When Ashlyn Bird met Ravinder Singh, she had no idea she was about to become a wearable tech entrepreneur. It was autumn 2014, and Bird was a newly minted alumni from the University of Windsor's MBA program in Ontario, Canada. She was working as an advisor at a local tech and innovation centre, and one of her regular clients was an industrial engineer with a penchant for electronics.
Singh had come to her with an idea for an earring that could capture biodata. In a market crowded with wrist-based devices that were often clunky and unattractive, Singh saw an opportunity to create something especially for the ear. He had the technology and an algorithm, but nothing tangible yet.
A few months later, in February 2015, Bird and Singh became business partners with a mission to transform the jewellery market forever. Under the corporation BioSensive Technologies Inc., the two embarked on a journey to bring the first smart earring to market, called the Ear-O-Smart.
A fashionable Fitbit
Ear-O-Smart is described as a "fashionable Fitbit." Like a Fitbit, it will monitor calorie burn, activity levels, and heart rate, but unlike a Fitbit, this smart earring won't occupy real estate on your wrist. Instead, it will slip unnoticed onto the back of your ear.
This small shift from the wrist to the ear has significant implications. First, it may crack the code in terms of delivering continuous, accurate biodata.
"The wrist is actually one of the worst places to derive heart rate from" says Bird, co-founder and vice president of BioSensive Technologies. She says the reason that wrist-based devices have fallen short on delivering accurate readings is because of the lack of contact with the skin. The humble ear, however, is flexible, and an earring provides natural, constant contact with the skin. "Physicians have been reading heart rate from the ear lobe for a long time because of the quality of blood flow through the ear."
In addition to honing in on continuous measurement, focusing on the ear also allows Ear-O-Smart to hone in on women, an overlooked segment when it comes to wearables. "We started out with a vision to create a health and fitness device that also integrated fashion. What we found is that there's a huge gap in the market when it comes to wearables targeted towards women. A lot of the devices out there are designed to be unisex at best, and then just offered in a few ultra-feminine colours that aren't flattering to most women."
While looks aren't everything, a device's aesthetics impact on its wearability. For fashion-conscious or professional women, a Fitbit can seem like a lame statement when paired with an evening dress or powersuit.
"What ends up happening is that you wear your device when you work out, and then stash it in your purse the rest of the day." says Bird. "The problem here is you're not capturing 90% of your lifestyle data, which is when you actually burn the most calories." Ear-O-Smart overcomes this hurdle by being unobtrusive and comfortable.
The smart jewellery boom
BioSensive Technologies isn't the only company recognising the business opportunity in creating wearables for women. In the past few years, the smart jewellery sector has shown an uptick, and a number of key players have emerged.
Ringly, the darling of the fashion tech industry, started out with a smart ring that delivers custom notifications to your finger via haptic feedback and a small light at the side of the ring. Its Aries smart bracelet, which adds fitness tracking, is due to ship this summer. The company is currently New York-based, but was born out of San Francisco's Highway1 hardware accelerator program and turned heads when venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz led a $5.1 million Series A investment round backing Ringly in early 2015.
Jewels x modules
Later the same year, watchmaker Fossil announced it would be acquiring Misfit, maker of minimalist activity trackers, for $260 million. As well as operating its own brand of affordable wristables, Misfit will also be providing tech expertise to help establish Fossil as a leader in the smart jewellery space.
While Ear-O-Smart started like Ringly and Misfit β as a wearable product with companion software β it has since pivoted to reposition itself as a technology provider.
Rather than trying to sell earrings, BioSensive Technologies is now posed to offer patent-pending universal earring backings that work with almost every earring. It's a smart move in the fickle world of fashion. As styles change and tastes vary, developing a wearable with staying power and wide appeal can be challenging.
"We'd realised that we'd nailed the hardware piece very quickly, but when we got into the product design, we were faced with a new challenge." That challenge wasn't to create an earring that was aesthetically pleasing, but to make one that would appeal to every woman every day.
Keep your earring collection
If moving to the ear allowed Ear-O-Smart to solve the problem of continuous wearability, moving from the front of the ear to the back solved an even greater problem in the world of wearables: versatility.
"Women already have jewellery collections of their own and go-to earrings, just like their favourite little black dress. I don't know too many women who would give up their entire earring collection to wear one pair of smart earrings for the rest of their life."
Over the summer Bird and Singh will be conducing beta tests of the first versions of their product, and they aim to be taking pre-orders by June. They've just completed their presentation-ready prototype and are working on retail and wholesale pricing. While they can't provide exact numbers in terms of cost at the moment, they promise Ear-O-Smart will be competitive with most wearable devices on the market today.
While they still have some way to go, Ear-O-Smart may move the needle in terms of bringing smart jewellery to the masses. In repositioning it as a tech add-on rather than a piece of jewellery, they've come up with a solution that's as versatile as the modern woman. "We wear clothes and jewellery everyday, so they're a seamless way to integrate technology into our lives," says Bird.
It used to be enough for jewellery to be beautiful or sentimental. We're now demanding more from the trinkets we adorn our bodies with.