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January 21, 2014

Is a wearable bracelet that measures your sun exposure actually useful?

The discussion surrounding smartwatches this year is all about aesthetics. Who can make a smartwatch that people actually want to wear? And as these and other wearable sensing devices proliferate, the tension between looks and performance is intensifying. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the June bracelet, which was announced at the Consumer Electronic Show this month on and is out later this year. The device tracks a user's sun exposure and syncs with an app on iDevices via Bluetooth to monitor UV intensity, recommend appropriate SPF, give skincare advice based on how much time a user spends in the sun, and even give warnings when a user has caught too many rays.

Created by Netatmo, the sensor company known for smart home devices such as weather monitors and thermostats, June exemplifies tradeoffs in form and function. The device was designed by Camille Toupet — a veteran of Louis Vuitton and Harry Winston — and it has a photovoltaic gem centerpiece which can be either worn as a bracelet or taken off the band and clipped onto clothing. It costs $100 and comes in platinum, gold, and gun metal. It's an unusually attractive, even fashionable, wearable that actually looks like statement jewelry instead of a piece of technology.

But it really only does one thing: It measures sun exposure. It's a single-use device that syncs to a single-use app. Perhaps it foreshadows a world where we each customize our array of wearable sensors by picking and choosing among single-focus gadgets from day to day. Which sensors we want and how we want to look would both play a part in dictating how we dressed and accessorized. Wearables certainly would be a lot more attractive if they weren't crammed with maximal functionality. But this is also wildly inefficient, and previous technologies haven't evolved this way. Cameras, MP3 players, calculators, notebooks, calendars, phones, and everything else eventually collapsed into smartphones: one device. No matter how attractive a sensor-turned-bracelet is, there's a limit to how many wearables one person can actually, you know, wear.

The June is also interesting because it's marketed specifically to women. Most smartwatches and fitness monitors at the moment are gender-neutral, though some smartwatches are still pretty large and therefore fit more comfortably on men's wrists. According to Netatmo's website, the June "is meant to help women know when and how to protect their skin every day from sun damage." And that's fine. But men need to protect themselves from sun damage, too, and women may not require their sun exposure sensor to look like designer jewelry.

Since the aesthetic direction of wearables is still undetermined, and is currently dictated by the tech inside, the devices present a good opportunity to move away from traditional, often reductive, male and female marketing, which can be particularly blatant in tech. Example: the EPad Femme tablet for women. Alternate example: The Honda Fit She's. It's a tall order, but balancing form and function is the crux of the uncertainty in wearables right now.

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