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Q&A With Intel's Mike Bell on 'Smart' Clothes and Apple Watch

Why one former Apple executive is sticking with his mechanical watches (at least, for now).

Asa Mathat

Yesterday we ran a column about “smart” workout clothes, which are positioned as sort of the ultimate wearable: Rather than using an activity-tracking wristband, a smartwatch or a heart-rate strap, these clothes have sensors embedded right in the fabric and can wirelessly share your biometric data to a smartphone app.

But it’s not the first time we’ve seen this type of thing. Last year, at our annual Code Conference, Intel showed off a prototype version of a shirt designed for cycling that was powered by Intel’s Edison chip and AiQ sensors.

I caught up with Mike Bell, the head of Intel’s new device group, to ask him his thoughts on the future of connecting clothing — as well as the Apple Watch.

Re/code: You guys showed off a “smart” shirt, or as we’ve joked about it since, a wearable shirt, at our conference last year. What’s the latest on when we might see that Intel-powered shirt come to market?

Mike Bell: Well, we did the shirt as a proof of concept. We have the chip technology, and continue to refine it. As you know, we don’t bring these things to market themselves, we partner with companies. And I don’t have a partner to announce right now.

But I still think [these products are] obviously on the very high end. There’s appeal for, say, professional sports teams, who can do multi-hundred-thousand dollar installations. But the market overall is pretty limited. I haven’t yet seen that consumer-level product that has mass appeal.

What are some of the challenges you see with smart clothes?

There’s the durability of some of the products, for one. It’s not a shirt that you can wash 100 times and have it last. And a number of them that are on the market right now are pretty constrictive. They’re very tight-fitting garments. So, again, professional and semi-professional athletes might be used to this; consumers, not so much.

Do you think smart clothing will go mainstream, eventually?

I think something will get there, whether it’s around heart rate specifically, or something else. Maybe it’s not about quantifying your run. In some cases, the smart shirt could take the place of the badge for employees, or maybe if you work somewhere where a uniform is required, the shirt becomes an authentication method.

This is one of those areas where — and I don’t know why someone hasn’t already done this — but why wouldn’t this become a medical thing? Like rural medicine. We’ve had conversations with people in India where doctors are hours away. Why couldn’t the “smart” shirt become a remote diagnostic tool for those people? It could be more than a workout thing.

So Intel is obviously involved both in wrist wearables (with Basis) and other types of connected devices. Which is going to be the “next big thing,” in your mind?

There’s no one answer. There’s room for lots of different things. For some people it’s a wrist thing. For some people, they’d hate a restrictive shirt. Personally, I’d love to get the bike shirt Brian [Krzanich, Intel CEO] showed. But the generic one-size-fits-all, tight kind of superman shirt isn’t actually something that’s for everyone. So I think it’s a case-by-case basis.

What do you think of the Apple Watch?

It’s interesting, and they’re going to sell a bunch. I mean, they just will. I’m not sure it’s the next killer thing, but it is certainly done well. I don’t see the solid use case for it yet. I like traditional watches, or things that look more like them.

What kind of watch do you wear?

Most of mine are Breitling. I love mechanical watches. They’ve been around forever. They’re really well-made. Watches are passed down from generation to generation. Technology is somewhat disposable. Think about it: You’re not using the same flip phone from 2001, right? But you might have the same watch.

Maybe you can convince people to pay a lot of money for a timepiece that will become obsolete in five years, but we’ll just have to see.

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