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How Intel hopes to get women interested in wearables

Intel's Ayse IldenizIntel's Ayse Ildeniz
Intel's Ayse IldenizCourtesy of Intel

When Ayse Ildeniz looks at the world, she sees all the ways technology could make it better.

She envisions wearable devices that keep elderly women in close touch with their doctors and families, that track what kids eat or watch on TV while their mom is away at work, that help women in rural India make sure their children arrive safely at school.

“I can think of about 50 different uses for wearables that would be fantastic for women,” she says, “but we haven’t done it yet as an industry. My humble view is that we women have been ignored. It’s my sense that now everybody’s pretty much waking up to that, which is very, very exciting.”

As the vice president of Intel’s (INTC) New Devices Group and general manager of business and development strategy, Ildeniz—who defines her job as “exploring uncharted territories and trying to create things that don’t exist”—is one of several leaders who are tackling the women-and-wearables challenge wrist-first.

In the last few months, she’s guided Intel’s efforts to release a jewelry communications device (MICA), to develop a wearables chip for fashion designers (Curie), and to forge partnerships with prominent fashion brands. “For me, wearables is a wonderful opportunity to learn about women’s needs,” she says, “and to make sure technology companies are producing things that are defined and designed for women.”

Part of the reason women haven’t embraced wearables sooner, according to Ildeniz, stems from visual appeal—or, more specifically, a lack of it. In late 2013 and throughout 2014, she says two kinds of wearables ruled the category: those devoted to sports and fitness but with limited aesthetic value, and those with multiple uses (“I call them the Swiss army knife approach”) with, again, limited aesthetic value.

When Intel surveyed men and women in early 2014, the company discovered something interesting. People said they wanted their wearables not only to perform technical acrobatics, but also to look great. “It was probably the biggest surprise in our research,” Ildeniz says, “but it’s so no-brainer.”

That’s when Ildeniz’s group, led by former Apple (APPL) vice president Mike Bell, got to work on MICA. They teamed up with fashion designers from Opening Ceremony to create My Intelligent Communication Accessory, which hit Barneys stores in December. It sells for $495 and looks like an upscale bracelet, but it also sends notifications, loads calendar entries and trades text messages.

Ildeniz says collaborations between fashionistas and engineers are the key to developing wearable tech that women actually want to wear. On MICA, for instance, she recalls that Intel’s engineers thought the display should sit on top, like a watch face. But their fashion counterparts argued for a hidden underside screen, insisting that their customers wanted camouflaged functionality—a wearable no one would recognize as such.

“That was shocking for our technologists,” she adds. “Our engineers were like, ‘Well, are you sure?’ But it was fantastic feedback.”

That’s why Ildeniz thinks designer-engineer teams are so important: they can fill in each other’s knowledge gaps. But Intel’s also working on closing that gap, at least on the fashion side. They have a Curie chip in the works, named after the famous scientist and due out later this year. It’s a button-sized hardware module, small enough to fit in rings or purses or pendants, and Ildeniz says it will encourage fashion designers, entrepreneurs and the accessory industry writ large to design wearables without needing their own engineers.

The New Devices Group is also working on collaborations with Fossil—reportedly a smartwatch—and Luxottica, including a smart glasses project for the Oakley brand. Beyond aesthetics, Ildeniz says her team is focused on the particular uses women have for their devices—things like communication with friends and family—with each project. “If you’re into sports, it’s wonderful to know how many steps you’ve done during the day,” she adds. “But if you’re not, what is the purpose of this thing?”

Ildeniz believes wearables can truly help women in ways they actually need: checking on their children, taking medication, managing their schedule and workloads. “There are so many opportunities out there, and part of my job is deciding which ones to bet on,” she says. “That’s a lot of responsibility, and we have a lot of open dialogue to ensure we’re making the right decisions.”

But at this point, Ildeniz is used to making big choices and working at the cutting edge of technology. Before she joined the New Devices Group in 2013, she was the regional director of Intel’s Middle East, Turkey and Africa region for 10 years. Working with Bell, Ildeniz helped create devices—including Yolo, a smartphone for Africa—“designed for the people, particularly for their needs,” she says. “Over there, the technology really doesn’t matter if it doesn’t enrich people’s lives.”

“There is no category defined yet, or existing for that matter,” Ildeniz adds, referring to her current role with the New Devices Group. “It’s very exciting to be a maverick.”

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