Home Smartwatch Innovation Runs Riot: Meet The Freaky Fridayish Neptune Duo

Smartwatch Innovation Runs Riot: Meet The Freaky Fridayish Neptune Duo

The smartwatch era is still in its infancy, but some companies are already pushing the limits of innovation into downright weirdness. Exhibit A could be the just-announced Neptune Duo—a smartwatch that thinks it’s a phone, paired with a smartphone that seems to think it’s a brick.

The Duo’s main attraction is the “Hub,” a highly stylized smartwatch equipped with a SIM card—not unlike the Samsung Gear S from late last year—that lets users make calls, receive texts, and browse the Internet via their wrists. What’s different—really different—is the Hub’s relationship with what Quebec-based Neptune calls the “Pocket”: a black, SIM-less, phone-like slab that acts as an extension of the Hub.

The idea here is that if users get calls or texts on their wrists, they can use the Pocket as a phone to talk or respond. In a similar way, the Pocket’s touchscreen would provide a larger canvas for Web browsing and interaction.

The Duo, which is set for release later this year, thus inverts the typical “alpha-beta” relationship between handsets and smartwatches. In so doing, it clearly pushes the boundaries of wearable innovation—quite possibly way too far. As a result, it’s not at all clear if the Duo qualifies as “so crazy it just might work,” or just as merely crazy.

One Step Beyond

This isn’t Neptune’s first foray into wearables. Back in 2013, Neptune took to Kickstarter to successfully crowdfund the Pine, a SIM-enabled smartwatch running on full Android Jelly Bean. It earned over $640,000—eight times its funding goal. However, once the Pine was released, it didn’t exactly earn rave reviewsquite the opposite, actually. Its awkward design was mostly to blame; the product looked more like a small smartphone that strapped onto your arm than any kind of watch at all.

Neptune seems to have learned some important lessons from the Pine. While still pretty big, the Duo’s Hub is a curved, glossy, science-fiction cuff. While it may still elicit some long looks, no one can say that the Hub doesn’t have a unique and interesting style.

But the Duo isn’t merely an attempt to out-style the Pine. Neptune CEO Simon Tian insists that it’s the first step of a larger initiative—one that will put wearables at the center of your digital existence.

“Duo is a stepping stone product for us,” he said in an interview with ReadWrite. “The end vision is much bigger.”

That “end vision” is to consolidate computing power onto a wrist device that can then commandeer other nearby screens as needed. That could be, say, a smartphone-sized screen like the Pocket. Or it could be a tablet, a monitor, or a television.

“Any screen can become yours as soon as you start using it,” says Tian. “The Pocket screen is the first of many other screens that will come very soon.”


Specs And Security

The Hub is packed with many of the bells and whistles you might expect from a solid smartphone: quad-core processor, 64GB of internal storage, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, and support for both 3G and 4G mobile networks. (Samsung’s Gear S is only capable of 3G). The Duo will run Android 5.0 Lollipop. 

The quad-core processor lurking inside the Neptune Duo Hub.

One of Neptune’s biggest selling points with the Duo is the heightened security that comes with having your computer on you at all times. “With all apps and files stored on the Hub,” Neptune’s announcement states, “a lost or stolen Pocket screen doesn’t mean lost data anymore. All personal information will always stay securely on the wrist.”

There’s a certain logic to this; people are more likely to take their phones out and leave them someplace than they are to drop their watches. Of course, just keeping sensitive data on one device instead of another doesn’t necessarily make it any more secure.

Still, the Hub’s security measures seem reasonable. The smartwatch has a proximity sensor on the back that activates the device when you put it on. “When you put it on, you authenticate either by a pin code or by drawing a pattern,” Tian said. “When you take it off your wrist, it locks itself automatically.”

Why Wigig … And Battery Math

The Hub features 1000 mAh of battery power, while the Pocket boasts 2800 mAh. Neptune claims the Duo—that is, the two devices considered as a whole—will “last a few days of normal usage on a single charge.”

But that’s apparently only because you can cable-connect the wearable to the Pocket to recharge. While that’s probably preferable to running out of juice entirely, it’s not exactly an advertisement for the Hub. Would you wear a watch that trails a cable into the Pocket in your pocket? Or would you take it off to plug it in? (Hard to see how that’s much of an improvement over plugging it into the wall.)

 It’s also clear that the Hub does a lot of heavy lifting—it connects to cellular voice and data networks, jumps onto Wi-Fi, measures fitness stats, and stays connected to the Pocket. Even at 1000 mAh—less than half the capacity of most standard smartphone batteries—it might be dicey making it through the day.

The Duo Pocket screen acts as an extension of the Hub, while also providing backup battery power.

The Pocket screen, meanwhile, connects to the Hub not by Bluetooth LE, but rather by a new (and relatively untested) wireless technology called WiGig.

WiGig can transmit up to 7 GB of data per second, operating on the 60GHz frequency. That’s a crazy-fast rate of data transfer. But because it operates on the 60GHz frequency, the signal can’t easily penetrate walls, which is one of the reasons we’re not all using WiGig routers instead of WiFi.

Ideally, the WiGig connection would let the Pocket act like a genuine smartphone, when in fact data is whizzing to and from the Hub, where all the real computing is taking place. The Hub does the processing but keeps its screen dark, while the Pocket does the displaying without any of the thinking.

Extend that logic to the hypothetical Neptunian future, and you can imagine walking around and letting your watch take over desktop or wall mounted screens at will. It’s kind of a cool idea.

That said, it’s not at all clear how Neptune actually gets us from here to there.

The New Bare Minimum

Right now, Neptune is taking pre-orders in two ways: “pledges” and “reservations.” A reservation costs you nothing today, then $798 when the device ships; you can cancel any time prior to release. A pledge knocks $200 off the total cost; you make a $199 down payment, and then pony up another $399 once the Duo ships. Pledges, however, are non-refundable.

What’s not yet clear, though, is why anyone needs the Duo in the first place. Tian make the case this way:

We’re not saying that the wrist is necessarily a better way to do things than your smartphone. It’s simply a new bare minimum. It’s a more minimal way for a lot of things that are just faster. Receiving a notification on your wrist and just glancing at it is a much more convenient way than fishing for a brick in your pocket or in your purse, and there are lots of situations where potentially you wouldn’t even need to carry those pocket-sized devices.

That really doesn’t sound crazy, but the Duo has a definite uphill climb ahead of it. It’s got to work as well, or at least nearly as well, as the smartphones we already own if it’s going to replace them. It’s got to convince people that inverting a phone and a watch is a switch worth making. And most importantly, it’s simply got to look good enough and be comfortable enough that people will actually want to wear it.

Those are long odds. After all, the new Pebble Time just launched on Kickstarter and easily raised broke a million dollars in less than an hour, so it’s clear that much more conventional wearables can really make people open their wallets. The Duo has done respectably itself—Tian says that it’s amassed pledges worth $1.7 million, $350,000 of that in hard down-payment cash. But it’s not lighting the world on fire just yet.

And who knows? The Duo really could be the next big thing. After all, tech critics scoffed at the iPad, calling it a big iPhone, minus the phone. And we all know how that turned out.

Sure, it looks strange to us right now. That’s OK—it is very strange. It’s also clearly ahead of its time. And like so many once visionary products—the Apple Newton, Microsoft’s Spot smartwatch, Google Glass—the Duo could just as easily end up roadkill as the transformative device Neptune is clearly hoping for. 

Images courtesy of Neptune

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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