UNICEF, ARM bet on wearables to help the underprivileged

Their 'Wearables for Good Challenge' is aimed at developing wearables that can help improve the health of mothers and children

A Samsung Gear VR headset providing a virtual tour of a refugee camp

A Samsung Gear VR headset providing a virtual tour of a refugee camp

Wearables are often considered novelty items, but UNICEF believes the devices could revolutionize health and education and improve the lives of millions in developing countries.

The U.N. agency, along with chip company ARM and design firm Frog Design, launched the "Wearables for Good Challenge" program on Tuesday to encourage the development of low-cost wearables that can be used to improve the health of mothers and children in emerging economies.

The plan is to develop no-frills wearables that are practical for deployment in remote areas, so that, for example, a mother could track her pregnancy's progress and determine whether she needs emergency care, according to Erika Kochi, a co-founder of the UNICEF Innovation Center.

Wearables could also be used as part of an alert and response system during a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, Kochi said during a press conference in New York. They could serve as e-book narrators to help with the education of underprivileged children, as well.

UNICEF and the partner companies are asking developers to come up with ideas over the next six months. Project proposals can be submitted via the Wearables for Good Challenge website. Frog Design will help in the design of products, while ARM and UNICEF will identify relevant projects. The products should be affordable to make and sustainable, and focused on helping with health problems affecting mothers, newborns and children.

Kochi said wearables could ultimately become as ubiquitous and useful as mobile devices, which have changed the lives of millions of people in far-flung regions by connecting them to services and information. Sensors in the wearables could also aid in data collection, and cloud-based analysis of the information could help UNICEF better respond to crisis situations and to the needs of communities.

But developing wearables is easier said than done. A device has to be designed to fit a particular community's needs, geography, demographic patterns and culture. For example, a majority of communities in Burundi are off the power grid, so people there would need wearables with solar charging capability or with long-lasting batteries.

The wearable needs to be "invisible" so it doesn't cry out for attention, and isn't treated by children as a toy, said Simon Segars, CEO of ARM.

The Wearables for Good Challenge is the first project launched by ARM and UNICEF, which have formed a multi-year partnership. For example, ARM also plans to collaborate with UNICEF's Innovation Labs and country offices to jump-start pilot technology projects that have the potential to have an impact at a national level.

The Wearables for Good Challenge is similar to the One Laptop Per Child effort to put laptops in the hands of school-age children in developing countries. OLPC took on development, manufacturing and sales of the laptops to schools and governments, but faced challenges at every step. But UNICEF is already working with governments, while partner companies will come up with wearable designs and components, which mitigates implementation and deployment issues, Kochi said.

There's always the risk that the UNICEF-ARM effort, like some philanthropic efforts sponsored by tech companies, may run into trouble and controversy at some point. That has happened to Facebook's Internet.org, which aims to deliver free mobile Internet access to the underprivileged in developing countries. Internet.org was harshly criticized this week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as being "not neutral, not secure, and not the Internet" and, in an open letter sent to Mark Zuckerberg, blasted by more than 60 other digital rights groups that said the program increases inequality and undermines net neutrality.

While the goals of the multi-year effort are lofty, UNICEF is optimistic that the partnership will yield the expected benefits. ARM's Segar said the first results may materialize in September or October.

For ARM, partnering with UNICEF is an opportunity to fulfill its corporate social responsibility strategy while improving product and licensing sales. ARM hopes its processors -- which dominate mobile devices -- will go into more wearables.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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