And Then There is This: The Microsoft Mood Bra

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By now I am sure you have seen the news about the Microsoft Mood Bra – a bra designed to read a woman’s moods and curtail stress eating. News of this bra spanned the internet at breakneck speed, with feminist and in fact anyone with boobs, deriding the invention as stupid and not just a little misogynistic. Why in the world would anyone want a Microsoft Mood Bra? Talk about invasion of privacy.

“Is anyone monitoring the mighty boner in men, perhaps testicle stress,” many blogs asked. Of course not, and so that became the gist of every post. Just beyond the ridiculousness of this product, there is a larger trend at play, one that very few give any thought to; why we have these types of products in the first place. Is it simply because too many male engineers with too much time and too much money thought to themselves “hey let’s build a diet bra” or is there something more at play? While it is entirely possible the former occurred, I think it is more likely there were other factors to consider; factors that involve the stranglehold return on investment (ROI) thinking has on determining innovation.

Why would Microsoft engineers build such a ridiculous contraption and leak it to the press? Did they really think women would want this? Probably not, but I suspect they had a technology that needed a market, and someone, likely an investor or marketing type, convinced them the best opportunity for this new technology was one that included a simple to understand product – the bra, answered a common problem – dieting, and could be released into a large consumer market – all women. The winning combination was mood, dieting and boobs. It could have just as easily been a wrist watch that performed the same task, but every woman diets, bras are cool and so I figure the boobs won out.

These new self-monitoring technologies, placed in a bra could be used to tackle serious problems like heart rhythm irregularities, seizure onset and even cancer, but the total market for those products, and indeed, the marketing for those types of legitimate uses, is far too small and way too serious. Who really wants to talk about cancer? A bra that detected cancer (and there is company struggling to bring one to market) would be noble, useful, perhaps even save a few lives, but it wouldn’t make money, at least not the kind of money one could generate with a lite and frivolous product in a large consumer market – something like the Microsoft Mood Bra.  And even though engineering the Microsoft Mood Bra took just as much complexity and engineering as a heart monitoring bra or a cancer-detecting bra (the bra included electrocardiogram and electrodermal sensors), the decision was made to go towards the perceived financial opportunity versus the social value – a social value that likely came with a more realistic and attainable, though notably smaller ROI than the over-hyped, and likely unattainable prospect of the ROI from mood and dieting aids.

And therein lays the problem within the current investment climate, everyone is looking for the quick, easy, obvious, opportunities with the promise of HUGE financial returns; a promise that nine times out of ten is empty and falls miserably short. If it’s not simple, doesn’t appeal to a broad audience, and doesn’t offer the promise, no matter how hyped, of a huge ROI, then the product will never make it to market. That’s why we have products like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and hundreds upon hundreds of knockoffs that were funded and failed. Each was very simple to explain and market and all had the potential for HUGE payoffs, if they succeeded – and some did, but most did not. With investors looking for the next big thing – the next Facebook – not only are they suffering great losses and very poor returns on their investment dollars, but the products coming to market are generally useless. And even with the successful products like Facebook, Twitter and the like, the ROI is not based on company revenue, and certainly not on social good, but on the IPO-generated payoff to the investors.

I suspect this is why we have the Microsoft Mood Bra, because the money men guided the product decision. The promise of huge markets and huge profits won over potentially lifesaving products, filling legitimate needs, in actual markets with realistic ROIs. Similarly, this is why we have blockbuster drugs for conditions that don’t exist and don’t warrant pharmaceutical treatment instead of more specialized medications for actual diseases. The promise of the huge ROI guides everything from how research is funded to which products get developed to which markets they are applied. Although ROI is certainly a laudable consideration in an innovation economy, it should be one of many. When ROI becomes the only consideration, we get yet another diet product, the Microsoft Mood Bra, while the cancer detecting bra struggles to get funded.

Postscript

Despite having published a full report including testing on the bra based sensor technology, Food and Mood: Just in Time Support for Emotional Eating, NPR reports that according to an anonymous spokesman, Microsoft is not building the mood bra to curb stress eating and has instead moved toward mood sensing bracelets.

“The bra sensing system is just one instance of a class of work from a group of Microsoft researchers who are focused on the broader topic of affective computing, or designing devices and services that are sensitive to people’s moods and react accordingly. While we will continue our research in affective computing, Microsoft has no plans to develop a bra with sensors.” 

Was Microsoft ever going to build the diet bra or were reports of this broadly exaggerated?  Probably a little of both. Although diet bracelets are certainly less controversial than diet bras and offer an even larger potential ROI for investors to chase, though not nearly as much publicity, the mood bracelet would enter into an already saturated wearable diet and fitness technology market. Do we really need another diet or fitness device? Probably not, but this is where the ROI takes us, simple and obvious with a large potential market. I almost prefer the mood bra.

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