Beat The Noise
Through a new partnership with Flex, Will.i.am and his company, i.am+, shoot for a seamlessly connected future.
A day in the life of Will.i.am is unlike a typical day for you or me. It’s also different from that of anyone who doesn’t have at least a few hyphens in their job title. The musician-entrepreneur-philanthropist-technologist Will does.
“When I woke up, I had a call with our telco in Austria,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles, referring to the overseas telecommunications company Deustche Telekom. Deustche Telekom has been using Omega, the recently released A.I. platform developed by Will.i.am's tech company, i.am+, for customer-service queries. “After that, I had a call with Universal Music Group, where we talked about our Black Eyed Peas deliverable.” Black Eyed Peas is the famous alternative hip-hop group Will (born William James Adams) co-founded with music artists Apl.de.ap, Taboo, and Fergie. Their high-energy party jams have sold around 76 million albums and singles worldwide, and filled dance floors since the early aughts.
Will.i.am switches gears to a call with Amuse, a digital music distributor-cum-record-label startup based in Sweden, which Will recently helped launch. After eating some oatmeal (let’s assume of an atypical variety) and going to the gym, Will charged his Tesla and drove to a recording studio for a session with his favorite rapper of all time, Rakim, of the famed 1980s New York hip-hop duo Eric B. & Rakim. Finally, Will traveled to a different studio to complete the recording of the startup sound and other audio accompaniments for i.am+ products developed in partnership with Flex.
“You know, the bee bee boop, the boonnng—that stuff?” he says. “When you’re creating sounds for a device or an app, you first have to come up with a theory, like, Why is this app happening this way? … If you’re playing the piano or a guitar, you have to remember that at one point in time, it smelled like a tree. At one point, it smelled like a freaking elephant because of the ivory tusks. At one point in time, a saxophone smelled like a mountain because you took the [metal] out of some type of stone. When you’re making the sound for an app, you have to go into all that stuff. At least I do.”
Some might dismiss his talk as mystic mumbo-jumbo, but Will has long been keenly interested in figuring out how things connect: hip-hop and global dance culture, pop music and politics, and, lately, technology and everyday life.
Will and his team have been working diligently on the challenge of marrying voice-first conversational A.I with lifestyle technology. Wearable technology, for example, shouldn’t be a fashion-forward way to track your fitness or listen to music or have a phone conversation, Will says. He wants people to be able to talk to all kinds of unexpected devices with voice-first operating systems that talk right back. The OS behind all of this has to be device-agnostic, contextual and conversational, guiding you as you travel from the home to the office and anywhere in between.
It’s the right challenge, says Mike Dennison, president of the Consumer Technologies Group at Flex, with whom Will is partnered as he rolls out his latest vision. “Everything is fragmented right now,” Dennison continues. “If you’re riding your bike or skateboard and you’ve got your phone in your back pocket, the only way you can talk to Siri is to reach for your phone. And when you get home, you either keep talking to the phone, or you start a whole other conversation with Alexa or Google Home.”
In this new world, you shouldn’t have to change the way you’re behaving to access the full benefit of your technology, Dennison says. “Let’s say you are on your bike, having a conversation with your device. Something like, ‘I want to go out to dinner with John and Jerry on Saturday night.’ Your wearable would say, ‘Would you like to go to the Grill? That seems to be the place that you like to go to.’ That conversation is very contextual. You’d say, ‘Yes, I want to go to the Grill. Please call, make a reservation, and invite John and Jerry.’ Your device would do those things for you, then come back and say, ‘I was able to get your confirmation from the restaurant, and it’s actually 7:15, not 7. John and Jerry have both accepted.’”
The conversation doesn’t stop there. “Then, when you walk into your house, your device works in your home as well,” Dennison says. “It turns on and says, ‘Do you want to continue listening to the music you had on your headphones?’ You don’t have to disconnect from one system to connect to another. There’s a continuation across your entire life.”
Dennison believes that time is running out for fragmented intelligent voice-control technologies. “The consumer will finally say, ‘Enough! I don’t want 15 different hubs that can’t communicate. I want to have the same conversation across all of these platforms.’ The consumer will force an open-source environment.”
For now, aspirations of technology leaders have more in common than the connected technology itself.
“It’s a noisy world,” says Will. “You have Siri, Alexa, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, WhatsApp, streaming services, Netflix, HBO. You’re constantly getting bombarded with notifications. We can help make sense of the noise. We don’t want to put out software just to put out software. We don’t want to combine hardware and software just to combine hardware and software. We’re trying to solve a problem, and the problem is that it’s noisy out there for people.”
There’s a bounty for whoever cracks the connected code. In February, Gartner predicted that 8.4 billion connected devices would be in use by the end of the year and that the number would nearly triple, to 20.4 billion, by 2020.
Both Dennison and Will acknowledge the challenges that i.am+ faces in gaining a piece of the competitive, rapidly growing voice-activation-technology market. While Will’s vision for an interface is device-agnostic, the leading smart speakers that talk back to their users are not.
Plenty of tech bloggers might have pointed out the lack of ecosystem play beyond individual products, but Flex and Will are both conscious of the importance of products that feel exciting to hold, play with, and wear. “You can’t release an inferior product and expect the consumer to give you a hall pass,” says Dennison. Will is confident that his company has, through trial and error and collaboration with Flex, found its purpose. “We eventually got here by pivoting a couple times from what we thought the product was to realizing what the product is,” he says. And while others place bets on in-home speakers, watches, and smartphones as the gateways to connected ecosystems, Dennison says, “the best way to experience a voice OS that’s personal and conversational is through devices for the ears.”
Will should know: He owned a founding stake in Beats Electronics, started by his former record-label boss, Jimmy Iovine, and Dr. Dre. The company was known for its headphones and acquired by Apple, along with the streaming service Beats Music, for $3 billion in 2014. Will has put some of the proceeds he received into starting i.am+ and further endowing his i.am.angel Foundation, which provides educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) to kids in underserved communities like Boyle Heights, the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles where Will grew up. “The why I’m doing all this is more important than the what,” says Will. “Another one of my passions is philanthropy and the inner cities, getting kids up to speed on tomorrow. We teach our kids robotics and computer science, but even more than that, we ask them to aim their aspirations down the path of solving problems.”
Will cuts a polarizing figure in the tech space: He’s an African-American futurist who’s deeply engaged in community action and an international celebrity who’s friendly with Barack Obama. He also voiced a bird named Pedro in the animated films Rio and Rio 2, and once rhymed “lady lumps” with “my hump.” When he first began working with Will, Dennison says, he would receive emails from the seven-time Grammy-winning musician, but they were in the form of a song. “I remember sitting in my kitchen, reading this note on a Saturday morning and thinking, How do I respond to this?” he says.
Both Flex and Will.i.am came to the partnership as accomplished collaborators, and it didn’t take long to find their strengths. “So many people only look at what’s right in front of them. They build their entire company strategy around the next product, the next device, the next thing they need to create,” says Dennison. Not Will. “Will is a visionary. He’s constantly thinking about how people will look and act and live five years from now. Will’s role is to help shape and create a vision of the future, and my job is to pull that into an achievable product type that we can go execute.”
“Flex works with us to help execute our vision,” says Will. “The next generation of devices, they’re amazing.”