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.
One intriguing aspect of Jewelbots is the way they unite fashion and function. With a typical smartwatch, fashion and function are separate. The watch may look nice, and it may be useful, but these two concerns don’t have much to do with one another. With Jewelbots, the functionalityenhances the fashion. A Jewelbot is the rare wearable that becomes prettier when it’s working. The glowing charm not only lets you know a friend is nearby but also makes this fact visible to those around you. Insofar as jewelry is fundamentally about sending signals to other people, that’s an important distinction.
The glowing charm not only lets you know a friend is nearby but also makes this fact visible to those around you. Insofar as jewelry is fundamentally about sending signals to other people, that’s an important distinction.
An example might help illustrate what I’m getting at. We can imagine a fitness tracker that works by the same principle. This hypothetical band is studded with LEDs, but out of the box, it’s programmed to shine a single color. Only as you achieve your personal fitness goals do you unlock other colors, which you can display on your bracelet as you desire. Higher-level achievement unlocks rare, brilliant, eye-catching colors and patterns. The more committed you become to your fitness, in other words, the more attractive this piece of jewelry becomes. Fashion and function reinforce one another. This sort of thing won’t appeal to everyone, but as wearable makers try to crack the delicate problem of combining utility and ornament, it seems like an idea worth exploring.
The other compelling thing about Jewelbots is more straightforward: It’s how much they’re able to do with so little hardware. Each charm is capable of networking with other charms and of a limited form of input and output. They’re vastly less expensive than most other wearables—you can get two charms by pledging $60 to Kickstarter—and they’re made to be tinkered with. If nothing else, Jewelbots are a reminder that high-definition screens aren’t the only way to convey information on the wrist. The watch is an obvious model for a wearable, but it’s not the only one.
Could an adult version of Jewelbots make sense? Sure. Here’s another hypothetical product. You have a leather bracelet braided with five elegant digital beads. One lights up red every time you get an email from work. Another glows green when your significant other is trying to get ahold of you. You’ve linked one up with the Dark Sky weather app on your phone; it flashes blue ten minutes before it’s going to rain. You’ve set another to vibrate every hour, on the hour, to mark the time. The other beads ambiently track other interests: stock prices, physical activity, home energy usage.
But notification charms are just the start. Other beads build on Jewelbots’ idea of mesh-based proximity to open up all sorts of interesting functionality. A dedicated photo-sharing bead coordinates with others like it, automatically flagging pics from group outings and pooling them for everyone to check out later. A flirting bead links up to your dating profile and pulses a pattern when you’re in the vicinity of someone with similar interests. Beads become the new apps, orchestrating nuanced and complex real-world interactions that don’t require smartphones or screens.
OK, ok, digital charm bracelets may never replace smartphones. But wearables are still a wide-open category, and it never hurts to entertain new ideas. For her part, Chipps does think there’s wider potential for programmable, mesh-networking wearables; she and her co-founders have already applied for a patent on their particular implementation. For now, though, they’re content to serve their current demographic. “We’re starting with teenage girls because we think they’re the awesomest,” Chipps says. Come to think of it, they might be ideal wearable users. After all, what group loves jewelry and technology more?