Four ways wearable tech and VR design verges on sexist - and how to fix it

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It's rare that I pull the sexist card out in my day-to-day writing about wearable tech. But to hell with it. There are too many instances to count of accidental - and indeed intentional - design that assumes the wearer or user is a man. So I generally don't bother.

It's probably near impossible to notice if you're a man because hey, you're just looking for functions, styles and details that you like.

That's probably why Apple didn't include period tracking, the original quantified self metric, in the first version of the extremely comprehensive Apple Health. It's why most companies release a standard (men's) version of a product and then maybe a women's version six months later.

Here's a couple of examples we've noticed recently with some handy hints on how to solve these particular problems. Some have an immediate impact on women - a watch that drags their arm down, a VR headset that makes them sick - and some have bigger, hidden implications for the whole of society. No pressure, then.

The wearable tech chicken and egg

Four ways wearable tech and VR design verges on sexist - and how to fix it

Let's start with the obvious. Build smartwatches, fitness trackers and health tech aimed at men and they will buy it. So manufacturers will build more of it. Chicken, egg. We've seen this before.

This is partly a problem of the industry's overall focus. Now, we've seen signs of a token nod to potential female buyers and we are thankfully post-diamanté but we need more sustained efforts. We're looking at you, Samsung. Not coincidentally, the two companies really shifting devices compared to rivals - Fitbit and Apple - are both taking women seriously.

Whether that means the size and weight of the wearables, the design and aesthetics, accessories or the actual features and which health metrics they track, there is a lot of room for improvement. Fitbit's social feed software for motivation and collaborations with Vera Wang and Tory Burch, in particular, show that it understands both how many women identify with the quantified self as well as the kinds of items we already wear on our bodies.

I will admit one thing. It is easier to build feature-packed sports smartwatches in larger, heavier form factors purely to fit all the components and the battery in. That's the reason companies like Casio have given us when we asked about the heft. Still, Apple managed. Try harder.

One more quick solution - hire more women, invest more in women, get more women into focus groups, you get the idea.

VR headsets need more female testers

Four ways wearable tech and VR design verges on sexist - and how to fix it

Motion sickness from VR headsets isn't just a problem for women. Stick a driving game on and most of the Wareable office will feel the effects. But as Becca Caddy discovered in her piece for us on nausea and VR, a study of sea sickness found a 5:3 ratio of female to male risk of vomiting.

A more recent study suggests that for VR it's even higher when it comes to headsets. For every one man who experiences simulation sickness, four women will. It's generally more acute for women, especially when they're menstruating, as there's a connection with the hormonal cycle. Triple ugh.

The HTC Vive does the best job so far, for what it's worth, but we need to raise the acceptable standard for all headgear. Potential technical solutions include high frame rates and lower latency (most importantly), higher resolutions, eye tracking and foveated rendering so that we process 3D VR images more like we view the world. App and game designers can also resist the urge to move our point of view automatically, especially if it happens quickly, and instead allow users to hop around via head tracking and controls.

Ultimately, various headset makers deemed certain models good enough to release to the public in 2016. I feel like I've picked on the PlayStation VR before but it's interesting to think how Sony's headset could have been modified or delayed based on a big push for female testers. It's a living room product, not a Dad's den device, so all sorts of people will be picking it up. If their first impression is feeling sick that's not a good sign.

AI assistants don't have to be girls

Four ways wearable tech and VR design verges on sexist - and how to fix it

There are exceptions to this but as a rule, virtual assistants on smartwatches, speakers, phones and home gadgets so far are gendered, at least in name. Sure, Siri can be set to a woman or a man's voice now but when it first arrived it was female only. But think about it: Cortana, Siri, Viki (Nokia's upcoming assistant) and the most obvious - Alexa.

Even Sony's otherwise nameless Google Voice and Xperia Agent both have a female voice as default. Intuition Robotics' new robot assistant is called ElliQ and is referred to as "her"; even Roomba robot vacs have women's voices.

Even one of my favourite depictions of a voice-controlled near future, Spike Jonze's movie Her, has a human male protagonist interacting with a female virtual assistant voiced by the most sultry voice in Hollywood, Scarlet Johannson. And like any cliché assistant, they end up having sex. (Spoiler alert: she outgrows reading out his emails by the end of the film).

You might say it's no big deal or point to examples where you can switch between female and male voices. But the fact remains, we are more comfortable ordering around a disembodied female voice than a male one for a reason (the history of patriarchy) and Alexa isn't helping. Both men and women find women's voices more appealing right now, perhaps even subconciously, but that doesn't have to be fixed forever. We're better than that.

Incidentally, it's fun as tech writers to cover robots or software with a gender as we can put puns and jokes into headlines. But we're then guilty of reinforcing the dynamic too - sorry in advance and do call us out on it. Give Slate's DoubleX Gabfest (a great twice monthly podcast) a listen for more of a discussion on assigning genders to virtual assistants.

Know your audience

Four ways wearable tech and VR design verges on sexist - and how to fix it

Where to even begin with this one? Women are a big market for everyone from Fitbit and Apple to more specialist pregnancy and parenting wearables. So it's good to see that reflected in adverts, spokespeople and product videos.

As Gizmodo rightly pointed out, though, Spinali Design's smart jean campaign is something of a lesson in How Not To Market Wearable Tech to women. The pics of the haptic jeans which vibrate to offer screen-free directions feature the startup's CEO and product managers as models. Fine, but they are all topless in some of the images. Yes, they are either turned away from the camera or wearing open denim jackets, but that's really not the point.

Smart jewellery and clothing aimed at women needs to look classy and clever. If the campaign pics and videos - think tighter than tight jeans, glimpses of boobs - relies on the sex appeal of the featured women, something has gone wrong. Because tech is about getting shit done or having fun, not looking sexy.

Even the French company's smart UV sensing bikini image features the model reclining on some sort of thin ledge rather than, you know, doing something. Anything! Even just sunbathing on a lounger or towel like regular women. The team here at Wareable actually used the Spinali bikini image next to standard shots of gadgets on our homepage and, even though we also post pics of fitness tech hunks working out all the time, I had it taken down because it screamed 90s gadgets 'n' girls a little too much.

It boils down to this: male tech CEOs wear shirts and slacks or hoodies and shorts in press shots, not tight Speedos, for a reason.

What really gets your goat about wearables, VR and the smart home? And what are you waiting to see fixed? Let loose in the comments.

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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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