CNET también está disponible en español.

Ir a español

Don't show this again

Christmas Gift Guide
Wearable Tech

I went to the launch of Will.i.am's new smartwatch and it was rid.ic.ulous

The i.am+ Dial's virtual assistant singing a Britney duet with its creator was just one surreal moment in a weirdly endearing night.

Stuart C. Wilson

I think somehow I always knew that the first time I set foot in the hallowed halls of London's historic Royal Albert Hall it would be to see Will.i.am launch a smartwatch.

Built in 1867, the storied Albert Hall was the venue on a balmy Wednesday night for the launch of the i.am+ Dial smartwatch. Exclusive to mobile network Three and only available in the UK for now, the Dial costs £49 (that's roughly $70 or AU$95) up front, followed by a two-year contract with payments starting at £24 per month. Existing Three customers pay no up-front cost.

Now, I've been to a lot of product launches in my decade as a tech journalist, and they're always pretty similar: a darkened club or members' bar, an amusingly named themed cocktail if you're lucky, and half the cast of "Made in Chelsea" preening in the corner if you're unlucky.

Nothing so mundane for Grammy-winning pop star and producer turned tech evangelist Will.i.am, the man behind the i.am+. He dials it straight to the level of an Apple or Samsung launch with a free gig at an illustrious 5,000-seat concert hall and a fistful of proper celebrity mates.

In the bar area there are some demo people wearing the Dial, but no one's talking to them. Either everyone's already had a look or everyone's scared off by the demo chaps' all-white "Clockwork Orange" outfits. I'm on my way to have a look at the Dial when they vanish as one, which can mean only one thing: the show's started.

Someone's taken my seat, so I'm ushered into the royal box. Me. Ludicrous.


Then someone sees my VIP lanyard and asks if I'm with the band. I tell them I am, and in fact I'm so tight with Will.i.am I call him Bill.i.am. That joke probably wouldn't go down well with the man himself. A Telegraph journalist recently shared a list of rules that Will's people insist on while you're interviewing him about his vision of the future. Or, as he calls it, The Future:

In his new role as tech snake oil salesman guru, Will thinks about The Future a lot.

"I wanted to create artificial intelligence," Will tells us, "and that's a big thing for a kid from the projects." He's got a point. "Parents, teach your kids to code," he exhorts the crowd with the same gusto by which he exhorts us to jump up and down.

On a lavishly lit stage in the center of the hall, Will and his band rock out with hits like, er...OK, I don't recognize any of the songs, but everyone around me is dancing their arse off.

Three quarters of the Black Eyed Peas and Lydia Lucy off of "The Voice" do their thing at the Albert Hall.

Christie Goodwin/Getty Images

Periodically, Tinie Tempah and some other apparently very famous people I don't recognize shoot up out of trapdoors in the floor, bounce around a bit and then race back to the trapdoors to be whisked back into the depths of the stage. It's as if Will.i.am has some kind of underground celebrity cryogenic storage facility from which any A-lister can be conjured at a moment's notice.

After a while Will stops singing and starts DJing, getting the crowd singing along to "Wonderwall" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" like it's 1998. Just when it couldn't get any more students' union indie disco he drops "I Predict a Riot" and actual Ricky Wilson bounds on stage to sing it.

Later, Will tells us, "I've had the time of my life," then literally plays "I've Had the Time of My Life", because Will.i.am is basically a wedding DJ in very expensive shoes.

Several times during his DJ set, Will.i.am refers to the Dial having access to every song ever, which seems unlikely. Still, it's pretty cool that the Dial comes with access to a music streaming service, powered by 7digital, included in the monthly cost.

It also comes with a SIM card built in so you don't need a phone. Which is all very fashion-forward, but obviously you're going to have a phone as well. You can't watch Netflix or play Candy Crush or surf the Internet on a watch.

As the show progresses, gamely bantering with Will is the disembodied voice of AneedA, the Dial's Siri-like voice control assistant. "Will," intones AneedA's enticing-but-just-mechanical-enough voice toward the end of the show, "I can't help noticing you haven't played any Black Eyed Peas." So he does, and the actual Black Eyed Peas are thawed out from Will's Celebrity Cold Storage and popped out of the floor to rattle off some more bangers.

Finally, Will and the Peas close the show with "Scream and Shout", a song that Will released as a duet with Britney Spears. Brilliantly, AneedA sings Britney's bits. It's genius. I mean, it's terrible, but it's also magnificent.

I have to admit I'd much rather watch a tech CEO sing a duet with his own watch than drone on about sales projections. And I'm not ashamed to admit I got a little misty when Will hushed the crowd so he could fire up the phone in his watch and call his mum.

Finally, the launch event is over and the crowd pours into the Kensington night with ringing ears and a 1.5x Uber surge price. I'm still none the wiser about whether the Dial is any good. Let's face it -- strip away the gnomic prognostications on The Future, the shameless pop nous and the showbiz chums, and what are you left with? A startup with a track record of non-starters.

Still, you gotta love a proper bonkers pop star, and I can't help loving Will.i.am. Here's to the future, Will -- sorry, The Future. I hope you continue to Dial it up.

Update Monday 16 May: Three is no longer offering an option to pay £19 upfront for the Dial, as we previously reported.