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

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Four ways wearable tech is sexist

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

Six 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

Five 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

Five 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.

11 Comments

  • monicamogavero says:

    I work for Spinali Design.

    Our photos have nothing to do with objectifying women. Once again, those are not models, they are project mangers, the CEO, and designers. This was our way showing, as WOMEN ourselves, what we think is beautiful which is being happy in your own skin. We are showing real everyday women without photoshop. Before we are a technology company we are design company and the tech is just a bonus in our clothing. We are not trying to make a statement about women in tech, we are trying to show women to be yourself.

    • s.charara says:

      Hi Monica, I've updated the copy to reflect the fact that it is the CEO and product managers as models in the image. Regardless of what you intended, women will see the end result in different ways and one of these is reinforcing stereotypes. 

    • PopePieous says:

      To Spinali Design:

      If you really want to show woman who are, as you say, "happy in their own skin," then why are you all wearing makeup in the photo??

    • tj-23 says:

      Hi Monica, keep up the good work with Spinali Design, its fantastic to see professional people open up and be themselves rather than being another corporate stock image of a suit behind a desk. I'm sure lots of women do appreciate that you are individuals expressing yourselves rather than feeling pressured by others, like the author of this article, to repress your individuality and conform to peoples pre-conceived image of what a professional woman should look like in the workplace.

      I think the author has completely missed the message that it's about being yourself, and being comfortable with yourself, an actual issue which a lot of people have suffered with for years. 

      • Cthylla says:

        As much as I want to tear into commending a picture of women with open denim jackets and their boobs barely concealed as a super example of bursting the pre-conceived stereotypes of fully clothed women in the workplace, I won't. Instead, I'll say that YOU missed the point the author made. She wasn't saying these women are not entitled to take their pics the way they want... she's saying that a picture like this is a marketing turn off to the majority of women. 

  • handymanJH says:

    I'll give you 1, 2, and 4. As a guy with a small frame, most of the smartwatches feel bulky even to me. I've got a samsung gearVR and involuntary movement leaves me reaching out for the edge of whatever chair I'm sitting in.  And I absolutely agree on your last point. I don't even know what use you would have for smart jeans, but that ad is not selling them. Using the company managers doesn't make a difference unless you specifically state that in every instance of the photo. Otherwise, the view just thinks it's another sex appeal ad.

    I am confused though, on why the female voice is a big deal. As stated in the article you linked, female voices to pilots historically achieved better results. Movies, video games and literature are full of examples of the female counterpart, guiding the hero. The examples I usually think of are Jane from the Speaker of the Dead series (the extension of Ender's Game) and *gasp* Cortana, from the Halo series. I think Microsoft chose Cortana because it was something they already had the rights to that a lot of people already had a positive association with. Sure most were male, but that was an obvious business move.

    I guess I understand if there's no male voice option wanting more variety, but if there is the option (like Siri) and you can rename it or use a different activation phrase (like Siri or Google), what more are you asking for?

  • youwhatthewhat says:

    In response to s.charara's comment: "Hi Monica, I've updated the copy to reflect the fact that it is the CEO and product managers as models in the image. Regardless of what you intended, women will see the end result in different ways and one of these is reinforcing stereotypes."

    I find it really ridiculous that you try to defend your original caption with your "people will see it that way" defense. All you are saying here is, "hey, the fact that you are women working in technology is still meaningless because I love to write propaganda on tech sites that reinforces the stereotype that women can only be pretty models, which is very very good for me making money doing this because outrage sells articles!" That's some top tier B.S. right there.  

  • tj-23 says:

    Christ, another one of these articles. If the default voice of virtual assistants were set predominantly to men, would it be sexist? No, it wouldn't - so why is it sexist to have a default female voice? That now, comes with a male voice option that you can set.

    I think this line perfectly sums up the whole article - "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."

    So its ok to objectify men but not women? Why is that? This whole modern "gender equality" movement is a load of crap. We're seeing it with MTV's "New Years Resolution for White Guys", with Buzzfeed's "Manspreading" video with - insert any non-issue I want to get angry about to generate clickbait - and now on here . Our culture is full of cry babies and now I see the same type of nonsense sprouted here. I remember when gender equality was about gaining equal rights but now its just about hate and being whiney for clicks and attention.

    Spinali Design' picture is clearly about women's empowerment in the workplace but you're happy to label it as something else and making it into, again, another issue which shouldn't even be an issue! So women can't express themselves in ways in which they feel empowered, yet I can guarantee if a man said the exact same thing that you said; then an article would appear saying how women are being repressed when they should be allowed to express themselves rather than being expected to sit quietly in a corner.

    So I would like to say thank you, Sophie Charara, for adding to the current culture of cry baby attention seekers fighting for issues which are completely irrelevant rather than using your platform to inform, engage and create conversation on issues that really matter.

    I'm looking forward to the next article - which non-issue will be covered next? Personally, I'd love to see "Are big hardback books sexist?", here you can rant about how women are physiologically at a disadvantage because these bigger books are too heavy, also you can make innuendo's about the title which I'm sure your readers will love. If you'd like any other suggestions then please HMU. *Disclaimer: I should also point out that this paragraph is indeed sarcasm, I better add that in there as a disclaimer because I know how author's of articles like these, love to ignore all of the main points of an argument and focus on the least significant parts and deconstruct those instead.*

    It boils down to this: Is wearable tech sexist? No, it is not.

    • s.charara says:

      1) on virtual assistants - I explained why I think the default female voice is a problem. This is because it plays into the stereotype of the helpful, obedient, female assistant. 

      2) When we feature say, an image of a man working out with a chest strap and bare chest, he is doing something relevant. Same goes for images of women in sports bras which we also feature. The *combination* of a bikini-clad model (where it's the smart function isn't immediately clear from the image) and pictures of gadgets looked, to me, like a throw back to 90s magazine covers of tech magazines. These covers alienated female readers and I wouldn't want that to happen on our homepage. 

      3) On the Spinali Design, we'll have to agree to disagree. I don't personally find it empowering for actual - no doubt talented, hard working - women in tech to use images of themselves with bare backs/open jackets to market products to other women. 

      4) You say it's a non issue but the design and features of wearable tech devices and VR headsets, including the nausea stuff particularly, is an issue that female users have told me about. I have tried to be constructive where possible and mention both technical and cultural solutions as well as point out where we, as a tech site, can do better. 

      • tj-23 says:

        1) I can see your point with virtual assistants but is that the real reason? Or is it just that a female voice is simply softer, more pleasing to the ear and less imposing than the majority of male voices? Female voices are featured often in commentary of games as well such as Battlefield 1 or Elite Dangerous. They don't offer any assistance but just give you alerts or commentary based on important need to know information, how does this fit into the stereotypical view of obedient women?

        I've noticed some of the default male virtual assistants are have a British accent, is this reinforcing that British males are mostly helpful, obedient assistants? No, it's just an accent that is more pleasing to the ear compared to some others.

        2 / 3) Spinali design is a fashion company for women and model their clothes in a similar way to other fashion companies. If you reviewed clothes from Spinali Design and featured one of their images with a title, "A look into smart clothing for women", or something similar, do you think your male audience would benefit from reading about jeans that interact with you and a link to where to buy them? No. Would female readers benefit? Yes. Just because their campaign doesn't resonate with you and might not with some other female readers, doesn't mean it doesn't resonate with all women. It's crazy to say a company run by women, selling clothing designed for women, are being sexist towards women. It's like saying Calvin Klein are sexist towards men for advertising their underwear on male models who are just wearing their underwear and nothing else. 

        4) With the issue of nausea, this is an issue that affects users of both genders. While it may affect more female users, it still affects both. This is an issue that is inherent to VR that companies are trying to address but it needs to be remembered that VR is extremely new to the mainstream market and will have teething problems which will be solved over time. We live in an age where everything gets released as a beta product and the consumers are the new testers. This will be improved with each iteration and as the tech develops. It's not as if companies are going out their way to solve this issue specifically for men and not for women. There's no conspiracy against female VR users.

        5) Just on a new line; your point about companies not releasing lighter/ smaller smartwatches and other wearable smart-tech. I don't think it's fair to compare a company like Casio to the likes of Apple. First, Apple is the wealthiest company in the world, it see's itself at the epitome of each category of technology it offers. While Casio are a budget alternative in the market, aimed at a different type of consumer. If Casio released a watch with all its tech in the same form factor as the Apple watch, do you think this would be affordable for a company like Casio? If so, would the cost of the product be the same price or cheaper than the Apple Watch for them to make a profit? Would people even look at a Casio smartwatch that would be even close to the price of an Apple Watch? No, they would disregard it straight away, even if it had the same functionality or better, just on reputation alone. 

        When smaller tech becomes more affordable, you'll see companies like Casio releasing smaller products but I think this is a very unfair criticism. There needs to be a compromise between size, cost price and the price they can offer it to the consumer. Saying this, many companies, like Garmin, do offer some kind of alternative to their heftier watches like smart bands. They may not have all the features but alternatives are often there - although I can't say this specifically about Casio because I haven't seen their offerings. But other brands do offer a wide range of alternatives suitable to all users.

        • Cthylla says:

          I admit that I had a really shitty opinion of you based on your initial comment, but here you broke it down more rationally. So I apologize! I will also have to agree to disagree on the topless women, though. As a more-voracious-than-I-should-admit consumer (especially of gadgets and tech), I would not bite on this product. I might be more amenable if I took the time to get their reasoning behind the photo, but the initial picture would probably prevent me from getting that far. (And I know that's on me, but that's consumerism!)

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