HUG is being touted as the world’s first gesture-control smartwatch

How the Nirbhaya gangrape spurred this techie to create a world-class smartwatch
Atom Startups Friday, February 03, 2017 - 16:20

Raj Neravati is a walking-talking branding platform for HUG. He walks in sporting a company T-shirt with HUG branding, wearing the product on his wrist and carrying a bunch of product brochures to distribute anyone he meets. He picks up my smartphone and sticks to it a HUG-branded back-sticker which bends into a stand when pressed, leaving behind a permanent ad-spot for his product.

He is the quintessential salesman, who knows his backstory, and rattles it out effortlessly. His product? The world’s first smartwatch with gesture control and an IOT platform.

HUG is as endearing a product as its name. It takes a little bit of practice to get used to its gesture controls, but once you do, there is an impressive range of devices you can control through the smartwatch – from a drone or an Ollie to Virtual Reality games and volume of the music on your phone – all by just moving your hand around.

What has got the HUG team and its incubator T Hub excited now is that the product excelled at the Asia-Pacific leg of the Global Mobile Challenge in Singapore, and will be among the three from the region and only one from India to be presented at the finals in Barcelona on February 27.

Back at the HUG Innovations HQ at Road No. 45, Jubilee Hills, Hyderabad, the product’s quality manager, Sreelatha, explains to us the functionalities of the smartwatch.

It’s a sleek device weighing only 46gm. It has several functions, from being a diet and exercise monitor to sending out SOS signals when the user is unsafe. The most exciting aspect of the product is its gesture control. It works with contextual intelligence to connect with other devices, like a smart TV or a drone, through Bluetooth or Wifi. It operates on its own OS called Nucleus, and will connect to both Android and IOS devices.

Watch Raj go on a ‘HUG’ging spree here.  

The genesis of this fun device however does not lie in wanting to create great user experience, but to give women in India a device which could make them feel safe and secure.

Raj grew up in Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh, until he completed his MCA. It was for his very first job in Noida that he stepped out of his home, to work in a computer services company in 1997.

After a couple of years there, and a few more years in Mumbai, he joined AppLabs in Hyderabad, where he says he had his “dream run”. “I worked there for 10 years and took 9 promotions. I joined as a project lead and left as the Senior VP of the company, a number 2 position.”

Between 2005 and 2014, he was in the US. In 2011, AppLab was sold off and he left the company to join Cigniti as the COO in February 2012.

“I was in Dallas in the US when the December 2012 Nirbhaya gangrape happened, and I was among the many who got connected and turned emotional. But I did not feel that a social media post or talking to people would make any difference. Instead, I wanted to use technology to make women feel safe,” Raj narrates.

And thus began his journey, from pure-play IT services to creating a high-tech hardware product, attempting to make women feel secure. He didn’t waste too much time thinking, and founded ADR Software, a philanthropic company aimed at using technology to solve the problem of women’s safety.

“Initially, we wanted to launch a safety app. But within three months we realised it was pointless. User experience was important, and we had to create a product which people like using on an everyday basis,” he narrates.

His next pivot was to produce a device, and he named it iRaksha. By then, he realized that this was becoming a full-time project for him with commercial viability, so he quit his job.

But iRaksha didn’t work out either. “I felt like I was selling fear, telling woman ‘Hey if you don’t wear it you are unsafe’. That’s not what I wanted to do,” Naren explains.

Also, safety is not a great business model, he figured. He commissioned market surveys and met several investors, only to realize that neither customers nor investors were sold on safety as the USP of a product. “Even women did not think they needed such a product just for safety,” he says.

Towards the end of 2014, with nearly 2 years of learning in tow, Raj and his team went back to the drawing board. They retired the idea of creating a safety-only product. It had to be something with great user experience, which men and women would want to use every day.

After two years of research and development, in October 2016, HUG was launched. All a user needs to do for sending out an alert is shake her hand, and an SOS signal goes to registered well-wishers or other users nearby. You buy the product because you like it, and along with it comes a great safety device.

In addition to wearables, Hug is also building a developer platform by exposing gesture technology in the form of API. This allows developers to build interactive applications for IOT enabled devices. Developers don’t have to learn any new language and this API is exposed in Java, .NET, iOS and Android. Raj says they already have few hundred developers subscribed.

But does he feel he has moved, far, far away from his initial aim of women safety?

“Not really,” he says, “Safety is not going to be a day-to day need. You need it when, god forbid, something happens to you one day and it is impossible to predict. So, we had to create a product which you would want to use every day.”

Foxconn is now manufacturing the device in its factories, and a few hundreds have been sold in India so far. They are also working on certification for sale in the US. But Raj agrees that wearables has been a challenging market, and does not offer fantastic growth overnight. “Are there challenges? Yes. But it is here to stay.”`

This article has been produced with inputs from T Hub as a part of a partner program.