Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Somehow Teen Girls Get the Coolest Wearable Out There

Jewelbots are bracelets with programmable plastic flowers made for middle-school girls. They’re also the most interesting wearable I’ve seen this year.

Their creators describe them as “friendships bracelets that teach girls to code.” Compared to a gleaming Apple Watch or even an entry-level Fitbit, the Jewelbot hardware is primitive: a semi-translucent plastic flower charm that slides onto a hair tie–like elastic bracelet. The functionality is basic, too. The charms talk to each other over Bluetooth, and using a Jewelbots smartphone app, youngsters can program their charms to vibrate or light up when their friends are nearby. But despite their apparent simplicity, Jewelbots exhibit some truly fresh thinking about wearable technology. And with a little imagination, they hint at devices far more interesting than today’s computer watches.

Jewelbots was co-founded by Sara Chipps, Brooke Moreland, and Maria Paula Saba. Chipps is a developer and co-founder of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that teaches women to code. Moreland is an entrepreneur with experience in high-tech fashion products, and Saba is a graduate of NYU’s ITP program, now studying Bluetooth and Arduino as a post-doc fellow. But before Jewelbots was a product, it was a shared ambition. More than any particular feature or function, the group wanted to build something that would get teenage girls interested in programming.

The idea took shape over several years. The group started by looking at products like MySpace and Minecraft that had successfully enticed kids to dabble in code. “We kind of wanted to reverse engineer that,” Chipps says. These examples were reassuring. They proved that if kids are genuinely interested in an outcome or effect—building a unique Minecraft structure, say, or tricking out their Myspace profiles—they won’t shy away from code as a means to achieve it.

That just left the question of the desired effect. Initially, the creators imagined Jewelbots as digital ornament that could be programmed to match girls’ outfits. But the verdict from talking to prospective preteen users was negative. “They were like,’That sounds really stupid, and I would never use that,'” Chipps says. Instead, the girls always returned to two themes: friendship and communication.

The enmities and allegiances that form and dissolve in a single day rival anything that might be taught in European history class. Teens and preteens crave ways to make these connections visible.

This isn’t surprising. As the Jewelbots founders were reminded by company adviser Amy Jo Kim, a longtime researcher of online communities, middle school is an age where everyone is tribal. The enmities and allegiances that form and dissolve in a single day rival anything that might be taught in European history class. What’s more, teens and preteens crave ways to make these connections visible. That settled things. Where other wearables had sought to reinvent the watch, Jewelbots followed a different template: the friendship bracelet.

Using the Jewelbots smartphone app, a girl can assign a friend one of eight different colors. When they’re nearby, both of their charms light up that color. They can assign other friends to other colors; if they’re hanging out in a group, all their Jewelbots bangles turn into pulsing rainbow flair. The charm also doubles as a button which can be used to send haptic messages to friends in a particular color group (the message presumably drafted in accordance with a phenomenally complex code developed by the cohort at an earlier time.) All these features are set up through a smartphone app, but the Jewelbots stay connected through a Bluetooth mesh network, independent of Wi-Fi or cell towers. “The way we designed it is that girls never need their phones,” Chipps says.

There’s much more Jewelbots can do if girls care to figure it out. The smartphone app is meant to be a simple point of entry, but by plugging their charm into their computer, girls can use Arduino software to hook up their Jewelbots to just about anything. Maybe someone wants hers to glow green every time she gets a new follower on Instagram, or to vibrate when her dog leaves the yard. Both possible, and totally doable for a novice coder, Chipps says. With this more advanced use, the Jewelbot becomes a personal node linked up to the greater world of open-source hardware and software. “That’s where we’re really hoping to drive the girls,” Chipps says.

Jewelbots are a thoughtfully constructed Trojan Horse for getting young girls to think about programming. The company’s Kickstarter campaign has raised $90,000. But the bracelets might also have worthwhile lessons for other wearable makers.

by Kyle Vanhemert, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Jewelbots