull bones as sound receivers. Seriously. It’s both safer and cooler than it looks on paper.
I caught up with Origami Labs CEO Kevin Wong — who’s presumably moments away from popping the bubbly and figuring out how to deliver the goods to ORII’s 1,900+ Kickstarter backers by next February — for a quick brief on the tech underlying this smart ring, where it might fit into the daily grind of a Siri power user, and how the startup environment in Hong Kong shaped the development of this particular piece of hardware.
Radii: Most new tech I’ve seen in the wearables space wants to reimagine displays or input interfaces, but your invention wants to get rid of both it seems. How did you get the idea? I read you initially wanted to make a device to help your father, but how/when did you decide to make a go at producing this on a larger scale?
Kevin Wong: You’re right, I grew up with a dad who is visually impaired. He dedicated his career to building one of the world’s first talking computers with Bill Gates and empowering others like him to access technology in ways that could improve their livelihood. And yes, he’s a hero in my eyes.
In a similar vein, at Origami Labs we see a paradigm shift towards voice-based interfaces that can augment the screen and touch-based ways of using technology. From an accessibility perspective, this promises to make technology more inclusive.
The ubiquitous nature of Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri, combined with their ever-improving accuracy and skill sets, have set the foundation for voice-powered hardware. ORII started out as a device inspired by accessibility, but eventually pivoted towards screen-free use of our phones. This turning point came out of ongoing conversations and testing with my dad; we realized that helping the visually impaired wasn’t about targeting them, but rather enabling easier use for everyone.
“It became clear that we had tapped into an unmet desire to use our phones more seamlessly, more screen-free” — Origami Labs CEO Kevin Wong
As we brought ORII out for trials, it became clear that we had tapped into an unmet desire to use our phones more seamlessly and more “screen-free.” We repeatedly hear from men and women of all walks of life that they loved the feeling of sophistication and the “spy” lifestyle that ORII gave them, while also making it easier to use their phones. We were sold.
What are the major technical challenges you’ve faced in developing ORII? I haven’t seen many consumer-facing products using bone conduction, besides a few Kickstarters for headphone companies. Was it a struggle to bring this to a mass-producible level?
We faced many challenges, given that there wasn’t a clear design path or target to follow. Bone conduction used in commercial products is still a highly misunderstood space. Many Kickstarter bone conduction products suffer from low frequency range, severe audio leakage, and audio quality issues. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of research effort on how to solve these key audio issues, through actuator positioning and design, firmware tuning, and mechanical sound dampening.
On top of that, Kickstarter projects related to “smart rings” have suffered a public perception crisis after many of them failed to deliver in the end. So, our target performance we set for ourselves is extremely high. We can’t just be good: we need to be great in order to turn the public perception in our favor.
We made a few key decisions early on that have paid dividends as we bring ORII to mass production. The first is that ORII is worn on the hand, like a ring. ORII was originally a watch strap way back in 2015, but because of audio quality challenges, we quickly abandoned this concept. By putting ORII on the finger, we bring the bone conduction much closer to the ear; as a result, we can use a smaller actuator (extends battery life) and lower power (reduced sound leakage). The second decision we made was to “modularize” the components in the top of the ring, and not choose to embed components in the band. We took a lot of heat at the beginning for not using flexible batteries in the band, but as we move into tooling and start looking at retail solutions, separating the ring band from the components makes ORII much, much more feasible to manufacture at a large scale.
Can you explain the underlying technology in layman’s terms?
Great question! Bone conduction is a natural way of hearing and we actually experience it every day; when we speak, our ears are picking up sound via our skull. Try covering up your ears and saying something. Congrats — you’ve just tried bone conduction!
Traditional headphones use speakers to vibrate the air to send [sound] to your eardrums. Bone conduction uses transducers that convert electrical signals into vibrations that travel through bone and directly into the inner ear, bypassing the eardrums. This is why bone conduction — when applied properly — can offer superior audio quality, even in noisy environments.
Who is ORII best suited for? Seems maybe for a Siri/voice-first AI power user?
Siri/voice power users will definitely understand ORII very well. But one thing we found out is that most people don’t know the power of Siri/Google Assistant, because the last time they tried it was a few years ago, when the voice recognition accuracy was still below 80%. Today, it’s climbing close to 95% accuracy. When we show people that Siri can send a flawless text message, their jaws drop.
Through speaking with different audiences, we’ve found that ORII is best suited for a text-heavy user that spends a lot of time commuting from place to place. In a sentence, it’s a tech-savvy working professional in an urban area.
What advantages did your location in Hong Kong yield in the development of ORII? What general advantages do you think startups in HK/Shenzhen have over other tech hubs around the world?
We think Hong Kong is a great place to make things. When you think about it, Hong Kong has a tinkerer’s DNA built in, given our history as makers of toys and electronics. Having Shenzhen a train ride away helps tremendously, but beyond proximity, we’ve also found hardware makers in Hong Kong with decades of experience who are looking to expand their portfolio and their perspective of the “new normal.” So we’ve found great eagerness and support from our partners.
“There’s a buzz as hardware companies gradually get traction and go global out of Hong Kong” — Origami Labs CEO Kevin Wong
Beyond the practicalities of building things, Hong Kong is now reaping the investments the ecosystem has been sowing over the past few years. There’s a buzz as hardware companies gradually get traction and go global out of Hong Kong. We’ve been fortunate to call many of these other startups friends and advisors. Together, we believe we can make Hong Kong a home for hardware.
Move fast if you want to get in on the ground floor of Origami’s ORII smart ring… their Kickstarter ends at 7am EST on Thursday, August 17.