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Bringing AneedA to life: How we built the personal assistant for will.i.am’s PULS

What is the i.amPULS? Well for starters, it isn’t a smart watch. At the heart of the device is an intelligent voice-enabled personal assistant, transcending the unique user interface idiosyncrasies inherent in small-screened wearable devices. Appropriately dubbed AneedA – as in “I need a…” – she is able to tackle simple to complex tasks such as sending dictated text messages or tweets, making phone calls, or controlling your music. Plus, she has quite the personality.

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the i.am+ PULS wearable device by will.i.am

What is the i.amPULS? Well for starters, it isn’t a smart watch. And I’m not just reiterating what Will said onstage when he unveiled his new wearable to a crowd of thousands at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference last month. The PULS is a smart band wearable device that fuses high fashion and design with hi-tech, making for an experience unlike any other wearable device on the market. It’s like having access to all your favorite smartphone features right on your wrist. While your other devices might be mobile, the PULS smart band can truly go everywhere with you without the worry of the cracked screen fiasco when your smartphone slips out of hand.  Just try rock climbing with your smart phone in hand (OK no, please don’t!).

At the heart of the device is an intelligent voice-enabled personal assistant, transcending the unique user interface idiosyncrasies inherent in small-screened wearable devices. Appropriately dubbed AneedA – as in “I need a…” – she is able to tackle simple to complex tasks such as sending dictated text messages or tweets, making phone calls, or controlling your music. She not only listens but understands, embracing natural language understanding technology that allows the end user to engage more naturally and in a more human-like manner.

Just as any techie or trendsetter would be, I’m incredibly excited about this device. Seeing the end result is that much more impressive to me though, having worked alongside Will for months behind-the-scenes to see his vision come to life.

I had the pleasure of heading up the Nuance  / AneedA engagement with Will and the i.am+ team.  Will was (and continues to be) hyper-engaged in all aspects of the creation of the PULS. From the start of our first in-person brainstorming session, it was clear that this device’s personal assistant wasn’t just intended to complete tasks – it had to do so in a way that was engaging and embodied Will’s core personal and brand characteristics. AneedA needed a personality and we were excited to build it.  The first time will.i.am called me I thought I was being pranked. It took a minute for Will to convince me that it was actually him, then like many conversations since we were off brainstorming and discussing features and design. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all given how down to earth and engaged he’s been.

Bringing a new personal assistant to life takes a great deal of creativity – something we were not lacking throughout the process. In fact, the challenge was often choosing what features to implement first since the list of ideas stretched on to seemingly no end. It also takes vision, and not compromising that vision even in light of pressure to meet aggressive development deadlines. It’s because of Will and our mutual commitment to these factors that the finished product is so far removed from a cookie cutter mold.

Will wanted to create an authentic, uncensored persona for AneedA. This came as a bit of a reality check for me. Considering how we might behave to conform to culturally accepted norms, for example, was not the focus when designing AneedA’s personality. We placed the importance of delivering a consistent brand experience ahead of any hesitations associated with reflecting such unadulterated society. This is especially evident in AneedA’s chatbot capabilities. For example, if you were to tell her “I hate you” she might respond with, “You’ve been drinking too much hatorade” as opposed to a watered-down alternative that could be, “Well, that isn’t very nice.” Or if you tell AneedA to talk dirty to you (no judgment), she’ll retort, “What the f!@% do you want me to say?!” The customization of AneedA’s personality didn’t stop there, though. You will even hear Will’s voice singing the numbers as you dial a phone number, rather than the standard monotonous beeps you might hear on your smartphone.

Every last detail was taken into account when designing AneedA. Will and i.am+ don’t do conventional and they don’t compromise, and I admire them for that. Through everything, I’ve learned that it’s not about designing a wearable so much as it is about designing an experience.

It’s been a great honor to work with Will and the entire i.am+™ team to see this project to fruition. I’m looking forward to continuing our relationship with will.i.am as innovation partners and to further evolve AneedA’s personality to make for the best experience possible on the PULS.

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