CES has long been a fan of The Black Eyed Peas. In 2005, the show kicked off with Let’s Get it Started and then again in 2010, I Gotta Feeling pumped up attendees before keynotes. In 2012, the multi-Grammy award winner and founding member of The Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am, came to CES as Intel’s director of creative innovation focusing on the intersection of technology and entertainment. And this year he is back at CES.
Born William Adams, his accomplishments are impressive: singer-songwriter, composer, record producer, dancer, DJ, rapper, philanthropist, coach on the BBC talent show The Voice—he even carried the Olympic torch this summer. Now he is adding entrepreneur to the list. What you may not know is that he is also passionate about technology. He consults with NASA as a STEM advocate and volunteer, he works to inspire youth about the wonders of technology with Dean Kamen and his organization FIRST, and he just launched a new CE startup called i.am+.
At a press conference at London’s Selfridges before Christmas, will.i.am and the former CEO of Fusion Garage Chandra Rathakrishnanon unveiled their new brand, foto.sosho, which turns an iPhone into a fashionable camera and includes four models with interchangeable lenses and a built-in flash. The iPhone 5 model includes a new sensor and flash and transforms the eight megapixel smartphone camera into a 14 megapixel camera to further enhance photo clarity. It will ship later this year. The product took less than a year to develop and was financed by Will himself who talked with i3 from London the day after foto.sosho launched.

Have you always loved technology?

I’ve always loved it and I have always been an aspiring techie and wanted to bring products to market. With the success of Beats, I could take my earnings and not have to wait for people to invest in my passion— I did it myself.

How did you decide to get into consumer electronics?

Innovator at a Glance:

Full name: William Adams
Born: March 15, 1975, Inglewood, Calif.
Hometown: East Los Angeles
Music Genres: Hip Hop, R&B, Electro Hip House, Techno
Instruments: Vocals, Keyboards, Bass, Clavinet, Fender, Rhodes, Drums, Piano, Moog Bass
Labels: Ruthless, Warner Sunset, Atlantic, Geffen, A&M, Interscope, Columbia, will.i.am Music Group
Associated Acts: The Black Eyed Peas. He collaborates with top artists including Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, Michael Jackson and many others
Movies and TV shows: The Voice UK, “i.am FIRST: Science is Rock and Roll”/ABC TV Special, “i.am Mars: Reach For The Stars”/SCIENCE Channel, Rio, X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Web: will-i-am.com, i.am

Let’s take Beats headphones as an example. Remember when [music producer] Jimmy [Iovine] and Dr. Dre partnered with the company back in 2006? I helped consult on the headphone strategy to the point that the Beats headphones launched with Boom Boom Pow. When I said, “I’ll be rocking them Beats”—that was the first time you saw a pair of Beats headphones. Dr. Dre is a musician synonymous with sound because he is an engineer and a producer, and his sound is impeccable compared to any other hip hop producer. From there came a whole bunch of other rappers’ headphones. People were hopping on the bandwagon of what was already started, but nobody actually thought it was going to work. What Dr. Dre identified was the power of the untapped brand and Monster believed in that. From Dr. Dre and Jimmy and my crazy idea of: “Yo, we need to give DJs headphones and get them to sign deals” came Bieber Beats and Heartbeats by Lady Gaga and Diddybeats.

What is your goal?

Musicians are like the epicenter of pop culture and there is a little bit of arrogance and disrespect from the technology companies’ point of view that we don’t know anything about technology. In actuality, we are the ones using it and defining it, and I’m pretty sure that if you gave us the opportunity, we can improve it. Just look at Beats. Look at what I’m about to do with i.am+. I not only improved it but I built it. My new aim is to create i.am+ to be something that has energy and forwardness and tenacity and design and fashion and technology and innovation and disruption. So if I have done this on my own, just think if I had proper backing to the point where it’s not getting-in-my-way backing but continued backing. Amplified backing. Magnitude backing. Shazam!

Why a camera?

The reason why I wanted to do cameras is because I’m in front of a camera more than I am in front of a microphone. So this i.am+ foto.sosho camera is the first step toward what I eventually am going to do—fill this void traditional content makers and cinematographers don’t see but I do. Even the technicians and the designers of traditional cameras—they don’t see it either because they are too busy making cameras. What I see is something totally different. For me, it’s like working with a director—okay we are going to do a close-up. And we are going to get a wide-angle shot and then I’m going to change the position and it will take two hours before I change the lighting. So I’m like, “Yo, it could be a lot faster.” That is the next step. The company is i.am+ but the product is foto.sosho. It has the same sophistication as a traditional point-and-click, same form factor as a traditional camera. The one for the iPhone 5 has an even better sensor with 14 megapixels—it’s executed from a fashion point of view with leather and gold. You wear it like an accessory.

Will.i.am checks out i3 at the 2013 International CES


Why did you decide to do this on your own?

I’m around popular culture and a lot of times engineers take for granted what popular culture impacters think and do. So I said, “You know what? I’m going to do it from my perspective. I can’t wait—I’m going to use my own money and I’m just going to freaking do it and find some folks that know all of the ins and outs of manufacturing and CAD drawings and prototypes and builds and tooling—and I’m going to tell them my ideas and I’m going to design and get it done.”

You are wearing the iPhone in your video “Scream & Shout.”

 Yeah, it is just as much of a fashion piece as it is a piece of technology.

Are you going in a different direction?

Dr. Dre went with Monster— they made cables. They didn’t even make headphones. Do you understand what the trick is supposed to be? The trick is I’m not supposed to be doing this but check out how I’m doing it. That is innovation. Like Apple, we are not in the music industry, but if we were, it would look like this—iTunes. We are not in the computer business, but this phone here—now it’s a computer. It’s a f***ing phone but now you can surf the Internet. That’s because we have taken a concept called the phone and made it do something that you never thought it would ever do —innovation.
That is what I want to do. A camera on a phone—that’s dope. So what is the next version of that? That is what I am trying to do with i.am+. How do you heighten what a camera is supposed to do but you never thought it was supposed to do? Because right now, just because you have it on your phone, you think that is it. No, that’s not it. It’s supposed to be something else. So these little steps that I am taking with the foto.sosho— the next versions are coming. I got a DJ gig and I am going to use that money for the next 2.0.

You talked to retailers on your own?

Because I can create thunder, right? I’m a freaking musician but I was able to meet with the buyers at Selfridges, and I was like, “Hey I have a consumer electronics product that you have to put in your store for Christmas.” Imagine that conversation. I went to all of the retailers and department stores in London. They probably never thought they were going to have a meeting with me. They were blown away when I showed them the product and they gave me a store-within-a-store at Selfridges and window displays on Oxford Street.

What is your relationship with FIRST?

I met Dean Kamen and he inspired me with FIRST [For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology]. I got on board to help him make it louder and we called it i.am. FIRST. Ever since then, I have been on this mission to get kids who have never heard of STEM interested and encourage them to discipline themselves to learn a skill set. I want to incorporate arts in STEM, so it’s science, technology, engineering, art and math. I am trying to create teams of STEAM in America. You have to work as a team to make an iPhone or i.am+ products. And it’s steam that you release when you are heated up and creating wonderfulness. I bought time from ABC to do a back-to-school show for kids. I got my friends like Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg and Jack Black to talk about the importance of FIRST. Obama kicked off the show and we got a number two rating.

Are the kids receptive?

It’s one thing for me to say, “Yo man, you guys need to take an interest in this stuff, you should see what you can do if you have this skill set,” and then I go off onstage and start doing what I do normally and they are like, “Man, you are full of s*** William.” It’s another thing for me to say, “I’m telling you this is the future. Look, I am investing my own money to create my own hardware. A company didn’t help me do this—there is not some invisible manufacturing OEM.” I’m a person that they can relate to. That is what is dope about it. That is why I’m so excited. Look, guys, if I can do it, you can too!

Who inspires you?

Elon Musk. He’s the real deal. You know PayPal and SpaceX. Dean Kamen is a big inspiration. I’m really inspired by these tech juggernauts that actually get it. Like Jack Dorsey from Twitter. I just want to find and hang out with that 18-year old. I want to fund and amplify that guy.

Online Extra: More of our extended interview with will.i.am

What was the most difficult part about pulling this start-up together?

I had to convince my team – my lawyers and my business managers. They are protecting me and that is what I pay them for. So when I come up with a crazy idea, I have to make people feel comfortable about me thinking it all the way through. It’s a real success story for a dreamer – a person with an idea.

What was the biggest hurdle?

The biggest challenge was delegating. You know, you have an idea and you are blessed to come across some really talented wizards that know how to make things and you want to be there every step of the way, so letting go of your idea and trusting other people that you delegated to do it was the hardest part. But you know I’m sitting here holding it and using it, and I’m just very, very proud at this moment.

How many people are on your team?

There are 11 of us and we all come from different places. I have Singaporean cats, people from China, America, some folks from London and Denmark – we all crowd online and in person to make i.am+ happen.

What is your marketing strategy?

My record company did not help out. I went on a television show [in London] – the equivalent of Jay Leno to talk about the product and did lots of interviews. Do you know how much that would cost for a big brand to do that? Millions of dollars. Then I put it in the video that is going to be seen by hundreds of millions of eyeballs with me and Britney Spears. I launched the phone the same day the video came out on X-Factor. The video came out yesterday, the same day as my press conference. I did the planning by myself with my little shoestring budget and found the factories in Taiwan and China for now, because eventually I want to build it all in America.

So you plan to manufacture in America?

Right now, if you want to make anything, you can go to China and make it. Check that out – if you are an American citizen, what is wrong with that sentence? Look, China is great, I love it. But what is sad about that is it used to be that if you wanted to make it in America, you could do it. Right now, that is not the case.  We should say: if there is anything you want to make, come to America and make it here.
The dream is to build it in America because I am an American citizen and I want innovation here. I want to be a part of America’s ROAR – this rebirth of inspiring young kids who come to market with dope new stuff. If a 20-year old that just graduated from college has an idea to bring something, where do they go? That is what I realized with my little exercise here. I know where to go if I want a record contract. But if I want to put out consumer electronic products, who do I go to?  
It took me on a journey and I had to use my own money to figure out the huge, big, gaping void that we have in the world, not just in America. And that is what I want to be. I want to be the net to use so that if they come up with something, come to me and we’ll figure it out. There is no place for innovative thinkers, people that have the passion and hunger. ROAR – who is going to invest in me to continue to turn it up?

What is your background? 

I grew up in an East Los Angeles housing project called Estrada and I got bussed to a magnet school from the first grade to the 12th grade. That diversity of going to all-white schools with a good education and going back home to the ghetto surrounded by all Mexicans, and then going to an all-black church on Sundays and hanging out with Philipinos on the weekends gave me a broader view on the world. If you take The Black Eyed Peas and break them up – there is a white girl that represents the schools I went to, the Philipinos that I hung out with on the weekends, the black dude represents the black churches and the Mexican guy represents the neighborhood I grew up in. The Black Eyed Peas is just a microcosm of my life experience growing up and seeing the world. There is a reason why we are effective in every single country on the planet and that’s because of that diversity. But as a kid, that was preparing me for what I was going to do in the Black Eyed Peas on a global level. But all of this stuff is training for all of the stuff that I am going to be doing in my 50s because when I am 57, get the f*** out of here.

How did you get funding?

I didn’t want to go to a VC because I needed to go fast on this idea that I had in my head. Sometimes that takes a long time, especially with how jaded celebrities are with technology or fashion. A lot of times celebrities do things for the wrong reasons. They get a big check and nothing ever happens and brand investors don’t want to do anything anymore because management of the artist messes it all up. It’s always all about the money and never innovation or product. It has made it hard for real innovative ideas to be taken seriously and, as a tech enthusiast, to bring things to market. Thank God, Dr. Dre and Beats headphones were successful. I’m part of that company, but we are more than just headphones.

I heard you want to learn to write code.

I’m 37 right?  By the time I’m 47, I’m going to master that s***. By the time I’m 57, I’m going to be a f***ing wizard. I don’t want to always have to wait on somebody to be free and then I have to tell them my idea and then they get it wrong and I have to say, “No, this is what I meant.” I just want to be able to do it. I’m still young. I want to contribute to popular culture and society with cool s***. I want to continue to see the dominos fall – the last one and protect all of the other ones, you know? So if you know how the last one goes and the middle one goes, then everything else is easy. All you have to do is have the balls to tip over the first one.

What is your vision for the future?

One day in the near future, a friend of mine is going to say, “Let’s go” and I’m going to say, “Wait a second, my shoes aren’t finished being printed yet.” The future is also when I go to the doctor and he says, give me your device. And my device will have all of my information on my genome, my vitals, what I have consumed, my blood, my health, my wellness and that is going to be because of my travels, paying and purchasing with my phone, using my phone for more than just talking and texting and social but because it’s my assistant with living. All of those things haven’t been implemented into society yet. You are going to see it in five years because maybe, I am going to invent that s***. And what happens when technology products are fused with fashion and now you are wearing your connectivity and you are wearing the Internet? Why the f*** do you need consumer electronics? Boom! So that is when everything changes even more – that is when disruption is disrupting disruption.

What do you think about 3D printing?

3D printing – that’s dope. That is freaking amazing. 3D printing in products, 3D printing of organs – I mean you can print a protein dude. You can make bladders with 3D printers. It’s bizarre but true.

What do you like about CES?

At CES you get a peek at what the future looks like. You have everybody coming out with their best outfits. Imagine that CES is the new ballroom dance but it’s not outfits, it’s technology, and the lords are there and the king and queen and the best-selling consumer electronics product of that year are there. CES is seeing what is happening, what is about to happen and what happened. So you see yesterday, today and tomorrow at CES. I like going to CES to see what is not happening. It’s easy to be tantalized and hypnotized by what is happening and go, “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” But that means that your mind has been trapped in right now. It makes you an innovator if you dare to rush and identify with what is not happening and bring what is not happening closer to right now.

Dare to dream or ask why can’t something be?

Yeah, why can’t something be – boom!  If you can identify it, then what company do you go to to turn an “if” into an “it” – it’s just one step away. Booyah!