Building Blocks: Why tech is going modular
Your smartwatch vibrates; it’s running out of battery. Rather than dashing to the wall for a power socket, imagine simply popping out a link in your wrist strap and slipping in a new battery.
This is the promise of modular devices: drop in a new camera, a refreshed battery or extra sensors to upgrade or personalise your smartphone, smartwatch or even desktop PC.
We’re a far cry from this scenario today. Most manufacturers glue in smartphone batteries, and SD slots are rare enough to be notable in reviews, so the few modifications we could make are usually off the table.
This might be set to change. Google is working on Project Ara, a modular phone that allows you to slot new components into the “endoskeleton” of the base device. The Fairphone 2 uses a similar design ethos, allowing users to replace the battery and other components.
It’s not only smartphones. A modular smartwatch, Blocks, has raised $1.6 million on Kickstarter, while Acer unveiled the Revo Build, a PC with Lego-like stackable components designed to make upgrading simple, at IFA in September 2015.
What has spurred this swing to modular hardware? And does it have any prospect of long-term success?
Serge Didenko and his co-founder Alireza Tahmasebzadeh have been working on the Blocks smartwatch for three years. The inspiration for the modular design was a disagreement over which features to include in their device. “Neither of us could agree on which features were more important,” Didenko told Alphr. “I wanted all the health and fitness features and my co-founder wanted gesture control and more business features. We each wanted our own personal experiences from a wearable.”
“Big tech companies today are having to compromise on the features they include in a smartwatch.”
This was also true of the potential customers they polled. “They’re not all the same,” said Didenko. Athletes may desire a heart-rate monitor, but that may not leave room – physically, financially or in terms of battery life – for other features, such as gaming gesture controls, GPS, a fingerprint scanner, NFC payments or dual-SIM support. “The number of sensors available is really large, but bringing it into a single device would be very hard,” he said. “Big tech companies today are having to compromise on the features they include in a smartwatch, because there’s only so many you can fit into a single watch.”
The Blocks device is a complete smartwatch, featuring an activity tracker, 1.5 days of battery life, voice controls and haptic feedback, and users can add extra sensors to the strap for $30 each. “Why should we compromise and not include it when some people will love it?” said Didenko.
Acer believes modular designs could bring mobility to desktop PCs, letting you carry around your hard drive to play music, your power bank to charge other devices or your projector for presentations, according to Acer spokesperson Manuel Linnig. This offers “scalability to your needs or situation,” he said.
Continues on page 2