A five-person startup from Montreal is betting some of the wealthiest technology companies in the world have got the wearable technology paradigm backwards, and on Tuesday made public its latest idea on how to fix it.
The Hub is the successor to Neptune's 2013 wearable, a bulky Android-based smartwatch called the Pine that first launched on Kickstarter. It looks better than the Pine, and it's also trying to tackle a problem endemic to all smart wrist-bands.
"If you look at wearables, it's mostly these dummy smartwatches," says Simon Tian, CEO and founder of Neptune. "You've gotta have your phone for that smartwatch to work… and everything it does, the smartphone does already, so consumers don't see any added benefit."
The Pine was somewhat unique in that it was designed to have its own SIM card, its own direct connection to the Internet and cellular network instead of having to tether (via Bluetooth and the like) to a phone or other mobile device.
The Hub is designed not only to be a leap forward in form (it's a wraparound bangle that looks, well, not geeky) with greatly increased battery space, but also in function. It also has its own SIM, but this Neptune wearable comes with an accessory: A small, phone-like device (called the Pocket) with a screen that is slaved to the Hub. Neptune thinks the "brain" in wearable computing should be on your wrist, and any other device that extends its function should be powered by it.
This would flip the relationship that Apple, Google, Samsung and others have bet on. It's a lonely position to stake out. A recent Canalys report calculated that 700,000 Android-wear devices have already shipped to customers (out of about 4.6-million wearable tech bands). A recent J.P. Morgan estimate of Apple's possible market for its upcoming iWatch predicted 26-million units sold by the end of 2015. As of late last year, the last of Neptune's Kickstarter backers got their Pines (more than 4,000 of them) and Mr. Tian says he has sold another 4,000 or so through other retail channels.
Mr. Tian might not be Canada's youngest smartwatch entrepreneur (there could be a teenage genius out there hatching some new wearable), but the 20-year-old may be the boldest. As an 18-year-old student of Quebec's CEGEP system, attending the private Marianopolis College in Westmount, he rode a popular Kickstarter campaign into running a company.
Now, he's hoping to cash in again with another burst of public interest in his wearable tech ideas. He says the Hub likely won't ship until late in 2015, and publicizing it at this moment – before he can show media any working prototypes – is largely about getting attention, for investors as well as customers.
"I don't think there's even a question of whether the market will like it or not. It will… take off," Mr. Tian says.
This time out, he's running his own pledge campaign: Essentially a pay now, get your wearable later plan. Interested parties can send money directly to his company in return for a discount on the final price of the Hub and companion screen (there are no refunds if the Hub never ships). It's not Kickstarter, or Indiegogo; Neptune is collecting the money itself.
The real challenge will be in convincing consumers they should abandon their smartphones for this smartwatch and related device (the Hub's technology cannot tether to any of the existing several hundred million smartphones already in consumer pockets).
Whether the Neptune Hub is the "revelation" Mr. Tian believes or not, it is certainly different.