When Intel unveiled the MICA smart bracelet designed with fashion house Opening Ceremony last fall, the news came amid a flood of other, similar announcements. Buzz surrounding the Apple Watch’s high-end accessories had become deafening; Will.i.am announced plans for his own smartwatch.
But MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory) didn’t just boast a luxe sapphire display (and a $500 price tag). It marked the microprocessor giant’s first-ever foray into the fashion world and was the result of months of collaboration between Intel, Opening Ceremony, Barneys, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
Blending those supremely established worlds of fashion and tech manufacturing would mean Intel’s vice president of new devices, Ayse Ildeniz, would have to to play mediator between hard-nosed hardware engineers and fashion designers for the better part of a year.
“The fashion industry should be at the driver’s seat, not technology,” Ildeniz says she told her team in early 2014 at the outset of the project. And armed with that mantra and the simple goal that the finished product be beautiful and not “geeky,” Ildeniz and her team set off to prove the world’s largest microchip producer could also be fashion-forward.
Early on in the project, Ildeniz said it was clear that the fashion industry didn’t understand the tech world (and vice versa). Once a design for an Intel product is buttoned up, she said it remains largely untouched as it goes into production, which can take 12 to 18 months to build. But in fashion, plans can change by the day as color and material trends are in constant flux. “The [Opening Ceremony] designers wanted to make a bunch of changes, and we were like, ‘Well, the more you change, the more there’s a time lag to market,'” Ildeniz says.
The initial head-butting didn’t end there.
One of Intel’s initial designs for the bracelet was square. “The first time our friends at Opening Ceremony saw that, they said ‘No, no, no–we need it much more round and circular. And we need it much thinner and lighter.’ That’s been almost a continuous discussion between us as to how circular can we make it and how thin and how light could we actually make this bracelet,” Ildeniz says.
Changing the shape was one thing, but the constant pressure for a thinner band grated on Intel’s engineers, who needed to fit a battery, modem, and other electronic components inside the bracelet’s sleek shell. The engineers were used to building things on a flat surface, which tends to allow for more features to be squeezed in. A thin, circular smart bracelet would be challenging.
Conversely, when Intel’s engineering team first saw Opening Ceremony’s designs for MICA, Ildeniz says they were distressed. Early mock-ups had the bracelet constructed almost entirely from metal. “If you actually want to have a radio inside a bracelet, that would not be possible because the radio doesn’t emit signals through metal,” Ildeniz says. So Intel’s industrial design team had to re-create the look of metal with minimal use of the material itself.
Then there were the issues of the bracelet’s USB port, which allows the device to receive a charge and connect to other devices, and the display screen for MICA’s notifications. Intel originally proposed two displays: one outward-facing screen with the positioning of a watch face that would show generic information like the time and date, and another screen on the inner wrist that would be reserved for more personal information. When Intel demoed the concept to Opening Ceremony, they were unimpressed, prodding the engineers to hide the screen and the USB port altogether. “We said, ‘Well, what do you mean? Then people won’t know it’s a smart bracelet,’” Ildeniz says. The designers’ feedback: exactly.
In the months leading up to MICA’s release, both Opening Ceremony and Ildeniz’s team were able to sidestep potential pitfalls that can come with cross-sector collaboration by developing a clear profile for the bracelet’s end user. Every other month, Ildeniz says the teams held closed-door meetings with CFDA and an assemblage of “top fashion intelligentsia” to brainstorm how high-end fashion and tech could mesh best. Then Intel performed surveys of millennials, probing their usage patterns for wearables. Opening Ceremony did the same with their own customer base. Then the two factions came together often to pore over the data.
Through that mediation, the design teams ultimately decided that the MICA user wouldn’t want others to know the bracelet was connected. “The women that we want to sell these to do not want anyone to know that they’re actually using a technical device,” Ildeniz says. “They want it to look like a perfect bracelet, no connectivity, no smartness elements in it.” So the dual screens were nixed in favor of a single inward-facing sapphire touch display. Likewise the USB port was artfully concealed inside the bracelet’s clasp.
Another problem loomed, however–the laws of physics.
While the constant communication between Opening Ceremony and Intel allowed for important compromises, Ildeniz says physical reality kept compromises in check. “I always try to mediate and find the workable solution that would cater the right product,” Ildeniz says. “But it also has to be physically possible. As long as it was within the rules of physics, we would try to facilitate whatever we thought the end user wanted.” Being physically limited in some aspects kept her from over-promising features to Opening Ceremony and staying honest in what she could deliver. Eventually, the teams compromised on a thick-set round bracelet with angular edges to accommodate all of Intel’s technical features. Polycarbonate and gold plating give it a metallic feel while allowing MICA’s radio technology to work uninhibited.
In the wake of its successful fashion debut, Intel now has partnerships on the horizon with Tag Heuer for the first-ever Swiss smartwatch as well as Oakley and its parent company Luxottica for a new smart-glasses concept. The watch will be out later this year, and the smart-glasses project is slated to launch in 2016.
Ayse Ildeniz is one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2015. Click here for more insight from this year’s list.