Small screen size presents the biggest challenge to using—not to mention designing—a smartwatch. This loosely defined term has come to include just about any digital timepiece with a voice- or touch-enabled display. But women's watches, which are traditionally smaller and more delicate than timepieces for men, pose an extra dilemma for smartwatch makers trying to pack fitness monitoring and smartphone functions into a wrist-worn device. As a result, very few smartwatches have been designed specifically to appeal to a woman’s lifestyle needs or fashion sense.
And yet women outnumber men as prospective buyers of wearable fitness devices, according to a 2014 study by the research firm NPD Group. That sense of an untapped market may explain why a handful of manufacturers have begun designing smartwatches for women in a way that extends beyond swapping out different colored bands on gender-neutral devices. As a result, two different smartwatch makers have taken two very different approaches to reach out to women interested in the technology.
A poll conducted by Intel’s New Devices Group indicated that women prefer to exude fashion—not technology—with what they wear. With that benchmark, Intel and designers at the fashion shop Opening Ceremony crafted a high-tech accessory they've called MICA (short for My Intelligent Communication Accessory). Retailing at $495, MICA looks like a stylish bracelet and behaves like a smartwatch. Pearls and a precious stone adorn the bracelet, which comes in black or white and is made of water snake skin. A curved-sapphire touch-screen display, reaching nearly 40 millimeters diagonally, wraps around the bracelet’s underside. “We engineers would like to have electronics laid out on a flat surface,” says Ayse Ildeniz, vice president of Intel’s New Devices Group and general manager of strategy and business development. Stretching electronics across a smartwatch’s bent surface inherently amplifies its surface area, resulting in a bulkier design, she says. Because some women prefer chunky jewelry, MICA’s bulky appearance blends well with some fashion trends.
Battery life was a major issue, as it is with most wearables. “There is this interaction between battery life and display size that impacts the overall industrial design,” says Richard Kerslake, director of strategy and products for the New Devices Group. “There is a tradeoff that has to be made there.” He says women have historically gravitated toward smaller watches, resulting in the need for batteries with smaller diameters that leaves only two options: reduced life or increased thickness. In the end, Intel optimized the shape and size of a curved battery to enhance user experience of the display screen—including the richness of Opening Ceremony’s wallpaper on the interface—as well as last all day, depending on the user’s interaction.
Start-up wearables maker Omate chose a different path to making its Lutetia smartwatch, which will be sold in jewelry stores beginning in September. Lutetia looks more like a conventional lady's watch, weighing 35 grams less than the MICA and 25 grams less than the 18-karat-rose gold Apple Watch.
Omate first staked a claim in the wearables market when it generated $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign for its water-resistant smartwatch in 2013. The company is adding Lutetia to its lineup because of the lack of smartwatches that appeal specifically to women, says Ving Chen, the watch’s lead designer. “All of the devices available in the market last year were really ugly and bulky,” she says. “That’s the reason we decided to design a smartwatch for women.”
Early on, Omate knew that the smartwatch design approach of mobile technology manufacturers was “wrong”, according to Chen. Although smartphones are useful tools, they have limited customization beyond black for men and white for women. “That does not work for wearable devices,” she says. Her main priority was to design a stylish and customizable watch for women with simple, yet practical functions. “No men were allowed in the design process of Lutetia, so we had a full girl-power design,” she says. “We have been spending a lot of time in assessing the market.”
The $199 Lutetia comes in silver, gold and rose gold with a matching beaded strap. Bluetooth 4.0 low energy technology pushes notifications—such as e-mails, SMS, phone calls and social media—from an iPhone or Android smartphone to the watch.
Although the core technology within Lutetia is the same as Omate’s male smartwatches, Racer and Roma, Lutetia looks and feels as if it was fashioned for women—unlike the Apple Watch. The only visible distinction between the male and female Apple Watch is display height (38 or 42 millimeters), band material (leather, rubber or stainless steel) and color (red, gray, blue, black, white, soft pink and more). “We believe the user interface should not be bigger than your fingertip,” Chen says. Due to supply chain issues, Omate had difficulty finding a smaller round display. Eventually Omate found a stylish and functional screen—although it was larger than initially planned. With a 31-millimeter-diameter touch-screen display, the Lutetia—if you can get one—sports a battery that reportedly outperforms competitors. Lutetia lasts 72 hours in standby mode and 48 hours in normal use, which is about four times longer than Apple Watch, Chen says.
It’s still too soon to determine if MICA or Lutetia will appeal to women in the long run. But, at least now, the male-dominated wearables industry is finally listening to what women want.