Jan 22, 2015

    Smartwatches get 'less geek, more sleek' for women


    HOW do you get a piece of smart technology on a woman's wrist?

    It is not as simple as it sounds. That is a question many watchmakers and technology developers have been mulling over for the last couple of years. The consensus seems to be that women are not attracted to "geeky" models with blocky flat-panel displays.

    When it comes to a smartwatch, women "pay more attention to the product's external design, the brand's image and fashion status, and use of precious metals", said Sulabh Madhwal, a personal accessories industry analyst at Euromonitor International, a market research firm based in London.

    But women are interested in smart wearables almost as much as men.

    In a report issued last year by NPD Group, a market research firm, a survey of 1,800 Canadians found that 25 per cent of the men said they would be interested in purchasing a smartwatch, against about 18 per cent of women.

    There are roughly three categories of design: smart "bracelets" that tell the time; flat-panel digital watches with a feminine setting; and analogue-style watches with a few smart capabilities.

    Some come as standalone devices, but for the moment, most of the smart wearables aimed at women are focused on notification features rather than a wide range of gadgetry.

    "Ninety per cent of the smartwatches now are companion watches, meant to be used alongside a smartphone," said Laurent Le Pen, founder and chief executive of Omate, which designed the Lutetia smartwatch specifically for women.

    "The rest are geek watches," he said. "They're more complex, but they're not appealing to any women."

    The most visible player in the women's smartwatch arena is the Mica bracelet, a collaboration between chipmaker Intel and fashion house Opening Ceremony, based in California.

    Shown during the New York Fashion Week in September, Mica was heralded as the first luxury smartwatch for women.

    "Our research found that women today are very active, both socially and professionally, and want to be 'in the know' at all times," said Aysegul Ildeniz, vice-president of the new devices group at Intel.

    "We also found that wearables were not fashionable enough for women to wear in their everyday lives. It became clear that what was needed in the space was a product that would conveniently deliver the information a woman needs, while also being desirable to wear."

    Mica or My Intelligent Communications Accessory looks like a rather chunky bracelet. It comes in textures such as Ayers snakeskin, and is decorated with semi-precious gemstones including pearls and lapis lazuli.

    Inside, it has an Intel XMM6321 3G cellular radio chip "to enable untethered communications, so that relying on a smartphone is not required", Ms Ildeniz said.

    "The end result looks like a fashionable statement piece and not a piece of technology," she added.

    "The textiles and precious stones distinguish the bracelet in the realm of smartwatches, health and fitness bands, and clip-on covers."

    There are several similar bracelets with fashionable designs. Examples include Ibis watch by Finnish company Creoir, and Memi, an iPhone-compatible, Bluetooth-enabled bracelet from Smartwatch Group, a thick silver bangle that vibrates when notifications come through on a phone.

    The marketing strategy, as articulated in the Memi online video campaign, which shows mothers pushing strollers and women in business meetings, is to appeal to busy women who may want to "unplug without disconnecting from the people who matter most".

    Omate, a start-up based in Shenzhen, China, that was initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, is banking on this strategy with its third watch, the Lutetia.

    "Some smartwatches are just saying, 'We're putting a white strap on the watch and now it's a smartwatch for women'," Mr Le Pen said. "We had the feeling this was the wrong approach."

    With a smallish 40mm round watch face covered with sapphire-coated glass, and a beaded metallic band that comes in silver, rose gold and gold, the watch looks like an analogue model from afar.

    On closer inspection, it turns out to have a touchscreen that is a transflective liquid crystal display.

    When the wearer receives a phone call, text message or other notifications, the watch vibrates and she can tap the screen and see the incoming information.

    Mr Le Pen said that the challenge was coming up with a design that would appeal to women.

    "We felt that we are not competing with Samsung, LG, Motorola or Apple," he said. "We are competing with women's fashion brands such as Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Guess. It's a totally different approach."

    Fashion houses are exploring ways to make their own smartwatches. Guess recently announced a plan to work with a California start-up, Martian Watches, to make a voice-command watch this year. It has not released details about the collaboration.

    Martian, founded seven years ago, was also funded by Kickstarter. It is best known for watches with voice-command technology that can be used in place of a smartphone.

    Stan Kinsey, the company's president, said the main attraction for most buyers remains the notifier features, and that the company sells about 50 per cent of its notifier watches to women.

    "The important thing for a woman is being able to keep her phone in her purse or her bag, and still knowing what's going on," Mr Kinsey said.

    "We've been able to give her a watch that has custom vibration patterns, almost like a Morse code, so that she knows what's going on without looking. If you're dining with a friend, you don't really want to have to look at your phone. Or even look at your watch."

    The Martian Notifier is an analogue quartz watch with a Japanese movement, a 40mm watch face and a regular, elevated dial. It has a small bar in the watch face where notifications of incoming calls or text messages scroll across a small screen called an Oled readout, which looks like a ticker tape typing out information. Models come in black, white and red.

    "Analogue watches have been around, and they're still the most popular high-end watch design, so we've said, what if we started with a classic watch and made it smart?" Mr Kinsey said. "Mostly it's a fashion piece that people are wearing, but it's also a convenience."