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The Quest to Make Wearable Tech Fashionable

With the launch of a yellow-gold band, Silicon Valley-favourite Oura wants its smart ring to be as stylish as it is functional. Lauren Sherman gives it a test drive.
Oura's wearable technology ring
Oura's wearable technology ring. Oura.
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Last week, Oura, the smart ring that tracks everything from general fitness to sleep patterns, launched a $399 band in yellow gold. The limited-edition production marks the middle ground between the company’s no-nonsense $299 silver ring and a $999 style studded with a line of tiny diamonds.

Oura, a breakout hit in wearable tech, is trying, where others have failed, to make its products fashionable. Watches, fitness bands and wireless headphones have found their audiences in a category dominated by Apple, which captured nearly 30 percent of the wearables market in the first quarter of 2020, according to research firm IDC. But smart rings and other more decorative jewellery are a tougher proposition. Ringly, launched in 2015 and designed with women in mind, attracted attention, but its technology was not advanced, or useful, enough to become more than a novelty. It shut down in 2018.

What has instead worked in the space are utilitarian devices that have an anti-style style. The Apple Watch, first marketed as a fashion-y item that the customer can personalise, has since been repositioned as a fun-but-mostly-functional gadget. The Hermès edition, a long-term collaboration between the two brands, remains popular. But the industrial design of the watch stands on its own: no bells and whistles needed — or wanted.

Unlike past rings, Oura, launched in 2018, has managed to find a market of more than 300,000 wearers to date because of its impressive tech. In an age of “biohacking,” when wealthy and conscientious consumers will do anything — from track their daily steps to pop Metformin pills to live a healthier, longer life — Oura’s sleep-tracking sensors and ability to monitor your heart rate and temperature make it an ideal tool.

We really want this to feel as much about fashion as it is technology.

The sleep data is particularly useful because, unlike an Apple Watch, the ring does not have to be charged daily, meaning you can wear it around the clock. It’s become popular with start-up bros and Silicon Valley investors buying big into the self-optimisation concept. (Jack Dorsey is a user and Square, the payments company he runs, is a lead investor.) They value practising good sleep hygiene as much as they do exercising and eating well.

But this audience is predominantly made up of men, who may not wear jewellery on their hands other than a wedding ring.

By launching a gold option — which is limited-edition, for now — Oura is making the point that its ring is not only a utility, but an aesthetic statement. One that chief executive Harpreet Rai hopes will be appealing to a female audience. While the majority of Oura wearers are currently men, Rai believes that the company can eventually flip-flop that ratio, especially given that women are far more likely to wear rings.

What’s more, Oura can see in its data that female wearers are more engaged — using the ring not only to track sleep patterns and overall fitness, but also to track temperature and for meditation — which means they are likely finding the experience to be more rewarding.

“We’ve heard from customers, especially from our female customers, that more colours would be really helpful,” said Rai, noting that an earlier experiment with rose gold — which was well-received but the colour faded out too quickly — inspired the company to get a yellow colour off the ground as quickly as possible. “We really want this to feel as much about fashion as it is technology.”

I should be a good judge of whether Oura is on the right rack. I’ve worn an Apple Watch since the beginning. First out of curiosity — and then out of an obsession with checking my movement, my texts and even the weather without having to constantly grab for my phone.

I’m also familiar with the product. My husband has been wearing an Oura ring for most of the pandemic; we’re constantly discussing his sleep patterns and whether the data reflects reality of everyday life. Anecdotally, it seems pretty on point. One of his worst sleeps of the year was on the night of the election, and he wasn’t alone. Oura analysed data from its users to determine that, as a nation, the US “lost” nearly 139 million hours of sleep that evening and that heart rates averaged 1.4 beats per minute. Higher than the typical Tuesday.

We have an aspiration that the ring would look so good from a fashion perspective that it feels like jewellery with a hint of technology,

But I’ve not been compelled to try Oura’s ring myself. Over time, I’ve become so reliant on the Apple Watch that its appearance has become a secondary concern. I wear a black rubber band, made by Apple, that’s suitable for running, and have even forgotten to take it off before black-tie events. Do I wish it looked more like a Cartier Tank or an Hermès Cape Cod? Sometimes, but not enough to replace it with one of those, or to even swipe out the rubber band for one of Apple’s beautiful Hermès Double Tour leather wraps. Everything else about my style — the colours, silhouettes and designers I favour — is so specific that I never worry about the Apple Watch deterring from it.

A ring, however, is different. I typically only wear my wedding and engagement ring, and the occasional fashion ring. While Oura’s design, with its flat top and smooth edges, is sleek — and getting sleeker with each iteration — rings in particular are very personal. I’m not sure I’d be willing to make a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment to it.

That said, I’m testing out a gold review unit right now, and the data has already convinced me to change something about my sleep routine. While I’ve scored well on numbers of hours slept and the kind of sleep I’m getting — enough deep sleep, enough REM sleep — I’m very restless. Oura’s app suggested making the temperature in my bedroom far lower than what it normally is at night, so I’m going to try it. As for the ring itself, I like the gold colour. But I haven’t gotten to the point where I don’t even notice it’s there, and I do wish I had more control over the actual design.

Is there a solution for consumers like me? Rai said that about 10 percent of his customers only wear their rings at night, but he doesn’t recommend it. What he does believe is that the company — which has raised more than $48 million to date, including $28 million this year in a round led by Forerunner Ventures, Google’s Gradient Ventures and Square — can do for people like me is offer more and more colours and styles. He’s constantly talking with designers about new ways to package the technology, maybe even through brand collaborations.

“We have an aspiration that the ring would look so good from a fashion perspective that it feels like jewellery with a hint of technology,” he said.

Sign up for VOICES 2020 to hear Oura’s chief executive Harpreet Rai speak alongside renowned sleep expert Matthew Walker on The Science of Sleep.

Related Articles:

What Happened to Wearables?

Will Consumers Want Levi’s New ‘Wearable Tech’ Jacket?

Jony Ive’s Advice to Designers and Executives

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