Christina Mercando spends a lot of her time shopping. "I look at rings," she told Fast Company, "and pick out the ones that can be Ringlys."
Ringly, a ring that connects to a smartphone and alerts wearers about incoming texts or calls via vibration and flashing lights, is Mercando's mission to merge fashion and technology. And despite housing an accelerometer, Bluetooth LE, a motor, and tiny LEDs, the wearable device, which will go on sale next summer, won't look like a gadget. "Design is our top focus," says Mercando, a former product VP at the personalization service Hunch, which was later acquired by eBay. "We want our customers to want to buy the products even if they didn't have the functionality."
After months of research and $1 million in funding, Mercando, the cofounder and CEO of Ringly, has settled on gold-plated brass bands with stones for the initial merchandise. Because of the internal components, the rings will fall on the bigger side of the finger-accessory spectrum--but not so large that women wouldn't wear them, Mercando assures, claiming that they will look much like the low-tech ones she saw while perusing stores.
For those more inclined to wrist accessories, MEMI is developing similar technology in bangle form, also slated to go on sale summer 2014. The metal bracelet is tapered, asymmetrical, and has a narrow clasp. "It works well with women's fingers and thumbs," founder Leslie Simmons Pierson told Fast Company.
From a fashion perspective, Ringly and MEMI would appeal to wearers even if they didn't do anything. (At least their designers hope so.) That standard, however, wouldn't apply to most wearables on the market. Google Glass, FitBit, Pebble, and their copycats are connected devices first and wearables second--they look like gadgets fashioned into accessories. That cyborg look might work for those who don’t mind strapping a phone to their wrists or faces. But, a few companies are betting that a whole bunch of people--especially women--won’t buy into these supposed gizmos of the future unless they look more like devices in disguise.
"Something like Google Glass, until it looks like something fashionable that I'm excited to wear, that will look good in pictures, I probably won't use it," Everpurse founder Liz Salcedo told Fast Company. Salcedo, whose company sells stylish purses that double as phone chargers, is just one of many women out there excited by the technology behind the wearable trend, but turned off by the designs.
The current offerings in the smartwatch space--the subsection of connected wearables that both MEMI and Ringly fall into--were designed from a seemingly male perspective, argues Pierson. You don't have to look further than the Pebble smartwatch website, which pictures four distinctly masculine hands followed by a single androgynous wrist advertising the merchandise, to get that impression. "We’re pretty candid in that it’s not really designed for women specifically; it’s pretty gender neutral," a Pebble spokesperson told Fast Company.
"It's obviously something that we're acutely aware of," Myriam Joire, Pebble's product evangelist, added. Pebble's oversize faces turn some women (and men) off. The square face also tends to attract men. However, Joire doesn't think Pebble should perpetuate the gender binary by releasing a just-for-women product. "My point of view is that design should be universal. I don't like the idea of products that are specifically geared to women." For Pebble, she foresees more choices for more people with regard to size, shape, color, material, and weights.
The aesthetics, however, are only part of what makes these watches unappealing to women. "I felt like a lot of the smartwatches were going to try as hard as possible to bolt your phone to your wrists," Pierson said. "I want to be less plugged in, not more plugged in." Mercando feels the same way: "We’ve been seeing this trend of wanting to disconnect."
That phenomenon is not unique to one gender. But just through the act of slipping a phone into a roomy pocket, men can semi-unplug. Women, whose half-a-hand deep skinny jeans pockets typically can't accommodate today's ever-larger smartphones, have more limited options. The butt pocket is a dangerous place to slip a cellphone, as it can just as easily slide out into a toilet bowl (trust us). Many women keep phones in purses, at the risk of totally missing important incoming calls. Keeping your phone in your hand or on a desk means never escaping the constant blinking and bleeping of notifications.
With MEMI and Ringly, wearers can prioritize communications, programming which incoming calls and texts warrant alerts. The ring or bracelet only vibrates or flashes when selected people, like the babysitter, are trying to get in touch.
Certainly that level of pseudo-connectivity only appeals to certain women, and not all people with a double-X chromosome find the less-fashionable devices offensive. This meager Tumblr dedicated to "Women With Google Glass" features about a dozen ladies proudly sporting the face computer. Women have purchased smartwatches and fitness trackers, though both Jawbone and Pebble declined to provide sales figures. The New York Post declared Jawbone Up "fashion week's hottest accessory." Google Glass also appeared on runways and in Vogue.
But, at least some fashion-conscious women out there don't want their accessories to so obviously look like technology. "If I’m dressed up for a board room meeting I don't want to call attention to the fact that I'm wearing a bracelet," said Pierson. "I love the functionality" of wearables, added Mercando. But: "I hate how they look, how they’re big and clunky." Both founders suspect they're not the only ones looking for a more subtle and elegant solution.
Creating a piece of jewelry that has more function than just fashion, however, has its challenges, perhaps explaining why much of the current smartwear looks so mechanical. Fitting the components necessary into our preconceived notion of accessories requires certain shapes, sizes, and materials.
For example, Pierson wanted to use metal for the MEMI bracelet because she finds it timeless, classic, and more versatile than plastic. It's also cheaper than other similar looking materials, like silver, and she wanted her creation to have a distinct look from the current wearables on the market. But, metal inhibits a Bluetooth signal, so the engineers incorporated small plastic breaks in the band.
To be competitive, Pierson wanted MEMI smaller than the current fitness wearables on the market. "No one is going to accept a bracelet bigger than those," she said. "That kind of set the standard." As you can see in this image on the Kickstarter, the early efforts did not qualify. Only after hiring a team of (all male) engineers did MEMI "deliver on our promise to deliver a chic, truly wearable smartbracelet."
Ringly, because of the size and shape, had even more restrictive design constraints. The contact for the charger, for example, has to be on the base in order to fit into a sensible station. (Mercando envisions a ring box the device slips into.) Also, packing all of those parts into a reasonably sized piece of jewelry meant slimming down the pieces. In its current form, the ring looks like a circuit board atop a band. The next iteration will have smaller "flex board," effectively slimming it down. Designs shown to Fast Company revealed an elegant stone that snaps over the electronics. But, Ringly hasn't gotten to that phase yet.
Still, for workable pieces of technology, these gadgets, even in their unfinished conditions, could pass as non-smart wear, which is exactly what the creators want. Pierson even bragged that someone had complemented MEMI as a bracelet, not knowing it did anything else.
Blending in too well, however, presents a branding problem. If the bracelet wouldn't stand from a stack of flea market finds, potential customers won't know it has additional capabilities. Mercando thinks she has solved that problem by adding light-based alerts. "It will flash a little bit of color and the person will across from you will say: 'Hey, what’s that?'"
But that's not enough, argues Yves Behar, chief creative officer at Jawbone. "To me, what's important is to create unique identities for products," he told Fast Company. "So making it look like something else, is in my opinion, not the right decision." Despite looking like jewelry, Jawbone Up, MEMI, Ringly, and all other wearables have a distinct purpose. Ergo, form should follow function.
A tracker, meant to be worn at all times--both in the board room and in the bedroom--should feel almost invisible to the wearer, says Behar. His team chose a soft athletic material, as opposed to a flashy metal not because it's masculine, but because it's lightweight and comfortable. Sweat was also an important factor. The team tested hundreds of different rubbers.
That doesn't mean the Jawbone Up designers didn't think about women. "I've heard a lot of women tell us that our products are the only ones they’d consider wearing," he said. The team made a lot of hardware and material decisions based on smaller wrists, claims Behar. And from the beginning Jawbone offered a variety of color choices. FitBit, a similar quantified self gizmo, says black and slate are among the most popular color choices for women.
Fitness wearables have a different purpose to which their form must lend itself. They look sporty because they are meant to be worn during sports-like activities.
In contrast, part of the "function" of Memi and Ringly is looking pretty, and at least some women want that. On Kickstarter, 403 others contributed financial backing to help her surpass her $100,000 goal. "I designed something that I wanted and something my friends wanted as well," Pierson says.
[Images courtesy of Christina Mercando | Photo by Adam Dillon]