i.am+ is a strange company — of course, we’d expect no less from startup owned by Black Eyed Pea turned tech entrepreneur, Will.i.am. Probably best known for its gaudy Buttons headphones and the largely panned Puls smartwatch/wrist-band dealie, the company has been making some strange and seemingly disparate moves of late.
At Dreamforce back in November, it announced that it was working on something called Omega — a sort homegrown alternative to Alexa or Siri, targeted at enterprise users. At the same event, the company announced that it pulled in $117 million in VC funding. The startup’s healthy influx of cash has lead to a shopping spree of sorts. In July, the company bought smart home hub maker, Wink, and today at CES, it revealed exclusively to TechCrunch that it’s added headphone maker Earin to the list.
The company hasn’t disclosed a sum, but on the face of it, at least, Earin certainly makes sense. After all, the company’s best known product is a headphone — albeit one that got some blowback on release for its big, flashy presentation. Earin’s products represent the opposite side of the spectrum: a bluetooth earbud designed to lie flush with the ear, making them tough to spot from afar.
The company’s first generation buds got mostly good marks for feel and sound, but were dinged by some for connectivity issues — a pretty prevalent issue across the board when it comes to bluetooth earbuds. This time last year, the company introduced the even sleeker M2, though those have yet to officially go on sale. Certainly there’s a lot from a technical and design standpoint that will help i.am+ grow its headphone offerings.
A spokesperson for the company tells me that the fate of the Earin name is still up in the air, but expect the current form factor to continue under its new parent company. I also wouldn’t be too surprised if a version of Buttons rolls out, built on top of the newly acquired tech.
So where does all of this leave the company — or to paraphrase Tom Waits, “what are they building in there?” Some of the pieces of the puzzle snap together cleanly. There are the headphones elements one end, and the assistant aspect on the other. Omega’s still a kind of a big secret at the moment, but i.am+ tells me to expect big things — here’s hoping, because the company is essentially planning to take on the biggest tech companies in the world with that bit.
I haven’t seen in action. Soon, hopefully. But like you, I’m approaching it with a healthy bit of skepticism. We’ve heard some big claims from plenty of AI players over the past few years. Omega’s list of talking points includes more conversational interactions and the ability to serve as a sort of bridge for other smart assistants.
Here’s a thing Will.i.am told Reuters when Omega was first announced. “I wanted to create something that allows us to do many things. There’s so much you can do with a voice platform.”
The addition of a smart home hub makes sense, certainly — though Omega has been positioned as an enterprise solution, which muddies the waters a bit. Ditto for headphones . As has been demonstrated with AirPods and Pixelbuds, it’s a compelling form factor to deliver a smart assistant. Though likely it will have to be tied to a mobile app if it’s going to be of any use.
There are lot of moving pieces here, and the company assures me it all makes sense on the inside, even if it seems like a bit of a mishmash from where we stand. But hell, i.am+ is nothing if not interesting.
By Brian Heater