Late last year, Intel wrapped up its “Make It Wearable” challenge crowning a wearable drone, Nixie, as winner of the competition. I had a chance to chat with Nixie co-founder Jelena Jovanovic near the Intel booth at CES last week to talk about what is quite possibly the most innovative wearable in the works today.
MS: How was the Intel “Make It Wearable” Challenge?
JJ: It was really fun and really exciting and nerve racking. Christoph had the idea of a wearable quadcopter on the Saturday, and on Sunday he found out that Intel was having this competition and that the submission deadline was six days later. He looked at me and said, “I think I want to go for it, I’m going to make a prototype”, and he made the first prototype in those six days. We made our first video and our first business plan and were typing until the very last second and we hit submit a minute before it was due and held our breath.
MS: Where did this idea of a wearable drone come from?
JJ: I had worked on an open source underwater robot so I was into exploration and robotics. Christoph’s background is in experimental physics and he was always the tinkerer, always building stuff.
We got a drone last year and played with it and always had lots of camera equipment around so we thought that we had everything we needed to capture those special moments. And then our daughter took her first steps and we missed the moment. We ended up with this close up of her face taken from our cellphone and we asked ourselves why it is so hard to capture these moments especially since we had all of this technology.
So Christoph had the insight that there are three big conditions to capturing the moment as it happens: you want something very fast so the moment doesn’t pass; you want to get amazing perspectives that put you in the shot; and you want your hands free and your attention free so that you are not distracted taking the picture.
So fast for us meant wearable, amazing perspective meant make it fly, and free to enjoy the moment meant autonomous; thus a wearable wristband that you can throw and it flies without you operating it with no remote control at all.
MS: This sounds great but a wearable drone seems quite ambitious…
JJ: It is ambitious.
Most of the drones that are on the market right now are targeting people who like RC helicopters as a hobby. They are remote controlled and they are used for the fun of flying and sometimes for the fun of that new perspective but you have to learn to pilot them, there is skill involved. There are drones emerging that are using “follow me” technology, they all require you to wear something on your body to connect to them and they are all fairly bulky so you can’t bring them with you easily.
So there are fairly small drones but those are remote controlled and then there are these bulkier drones that do follow you if you wear something, there is nothing that is light, small, effortless and autonomous.
In order to make it really easy to bring a drone with you, we had this idea of a wristband that you would wear just like a watch. It is basically the same size and shape of a watch band and the entire thing unfolds and the whole thing flies off. The bands become the arms of the quadcopter and there is no dock.
This is the next generation of personal photography. Cameras started off big bulky and manual and over time they got smaller and smaller and lighter and more autonomous so you had auto exposure and auto focus. What we are proposing is why not a camera that has auto positioning and auto composition. You just tell it where you want it to go and it does the rest.
MS: So how does it work because that sounds a little like magic to me.
JJ: It is magic! It feels like magic and it looks like magic. But it does work!
In the spirit of point and shoot photography we are working on different modes. Mode one is “Boomerang” mode: you snap Nixie off your wrist and you point it in a direction. How hard you point tells it how hard it needs to go and the direction you point tells it where to go. It’s like gesturing to a friend “hey take a photo over there”. Nixie flies off on its own, turns around and takes a picture and then comes back to where you started.
MS: When it comes back does it land and clasp itself back on your wrist?
JJ: No. It comes and it hovers in front of you and it is very safe to grab it and then snap it back on your wrist.
MS: But what if I took a couple steps forward wouldn’t it crash into me?
JJ: Right now, in “Boomerang” mode it doesn’t have optic recognition yet. It’s a prototype in development. So to do boomerang mode all we needed was a device that clasps on your wrist, unclasps, flies and takes a picture and then comes back to where it started. Now to do “Follow Me” mode we will recognize your face and this is in development. And we are also, before launching working on a lot of obstacle recognition and safety features. So right now it doesn’t have obstacle recognition. But the product will be safe top to bottom because it has to be. We want you to feel comfortable using this around your children.
There’s another thing about quadcopters. It’s not just about making you have fun and feel comfortable using it, its about everybody around you also being ok with it and feeling comfortable and for that to happen it needs to be totally safe, it needs to not be too noisy and it needs to not feel like an invasion of someone else’s privacy and we are working on all three of these things.
MS: Are you thinking about how it will look aesthetically?
JJ: Of course! Something wearable has to beautiful, it has to be personal. It has to be something that reflects you as a person. We are working with industrial designers to get a bunch of different variations. We are not quite sure what we are going to launch with but we are absolutely working on this.
MS: But will it look like a drone on my wrist?
JJ: It will have propellers on the underside so in that sense yes. But the goal is to have it look much more like a watch on your wrist.
MS: What type of camera will it use?
JJ: It will go to market with a high end cellphone camera and we are going to ride that wave as cellphone cameras are getting more and more amazing by the year. For now we are just using a simple prototype camera just to do a proof of concept.
MS: And these pictures get stored on the drone?
JJ: Yes. It will also sync photos directly to your phone as soon as its in your hand to make it easy to share moments either via Bluetooth or WiFi, we are experimenting with both to see what is easier for consumers.
MS: And now for the big question, how long will it be before we see Nixie in the market?
JJ: I wish I knew exactly. We are going as fast as we can. Right now we have a 3D printed prototype with one mode working very well. We still need to make it beautiful, as we discussed, we want to improve the image quality, and improve some safety features. We don’t have a date right now.