ARM and Unicef team up on wearables for the developing world

The organizations kick off a multiyear partnership by announcing a design contest to create potentially life-saving wearable devices.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
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ARM's Simon Segars, left, and Unicef's Erica Kochi in New York on Tuesday. Kochi holds Literacy Bridge's listening device -- a product both Unicef and ARM are supporting -- which is used in Ghana to provide health and education information. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

NEW YORK -- No one today would call a smartwatch vital to someone's life. There's an effort to change that.

British chip designer ARM and Unicef -- the United Nations Children's Fund -- on Tuesday came together to unveil a new multiyear partnership to develop technologies for people living in some of the poorest and more remote regions of the world. The partnership's first effort is a contest called "Wearables for Good" that kicked off Tuesday and invites designers to create new wearable devices for people living in developing countries.

The intent is to come up with wearables that are "not just nice to have, but that people need to have," Erica Kochi, a head of Unicef Innovation, said at an event held at the New York Academy of Sciences.

Unicef Innovation, which works on technologies to advance Unicef's work with women and children, hopes designers will come up with wearables that could alert people of fires, diagnose health needs, encourage behavioral changes such as washing hands, and track data in real time like the vitals of a mother and her fetus, Kochi said. Many of these wearables could be used in refugee camps or remote areas that are far from major infrastructure or medical facilities.

The partnership will name two winners from the contest in November, with each receiving $15,000 and mentorship from ARM and the design firm Frog.

In addition to the design challenge, ARM plans to help Unicef fast-track some of its pilot technology projects, offering several million dollars in funding, as well as its technological know-how and connections to the broader tech world. For instance, ARM could help Unicef Innovation's efforts to provide power in Burundi, treat HIV and AIDS in Zambia or create jobs in Kosovo. Longer term, the two organizations also plan to research potential business opportunities in developing countries -- looking into transportation, education, wearables and other areas -- in hopes of spurring on more investment in those regions.

For now, wearable devices are a growing part of the tech industry, with most major tech firms already selling smartwatches or fitness bands. Still, most of these devices can be used only for fitness tracking or smartphone notifications and haven't become a central part of most people's lives. Creating wearables that serve a much more significant mission could elevate these devices to becoming a critical part of many people's lives.

However, wearable technology is still in its infancy, so it's hard to say exactly whether any of the lofty goals set out in the contest can be achieved, particularly when these devices need to be priced cheaply and used in remote areas with little access to electricity.

The ARM-Unicef partnership is among a handful of projects tech firms are working on to expand their services to the developing world. Facebook's Internet.org and Google's Project Loon are working on bringing Internet service to remote regions of the world. Also, Wikipedia has done work to make its free, user-generated encyclopedia available in developing countries.

ARM wants to join in this process in hopes of reaching growing populations in Asia and Africa that may be underserved by the global business community. ARM CEO Simon Segars said he often hears from others that there is little money to be made in developing countries. He contends that the business opportunities there aren't well understood, which is why his company and Unicef plan to research those areas.

"It feels to me like the pace of innovation has increased, the cost of innovation has come down and we are in a world where people want to partner," Segars said in an interview. "So if some good comes from this, then that will be great."