Chief Misfit Sonny Vu is no stranger to well-designed products. Back in 2001, he co-founded AgaMatrix, which developed the iBGStar, the world’s first iPhone-connected hardware medical device and recipient of Red Dot and GOOD Design awards. Last week, his new company, Misfit Wearables, announced the Misfit Shine, a technologically advanced and attractively designed fitness tracker launching in March 2013.
We had an opportunity to sit down with Sonny and find out his thoughts about the past and future of wearable sensors, what makes a great product, and why he thinks Shine will “shine” above the rest of the products out there.
Scott Jung, Medgadget: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Sonny Vu: I studied math in college and eventually ended up in a Ph.D. program in linguistics at MIT where I did natural language processing. My first startup was a linguistics technology startup that eventually got sold to a large search engine at the time. I ended up going back to my Ph.D. program on a full fellowship and studied under Noam Chomsky. I eventually left the program again to start up AgaMatrix with Sridhar Iyengar (AgaMatrix’s current CTO), who I knew of in high school and roomed with in college. It was awesome that we started the company from nothing to what’s now a multi-million dollar company whose products are sold at the Apple Store. I got to know John Sculley (Misfit’s co-founder) a couple years ago as a friend and mentor, and over time we decided to start a company together.
Medgadget: How has the “app-connected device” market changed since launching AgaMatrix back in 2001?
Vu: First of all, Apple has fueled much of it because they’ve opened it up so it’s easier to be an accessory and easier to be an accessory if you’re a medical device. On the other hand, I think it’s still hard because there’s inherent product design challenges. You have a separate display on the iOS device, so, unless there’s a really good reason for it, I think it’s kind of stupid to have your own display on your piece of hardware You basically have to be wireless now; I’m not sure how many more plug-in devices there will be, especially given the much smaller size of the Lightning connector in the iPhone 5. There are apps too, but apps are limited in what they can do because you eventually have to have sensors, and you won’t necessarily want to wear your iPhone in the same way you can wear there things you normally wear. But I think the sky is the limit and I think a lot of people are going to be making more of these types of products.
Medgadget: With the recent release of the Fitbit One, the relaunch of the Jawbone UP, as well as products from Nike, Lark, BodyMedia, and others, what sets Shine apart from the rest?
Vu: The main thing is simplicity, which we took a no-compromise approach. The Shine is the ultimate in simplicity, from the look of it to what it does, which is measuring your physical activity goals. That’s really it. The other thing is that I think we’re the most wearable. You can wear it anywhere. We’ve had people asking if they can wear it as a necklace, watch, even a power ring! I love the other products, but you can only wear it in a few places and with certain dress levels (casual, active) comfortably. You can wear the Shine for a run, just as comfortably as to the prom. When we surveyed people, we had a number of people say they would wear it even if it didn’t measure anything at all. At first, you think, “really?” But I feel like that’s our dream, making something people would want to wear anywhere.
Medgadget: Shine is not only very functional, but visually stunning as well. Where did you draw your inspiration for its design?
Vu: We liked round things and we like metal (laughter). It was a very materials-driven design approach. We considered plastics, ceramics, metals, and even leather, and we decided that metal (aluminum) was perfect. It looks good, it can be treated, we can CNC it, and it’s super strong. We read almost every single review of similar products out there that use plastics and saw that stuff breaks. With metal, there are certain “tricks” you can do to make it tough. You can run over Shine with a car and it won’t break. It’s small but strong.
Medgadget: Where do you see the future of wearable sensors/computers heading?
Vu: It’s going to be a big deal. We had the PC revolution in the 80’s, the Internet in the 90’s, mobile in the early 2000’s until now, and now we’re in the post-PC era of cloud computing and tablets. Where else is computing going to go? I think it might go on our bodies. Is the next era of computation and sensing going to be from 2012-2020? I think it is. People are finding it to be more socially acceptable to wear technology, and companies are designing products that are more attractive and socially acceptable to wear. We’re trying to humanize the wearable technology space; you can start by asking “what kind of sensors do you have that we can strap on you?”, but we first ask “what do you like to wear?”, and we can place a sensor in it. We also start by considering what people would wear, regardless of whether or not it has a sensor it it, like jeans or your underwear or socks. But, I actually think we won’t have the technology for the next 5-10 years to make sensor-embedded clothing that is cheap, can be washed, doesn’t have to be charged, and doesn’t have to fit tight on your body like a compression shirt.
Medgadget: Finally, why the name Misfit Wearables?
Vu: John Sculley and I were sitting around the table in Cupertino talking about the name of our company, when the news of Steve Jobs’ death started flashing on the TV’s around us. We actually founded our company that day, so we decided to name it in honor of him. It’s from the Apple (Think Different) commercial. We’re having fun with it, our beta testers are called “troublemakers” and we have a group we call the “rebels”. But also, at some point in our lives, we feel that we don’t fit it somewhere, which I think is a natural human condition. Here at Misfit, it’s a collection of people like that. We’ve all had that experience, but we embrace being different. Our brand represents that; you don’t have to be a supermodel, but just your healthier self. The whole point of our products is helping you be healthier, being beautifully wearable, and to be inspired. I think people long to be inspired. I love the Saint-Exupéry quote: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” And we share his view on the future: “As for the future, [our] task is not to forsee it, but to enable it.”
Company Website: Misfit Wearables