“When people find something they really enjoy, they teach themselves,” says Sara Chipps, a serial entrepreneur and former CTO of coding bootcamp the Flatiron School.
That’s the animating principle behind Jewelbots, Chipps’s latest venture. She and cofounder Brooke Moreland have reimagined the classic charm bracelet as a cutting-edge wearable, with the goal of inspiring young girls to experiment with code.
If Minecraft motivates boys as young as eight to take on challenges like building their own servers, says Chipps, why not create the equivalent environment, but for girls? “This whole thing has been a quest to find something that girls love so much, and give them the opportunity to customize it if they want to,” she says. “They don’t have to [customize]–but the hypothesis is, they’ll teach themselves and create community around it.”
We’re sitting in the Chinatown office in New York where she and Moreland have been working since graduating from Highway1, a hardware accelerator that counts Ringly among its alumni. Chipps picks up an early flower charm prototype the size of her palm, made of aluminum and injection-molded plastic, and then compares it to a more recent version. The electronics, including LEDs and a motor that produces vibrations, will fit inside a small disc roughly the size of a quarter. Translucent plastic charms of varying designs will fit over the disc, and then attach to an elastic bracelet.
When within Bluetooth range, Jewelbots bracelets will be able to communicate with one another via mesh network–for example, flashing purple to indicate that a friend is nearby, or buzzing twice to indicate a new social media message. Girls will be able to set simple notification preferences, using an iOS or Android-compatible app, or establish rules of their own, using Jewelbots’s Arduino-compatible library.
Chipps and Moreland hope that girls ages 9 to 14, who for generations have created private languages known only to their friends, will see potential in Jewelbots to riff on those classic social games. Sequences of light or vibration, says Moreland, open the door to Morse code-style communication. “It helps them to be creative–what do you want these vibrations to mean?” she says. “The secret language really appeals to them.”
Other startups focused on women in technology have opted to partner with schools. Vidcode, for example, which introduces code by teaching girls to apply custom filters to their photos and videos, is developing curricular supports for teachers. Jewelbots, in contrast, intends to harness the kind of parent-skirting, disappearing-ink creativity that is often evident in tweens’ use of hashtags and SMS acronyms.
Jewelbots didn’t start with a focus on communication. Chipps initially thought that girls would want to program their bracelets to match the color of their outfit or reflect their mood. But talking to dozens of prospective customers led to a shift in strategy. “The changing color bracelet thing was really boring to them,” she says. Messaging with their friends, on the other hand, got them “so stoked.”
With that direction in place, the team’s primary challenges have been common to wearable companies: making trade-offs between size and battery life and trouble-shooting manufacturing problems. At one point they tried to make the charms 33 millimeters in diameter in order to maximize battery capacity.
“Looking at it on a ruler is different than actually seeing it,” Moreland says–especially when the intended wearers are pint-size. “On their wrists it was just monstrous.”
They trimmed 11 millimeters from the diameter, and another four from the height. That meant compromising on the number of LEDs, from eight down to four–less bling, but a better fit.
With the design set, manufacturing is scheduled to start in China next week, in partnership with the same company that produces LittleBits. If Chipps and Moreland can stick to their schedule, they’ll be launching a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign in the coming weeks and shipping the first batch of bracelets in time for the holidays (retail price for a complete starter set: roughly $60). Their $300,000 campaign on Quire, an open platform for accredited investors, is already under way.
“We’re really trying to change the way that girls view themselves, as far as being technologically savvy,” Moreland says.
And if they can succeed in that regard: “We haven’t thought of the coolest applications for these bracelets yet,” Chipps says. “I think the girls will.”