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Start-up Mobvoi takes aim at US with AI-powered smartwatch

Ticwear 2 Watch
Source: Ticwear
Ticwear 2 Watch

Mobvoi, a 4-year-old Chinese technology start-up with a large following in China, has global ambitions for its smartwatch, which is barely a year old.

On Tuesday, Mobvoi — which has raised $75 million in financing to date and is Google's mobile tech partner in one of the world's biggest markets for smartwatches — is launching a global edition of its Ticwatch 2, the second generation of a version currently available only in China.

Mobvoi is gearing up a Kickstarter campaign for the four models of its device, which will offer an early bird price of $99 and $129 for a version with a plastic or oak/leather band, respectively — a bargain when compared to Apple Watch, which starts at around $300. The first version of the watch launched last year, and quickly became China's best-selling Android-based smartwatch, the company said.

The device's second-generation version is billed as an interactive smartwatch powered by artificial intelligence technology that responds to touch, voice or gesture. The Ticwatch also has its own operating system and possesses a range of features like voice activation, interchangeable watch faces and wireless charging.

Mobvoi's crowdfunding campaign, which will run for nearly two months until shipments begin in late September, is part of a strategy to become China's version of Apple. In a recent interview with CNBC, founder and CEO Zhifei Li, explained that the company intends to offer more than just the sum of its smartwatches.

"Basically the mission of Mobvoi is to define the next generation of computer interaction using AI technology, which means we are trying to find all kinds of scenarios where AI might be useful," said Li, a 40-year-old who specialized in artificial intelligence at Johns Hopkins University, and used to work for Google as a research scientist.

"Mobvoi is not positioning itself as a wearable company only," and toward that end has plans to offer a range of AI-powered products eventually.

Li Zhifei, chief executive officer and founder of Mobvoi
Source: Li Zhifei
Li Zhifei, chief executive officer and founder of Mobvoi

That strategy may be well-advised, given the apparent retrenchment in the worldwide wearables market. Research firm IDC said last week that global smartwatch shipments tumbled 32 percent in the second quarter, its first-ever decline in the few years since the devices exploded in popularity. Apple and Samsung hold a commanding market share, with manufacturers like Lenovo, LG and Garmin bringing up the rear.

Meanwhile, Mobvoi might find the U.S. a tough nut to crack. Demand for wearables is high in Asia, where the market is considered by analysts to be the most promising for the devices.

Yet data suggest smartwatches are far-less popular with smartphone-centric American consumers than those abroad. A 2015 survey of the market for high-end watches by Deloitte showed that worldwide, U.S. consumers were among the least enthusiastic of potential smartwatch buyers.

For his part, Li has high expectations for Ticwear's bells and whistles. Among other features, the watch has a microphone speaker that allows users to answer calls while driving, an interface which syncs to an Android-powered smartphone and lets the wearer play music on the phone, and has a notification hub that means the user doesn't have to touch the phone to review messages.

"It's much more integrated because we built the hardware and software altogether," Li told CNBC. "They're small innovations but if you fit them as a single piece it's really a combination of ... good things."