The musings of a startup in the wearable world: Respect the past and innovate

Picture credit: Omate

Today, the most important device in our connected life is our smartphone. It has totally changed the way we interact with each other. It is the first thing we check when we leave a place.

We may touch our pockets a few times a day just to feel safe – according to recent survey figures most US smartphone owners check their phones at least once an hour – but for that 10% when we are especially focused on outdoor activities, we must leave our phone out of reach, whether we are running, cycling, or for the 90 minutes that a football game lasts. That was the idea behind our project called “outdoor mate” – which later became Omate.

Two years ago, we launched our first product – the Omate TrueSmart – on Kickstarter. At that time, we had designed what would be one of the world’s first standalone Android smartwatches connected to the telecom network; a beautiful piece of wearable technology which would allow the wearer to get the full power of a smartphone on its wrist.

We learned from Richline Group that technology is what we carry, but fashion is what we wear. It totally changed the way we design our wearable tech products

We had pitched the ‘outdoor mate’ concept to several large mobile phone OEMs. The idea had started when we connected an iPod nano display to an Android smartphone motherboard and, after a few engineering tricks, we turned it on and saw the tiny screen displaying a thumbnail version of my smartphone user interface.

Yet none of the brands believed in the project. That’s the reason why we set up Omate, as a combination of the outdoor mate project. We launched our Kickstarter campaign in August 2013 with the goal of raising $100,000 – the target was achieved within half a day and the campaign ended with over $1m of funding.

Selling the TrueSmart to distributors worldwide, we signed Richline Group as a customer; a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s largest distributors of jewellery. What we learned from them is that technology is what we carry, but fashion is what we wear. It totally changed the way we design our wearable tech products today.

How technology adapted to the jewellery market

If we look back at the very first ‘wearables’ – whether it was a fitness tracker or a smartwatch – they were all designed by hardware and software engineers usually with a mobile phone design background, much like ourselves.

For these people, technology comes first to mind, and because smartphones are rather hard to differentiate through style today, they are basically all made of a large flat touch panel, a display with a printed circuit board underneath, and powered by a lithium battery. When it comes to colour choice, mobile phone designers will opt for simplicity. Unfortunately, that approach does not work for jewellery – however smart they are.

When we enter a jewellery shop, there is an area for men and another one for women. It’s the same for fashion in general, and that is not going to change anytime soon. However, over the last 12 months, tech companies started to understand that this approach was wrong, and that even though we were designing amazing pieces of engineering, they were ugly for the mass market beyond early adopters.

The concept of having people wearing the same clothes, glasses and jewellery seems like the plot of a bad science fiction movie about the ultimate dictatorship. Apple took aim at that concept when they released the Macintosh 31 years ago – “you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”.

Money can’t buy style

One of the world’s most influential and powerful companies, Google, made a painful entry into the wearable world through a bold trial with the infamous Google Glass (above).

They failed for many reasons – but the most obvious one in my opinion was that they were trying hard to be cool and fashionable. That was definitely a wrong move – or a fashion faux pas – for them as they were lacking legitimacy in the fashion world.

Umair Haque explained it further in an article for the Harvard Business Review, which is best summarised with the phrase ‘cool cannot be engineered.’ “All of that desperate manoeuvring served to reinforce the obvious,” he wrote, “that Google Glass was so uncool, the only thing Google could do was try to force it to be cool.”

Disruption may be a hype word among startup founders, but entering a new industry without paying respect to the past is a risky choice. Wearable is the fastest growing market segment of the consumer electronic industry; jewellery is a $250bn annual market, and of course tech companies are interested in leading the smart jewellery market.

Most of the luxury watch brands are over 150 years old, while jewellery has been part of human history for thousands of years. On top of that, not many people know that the fashion industry is ‘owned’ by eight powerful groups; French LVMH, Kering, along with Swiss Richemont, are among the strongest.

These groups literally own the luxury industry, from haute couture fashion houses, to fragrances and luxury watches. They will not let any tech brands trample over them and be cool and fashionable.

Respect the past and innovate

Rome was not built in a day. This adage is definitely true when it comes to explaining the legitimacy of a brand in an evolving industry. Instead of trying hard to be cool, tech companies should rather focus on their core business in the first place. Stick to the tech; learn from the leaders you try so hard to disrupt; master the codes; empower people; grow and gain legitimacy.

Disruption may be a hype word among startup founders, but entering a new industry without paying respect to the past is a risky choice

Today, Omate is a humble wearable tech platform founded two years ago by legitimate mobile phone designers, hardware, and software engineers. We have been growing fast – raising over $1m after only two months of operations, growing from two to 20 employees – but the most important is that the whole team has been learning from our industrial partners, which are all legitimate leading companies in their own field.

Omate is designing fashionable wearable devices at affordable prices – as a benchmark, if we were a fashion brand, it would most likely be Uniqlo or H&M. And, just like them, we team up with luxury brands which value our legitimacy as a wearable tech company. This allows them to get access to a younger audience, which is a great bet on the future for their brands.

Thanks to that approach, we have been able to work with renowned French Fashion House — Emanuel Ungaro and jewelry leader — Richline Group to design a stunning smart jewelry — the Omate X Ungaro ring.

The Omate X Ungaro ring is a subtle blend of fashion and technology. It has been designed in Paris by Ungaro; engineered by Omate and it will be assembled in Italy by Richline Group.

Combining legitimate talents is definitely the most efficient way to design the wearables of the 21st century.

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