It takes a lot of bravery--or possibly even hubris--to explore a new form factor in the wearables space when smartwatches, fitness trackers, and smartglasses remain so utterly unproven on their own. Yet on Tuesday Nod Labs announced Nod, a sensor-packed, Bluetooth-connected ring that says, in effect, "We're coming for your fingers too."
No body part is safe in the modern wearables gold rush. But at least Nod performs a number of tricks that seem to offer legitimate utility in a world teeming with connected devices.
In essence, the ring is an input device, just like a mouse, keyboard, or trackpad. Slip it on your index finger. Wave your hand in the air. Swipe your thumb over its touch-control surface. All your gestures and motions can be used to control other consumer electronics.
"We want you to be able to address any pixel of the digital world in the real world," says Anush Elangovan, Nod Labs' founder and CEO.
Mastering TV keyboards from 10 feet away
The $150 gesture-control ring is packed with an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and temperature sensor. The ring's chunky business end responds to capacitive touch. Battery life is rated for 24 hours. There are 12 different band sizes, and Nod is waterproof, so you can wear it while washing the dishes or going for a swim.
OK, right. It's a gesture-control ring. But what can you actually do with it?
For starters, Nod hooks into the standard touch interface APIs built into all mobile devices. So if you connect the ring to your iPhone or Android handset, you can use hand and finger gestures to control your phone's music player--a nice convenience during a morning jog. Likewise, any smartphone or tablet content that you mirror to a large display can be controlled via Nod gestures. In effect, the airspace in front of your hand becomes one big touch surface.
Nod also integrates with a number of smart TVs, including recent LG models. Let's say you want to search for a show. Instead of using the D-pad on your remote control, you can use the ring to swipe-type on the TV's onscreen keyboard. Now text entry is a matter of finger gestures instead of physical button taps.
A world at your fingertips
You could also use Nod to advance through pages of a PDF document, or control presentation slides--because the ring is just another input device, remember? And in much more esoteric applications, Nod can be used to control smart appliances throughout your home. The ring won't begin shipping until fall, but there are already apps to control the Nest thermostat, and smart light bulbs from Philips and Tabu. Just point at the bulb, and use finger gestures to turn it on and adjust brightness.
There's also connectivity for GoPro cameras, a use case that makes Nod a bit more interesting. Think about it: When you're racing down a hill on your mountain bike, you'll want the most effortless interface possible for controlling your helmet cam. With Nod, a quick swipe gesture can initiate recording--and you never have to take your hands off your handlebars. Same goes for using GoPro's water sports products: Because Nod is waterproof, you can use it while surfing and diving.
Nod Labs is also introducing OpenSpatial, an API for gesture devices like the Nod. So there's nothing stopping, say, a garage door company from making its door opener compatible with the ring. Now, do you really want some neighborhood kid finding your ring, gesturing at your garage door, and traipsing inside your house? That shouldn't be a concern because Nod has two-factor authentication built in.
As Elangovan explains it, the ring's security system looks for two elements: proximity and unique gestures. To satisfy the first requirement, you need to be within Bluetooth range (30 feet) of whatever you want to use or unlock. To satisfy the second requirement, you need to volunteer a series of hand motions, finger taps or finger swipes.
"It's somewhat equal to having a bunch of keys," says Elangovan. "If you lose it, somebody could conceivably open your house, but two-factor authentication is what protects you."
But do you really need this?
Nod's authentication system also provides for a convenient way to unlock smartphones: Instead of dealing with gesture or code unlocks on the phone itself, you could simply execute a series of taps or swipes on your ring.
The gadget isn't without its question marks, though. It may provide a convenient approach to phone security, but it's definitely one of the bulkiest rings you'll ever slip on a finger. "The size is the best we can do right now, in terms of squeezing in 80 different discrete components," says Elangovan. "But over time, we do expect this to shrink."
Then there's the "Yes, but do I really need this?" factor. It looks fun. It seems useful. But is the world really screaming for new approaches to hardware control? At least two other companies must believe so, as Nod is actually the third gesture-control ring to be announced in 2014.
The "original" Bluetooth-connected ring is called Fin. It's meant to be worn on one's thumb, and was successfully funded by an Indiegogo campaign in March. Next up came Ring, a rather blingy index finger gadget that was successfully funded via a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month. Elangovan believes Nod's hardware build is more sophisticated than the competition, and benefits from the OpenSpatial API, which will spur third-party support for connected devices.
Elangovan also notes that Nod Labs is pursuing traditional, heavyweight venture capital instead of crowd funding. Finally, Nod Labs' 15-member team is packed with big-brain talent who've worked at Google, Apple, Facebook, Samsung, and even NASA.
Still, when we look at alarming user attrition rates for fitness wristbands, devastating reviews of smartwatches, and a steady torrent of criticism focused on Google Glass, we have to wonder if a product like Nod is launching too early in the greater story arch of wearable tech. It's a question that Elangovan is ready to acknowledge, but it doesn't give him pause for concern
"From a business standpoint, it may or may not be too early. That remains to be seen," Elangovan says. "But if Xerox didn't invent the GUI and the mouse, and decided to wait, that wouldn't have been good for anyone. We want to discover the market, and if the market emerges later on, we'll be there later on."
The Nod is available for pre-order today on Hellonod.com