Wearable World Congress, ReadWrite’s signature annual conference in San Francisco on May 19-20, will feature the key players who are shaping wearable technology and the Internet of Things. This series profiles some of the experts who will be speaking at the conference.
Women may be underrepresented in technology as a whole, but they’ll loom large for one of its hottest niches, wearable devices.
The way Intel’s Ayse Ildeniz sees it, “women—as consumers, as well as designers and creators—will have a huge role to play in the wearables market,” she told me. As vice president of Intel’s New Devices Group and general manager of Strategy and Business Development, Ildeniz has a front-row seat to the emerging wearables movement. Intel itself makes body-worn devices, like the Mica smart cuff, as well as components powering other companies’ “smart” accessories—from jewelry and smartwatches, to smart glasses and other products.
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Many of the gadgets we rely on focus more on function than form. That may work for devices we carry in our bags or pockets, but everything changes when you strap it on your body. Suddenly, those products become more than tools; they become extensions of ourselves, and it will take more than a coat of paint to make people want to wear it. Tech makers need to shift perspectives—from a focus on pure functionality, to a new ethos that gives design equal (or even greater) priority. The female point of view, says the executive, is critical to that approach.
Ildeniz will join us for Wearable World Congress this month to discuss the role of women in wearables, but here’s an excerpt from an early conversation I had with her.
From your standpoint, what exactly is the role of women in wearables?
Let’s first define the wearable as we’re speaking about today. I think wearables are really personal things that we put on our bodies. What you choose to wear is a very personal decision—like what kind of bag you use, what kind of glasses you put on your face, what clothing you prefer, what kind of watch you choose.
When we did some research, we saw that people wanted not just functional and comfortable things, but aesthetic things. So for women, it’s probably much more important as compared to a man—in the sense that they’d like to carry things that they identify themselves with, that they are proud to wear and that they think are beautiful things.
So, from that perspective, I actually think women—as consumers, as well as designers and creators—will have a huge role to play in the wearables market. You see the types of devices that are coming to the market being much more fashion-conscious, more astute in the aesthetics, which is very good. Because the more they are, the more accessible and easier it will be for women to adopt these things.
Women bring a whole new element into electronic devices. Wearables are so personal, you easily can identify it with the types of people it tries to cater to. [It’s] really a different game-changer in the consumer electronics industry. I would say that for the first-time, aesthetics are very, very important.
Have wearables served women well or let them down? What can companies do better?
The devices we have seen for over two years now have been rather technological—geared more toward males than females. From that perspective, function has been at the forefront. Also, they’ve been brought to market by technology companies. At Intel, we’re creating beautiful accessories with our partners, but that happen to be supported by technology. There is a very big difference between the two: trying to make a technical thing prettier by changing its color, and taking [accessories] that exist and putting in technology to make it smarter.
I’ll give you examples: The ultimate is the Mica smart bracelet. We got together with Opening Ceremony, Barney’s and the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America], and we built this thing from scratch with our partners to make sure that the aesthetics were the number one concern—how a woman would carry that, how they would look wearing it—and that it would also fit their daily needs, which is to help them stay in touch with their loved ones. It’s a pure communication device.
I remember the first time that we unearthed this device in New York City. From the tech journals, we got these articles that said, “Wow, but you cannot really type on this thing, so what is it good for?” or “You cannot talk to this device. I want to talk to my bracelet”—which I thought was funky. I don’t know any woman who would want to talk to a bracelet.
So, from that perspective, it shows you that the industry is still very, very technical and function-oriented, rather than usage model-oriented. Who is the audience that would make the most of this thing?
There’s a big difference in how we perceive it. We’re trying to push that by bringing partners that are game players in this space—like Oakley or Luxottica, which does most of the eyewear in the world. Or working with Fossil which, again, have very big iconic brands that they do watches for. We work with them on how to make their brands and products smarter out in the market. It’s a very different approach than what’s out there. Just putting the customer first, putting their aesthetics or function first, and then worrying about how the technology should serve that.
With the Mica, the display sits on the inside of the wrist. That’s a very different approach than that of smartwatches and many other wearables. Is that where this usage-oriented strategy shows up?
Absolutely. I think Opening Ceremony should take credit for that. They are the ones who told us…because initially, we suggested two screens, on the outside and the inside. And they said, “You know what? The women that we sell to, they don’t want anyone knowing that they’re wearing a technical thing on their bodies.” If possible, they’d like to hide that. If anything, they don’t want anyone to show or see their SMSes or messages that come to these devices. So, they asked, “Can we hide it?”
We said, “Yup, absolutely we can.” And we took away the screen at the top. It was such an easy and eye-opening conversation. There are a number of things we went through with them. The bracelet was much more rectangular and much thicker. During the engagement of our engineers and their designers, the number one topic for months and months had been, “Can you please make this rounder? And can you please make this much thinner?” It was their requirement, because as a woman, I need to use my bracelet everyday and I need daily functions. If it’s too heavy and too thick, I can’t do them.
So, all these simple and obvious things that we’ve listened to and learned from our partners showed us the way. And I think that is the future for this industry. If it is to take off, it not only has to be pleasing from an aesthetic perspective—incorporating beautiful, different materials into it and [offer] quality of design and look, which are very, very important—but besides that, it’s the usage. What are you actually going to do with it?
With a bracelet, do you really need to go play games? Do you need to download videos to a bracelet? Or is it just simply communicating and getting messages in your hurried life? It does a couple of things wonderfully. And that’s it. That’s what we’ve followed.
It seems like more companies are paying attention to both form and function. For Intel, is that where the company sees its Curie (compact processor) fitting in?
We’re very excited about that. When it comes to the market this year, all these designers, creators and innovators will be able to take this chip, and do what you or I can’t imagine today. Different form factors, different functions, it will be truly revolutionary. That’s what I think is going to happen.
To hear more from Ayse Ildeniz and other innovators and experts, register for Wearable World Congress 2015, May 19-20 in San Francisco.
Photos of Ayse Ildeniz, Mica smart bracelet and Curie processor, courtesy of Intel; young women in tech photo by Todd Kulesza
Update: After this conversation, Intel reorganized some of its internal departments, including its New Devices Group. The move puts wearable tech chief Mike Bell into another position within the company, according to a spokesperson. We’ve reached out to Intel for comment, though it hasn’t offered any further statement on this matter. However, given that the Internet of Things has become a growth sector for the company, it’s not likely to pull back on this area, or its related connected technologies and wearable devices. Ildeniz remains in her current post as vice president.