This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of WIRED magazine. Be the first to read WIRED's articles in print before they're posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online. For more stories from WIRED's China issue, click here.
"We're not positioning ourselves as watchmakers, we're an AI tech company." ---- Yuanyuan Li
Last October, Google led an investment in a three-year-old Beijing company, Mobvoi, which made an ambitious smartwatch called the Ticwatch. A co-founder, Li Zhifei, had previously been a research scientist at Google, working on Google Translate; the CTO, Mike Lei, had also worked at Google Research, developing speech-recognition software that went on to become part of Android's Jelly Bean release. So there was instant speculation that Mobvoi, which was developing advanced voice-recognition tech, was going to be the potential vehicle for Google's belated return to the Chinese market.
Yuanyuan Li, Mobvoi's 32-year-old co-founder, has no time for rumours. "It's a financial investment," she tells WIRED. "Google may have other plans, but that's not something we're aware of. We don't want people to position us as part of Google's plans in China - we're not changing our strategy or mission."
That mission is to reinvent voice search for the era of wearable devices. "Smart wearables will be the next generation of independent devices that can communicate, and you'll use them to make payments, authenticate yourself to unlock the door and track your health," she says.
Back in 2012, Mobvoi began coding a search engine that would offer Chinese-language speech recognition using natural language processing. Its engineers hacked WeChat's voice API to offer a Siri-like service, Chumen Wenwen, for ordering food, train tickets and other services; soon they had 100 data providers and 200,000 subscribers. Then came an app, but the team became frustrated with the limitations of the smartphone interface. "We thought that a next-generation search engine had to be on wearables."
They tested their app in Google Glass and hosted 40 events with early adopters, and soon figured that although the form factor didn't deliver, the voice search had promise. So they started working on their own watch, the Ticwatch, which would have its own Ticwear operating system.
Google had announced Android Wear for wearables in June 2014, but with Google blocked in China, the team had to find its own path. "Like Xiaomi, we used our early-adopter community to iterate the software every week based on their feedback," Li says. "In fact, we innovated faster than Android Wear, which was updating every three months."
Mobvoi flashed Ticwear into Motorola's Moto 360 smartwatch, designed for Android Wear, which led to a partnership invitation from Motorola. But with uncertainty over the latter's plans in China, "we decided to make our own watch. Nokia was shutting down its China office, so we went to the lobby of their Beijing office with a broken-apart phone, and asked 20 engineers what they'd do with those components if they were making a watch. From that we hired ten hardcore engineers with ten to 20 years experience."
The Ticwatch was an ambitious challenge: nobody had assembled 400 components into a round watchface before. The result, out in June 2015, went on sale for 999 RMB (£107), around half the Moto 360 price. By October, 400 apps had been built for the platform - including translation, PowerPoint and games. The company has organised hackathons, which it calls Creatics. Now Mobvoi has 192 staff, mostly engineers and product people.
"We're not positioning ourselves as watchmakers," says Li, formerly with MicroStrategy in Washington DC. "We're an AI technology company, and we're already looking at the in-car experience and at family robots. They'll tell you where your kids are. And we want them to be huggable."