After a rocky start in which it gave half a million dollars to an autonomous wearable drone, no doubt years away from production, and lost out to rivals for powering high profile smartwatches, Intel has found its feet in the world of wearable tech. Its saviour? Not tech giants, some of whom still don't know what they're doing, but the fashion and sports industries.
Sandra Lopez, Intel's VP of Wearables, sees "tremendous progress" in the merging of fashion and technology in particular since the start of 2016 and we're inclined to agree. But with many designers simply not interested in wearable tech, Intel has had to be pretty smart.
"By the time we proactively reach out to a designer," she says, "we know that they are interested in driving innovation, creativity and pushing the boundaries." And who better to illustrate the point that her latest collaborator, Hussein Chalayan.
Hussein Chalayan & fashion tech magic
Intel's wearable chief was following Hussein Chalayan's wearable tech infused S/S 2017 Paris Fashion Week show from thousands of miles away. But she tells us that the collaboration has been a year in the making and it was Intel which approached the British-Cypriot designer, famous for his pioneering uses of tech including LED, robotic and shape shifting smart dresses.
"It was a beautiful show," she says. "A couple of different fashion influencers mentioned to Intel that we should be collaborating with Hussein Chalayan. So we decided to approach him. We were talking about what was happening from an overall cultural and society perspective and the notion of the stress that surrounds us."
The result was a collection of biometric, stress tracking, Intel Curie powered smartglasses and data analysing, pico projecting oversized belts which projected real time visualisations of the stress data onto one wall of the catwalk venue in Paris' sixth arrondissement. Five models wore the get up and were instructed to do breathing exercises to lower their stress and receive biofeedback via the artistic visuals.
Chalayan himself put out a quote today, praising Intel's involvement: "I have been working with wearable technology for many years," he said. "Throughout this time, it has been very important for me to work on ideas which will be as close as possible to a real product while also challenging myself at the same time."
What's interesting about the stress setup, apart from its high fashion context, is what it tells us about what technologies Intel is experimenting with. There's capacitive EEG brainwave reading electrodes on each side of the glasses frames - "We've been developing that technology, it's the first time we've introduced it within a fashion piece" - as well as a microphone to capture breathing sounds and a optical heart rate sensor on the nose clip of the glasses. Unusual.
"The challenge we put to ourselves within Intel as engineers is where can we integrate sensors that make the most sense and yet the technology is invisible," explains Lopez. "So that was one manifestation where we could integrate heart rate variability and capture information about your body. With a lot of wearables, heart rate is on the wrist."
Curie uses what Intel calls 'sensor fusion' - nice name - to combine the heart rate, EEG and breathing data then send it to the connected belt computer for analysis. Now we're not all going to walk around pico projecting our emotional states onto walls, obviously, but this is just a version of a stress biofeedback wearable system that reads well for cameras and fashion crowds.
New Balance & Fila incoming
With the Tag and Fossil watches under its belt and now the Oakley Radar Pace smartglasses/hearable is finally confirmed and in for review, one of the only outstanding mass market wearable products on Lopez's to-do list is that running focused New Balance smartwatch. It was announced at CES 2016 and pretty much everyone has forgotten about it (including, admittedly, us).
New Balance's microsite still says 'Holiday 2016' for the release but Lopez won't give us any surefire details: "At this point we're not disclosing when we're launching the New Balance smartwatch," she says. Is it still in development? "New Balance is still our partner."
Our bet is that Intel and New Balance are waiting for Android Wear 2.0 to drop, a launch which has just this week been pushed back to early 2017. Smartwatch first impressions count especially with lifestyle and fashion buyers like New Balance customers. Its Digital Sport platform will involve customised 3D printed insoles and, we assume at some point, connected sports shoes.
"Our strategy within Intel is that if it connects then it should be on Intel whether it's on your wrist or your head or other parts of your body," says Lopez. "Today you see us partner with Tag and Luxottica, anticipate that you will see us partner with other designers. We've recently launched products with Intel Curie with TOME at New York Fashion Week, with Baja East and Fila, you're going to continue seeing us finding the right partners and bringing products to market."
Every collaboration we've seen at New York and Paris Fashion Week has been powered by Intel's button sized Curie module which it's not planning to replace anytime soon. But it's far from the only technology that can make dumb accessories smart.
"Intel Curie is a product that we will continue to support but we will continue to create other technologies," she says. "That's what you saw with the new Radar Pace [i.e Intel RealAudio] to deliver experiences for the customer set that we have in mind."
Lopez also tells us that, unsurprisingly, Intel's R&D labs are working on computer modules and electronics for smart clothing: "We do have an R&D lab which focuses on how do you miniaturise computing, how do you incorporate it into various types of objects and fabrics as well. We're looking at the notion of how do you integrate technology so it still has the aesthetic and feeling of fabric."
In the near term, Intel will continue to go "high, medium and low" when it comes to fashion partnerships so it can inspire from the top down and actually get its tech into wearables that are selling.
"Whether it's a designer that is choosing to drive experimentation," she says, "or a brand house that has decided to create a connected devices division within the organisation, you're starting to see much more acceptance of what technology can do for a brand."