Part of the challenge in creating a new tech accessory is convincing the public that they need it.
We didn’t have to have iPods until it seemed necessary to carry 10,000-song catalogues in our pockets, nor did we really need tablets, until we saw the “utility” of a device halfway between a phone and a laptop.
Smartwatch makers face the same hurdle. Sure, it would be nice to know what’s happening on your phone while it’s in your pocket, but currently watches lack the same range of utility.
One Canadian startup, though, has developed a unique piece of software that increases the usability of the smartwatch. The Minuum, developed by fledgling Toronto company Whirlscape, enables smartwatch users to type out messages and memos on their wrists using a fully functional, yet miniscule, keyboard.
The Minuum takes the basic QWERTY keyboard and condenses it into a small strip, maximizing screen space on both a smartwatch and a smartphone.
The software relies on our muscle memory of the standard computer keyboard layout. Using it is more of an exercise in thinking about the words you want to write than in looking for the letter you want among the keys.
Whirlscape CEO Will Walmsley recently let me give the Minuum a test drive at the MaRS offices in the midst of the University of Toronto campus. When using it on a smartphone, all I had to do was forget about looking at the keyboard while trying to type out a message, and my brain would remember, almost subconsciously, where certain letters were on the QWERTY system. The keyboard’s algorithm is quite impressive as well, guessing nearly every time what word I wanted to type and suggesting it to me before I’d finished typing. On a smartphone in particular, Minuum also greatly increases the amount of screen space you can use for reading while typing.
“There’s some subtle aspects in the way that we visually present the keyboard that we’ve found to make people treat it like a normal keyboard. So you almost can type the first time without thinking of it as something new,” Walmsley says.
Minuum’s use of muscle memory is the result of Walmsley’s research into medical technology as a master’s student at U of T (he previously studied engineering physics as an undergrad at Queen’s University). After a project looking into sight-free typing led to the development of a keyboard similar to the Minuum, Walmsley’s professor encouraged him to look at commercializing the product. He continued working on Minuum through the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology (UTEST) program, which acts as a pre-incubator research space for budding entrepreneurs to develop their products.
But the biggest push for Minuum came during an Indiegogo campaign last year, which Walmsley worked on with friends (and now fellow Whirlscape employees) Xavier Snelgrove and Severin Smith.
“It was all really a big test of market validation,” Walmsley says. “We’re developing a new way of typing and notoriously the public doesn’t really respond well to wanting to learn something new.”
The response was overwhelming. Having originally planned to raise $10,000 in a month, Whirlscape managed to raise that amount in a matter of hours, and then tripled their goal within a day of launching. By the end of the campaign in April, the Minuum had raised over $87,000 in financial backing. “When we suddenly had our crowdfunding goal reached within 10 hours… that really proved that there was demand for this,” Walmsley says.
Less than a year after their Indiegogo campaign, Whirlscape has also nabbed $500,000 in seed funding from BDC Venture Capital (a Canadian venture capital fund), a U.S.-based fund, and California’s renowned Y Combinator incubator, which took Whirlscape on as a participant in its accelerator program earlier this year. Y Combinator’s notable alumni include companies like Scribd, Pebble and Dropbox.
On Thursday, Whirlscape announced that the Minuum has left the beta phase, and is currently available to download on the Google Play store (as a free trial as well, for a limited time). The beta phase alone garnered about 40,000 downloads of the smartphone version of the software from the Play store, while Whirlscape has been helping customers put the keyboard on their smartwatches on an case-by-case basis, Walmsley says.
As for future applications for Minuum, Whirlscape recently started looking into the keyboard’s use for television and gaming consoles. “A good number of people are very interested in the future technology, and that’s what’s really put us in the public eye.”