MEET Mai-Li Hammargren. She’s tall, stylish and striking, and not someone you would easily lose in a crowd.
Now meet her invention: the Mutewatch. With a digital display that lights up in large white digits against a charcoal grey background, it is elegant, stylish and eye-catching. It does not go unnoticed.
The parallels don’t end there. Both also find themselves in the most unlikely situations. The watch is sold largely through landmark design shops like the Museum of Modern Art store in New York and the Voo Store in Berlin.
Hammargren is equally comfortable demonstrating the watch to British Prime Minister David Cameron during a state visit to Sweden as she is giving scruffy journalists an impromptu demo in the corridors outside the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
That’s where I find her patiently repeating her story to one dazzled geek after another.
It began as an entrepreneurship project at the Stockholm School of Economics. Her teacher introduced her to another student, designer Oscar Ritzén Praglowski, and they founded Mutewatch
to turn the idea into reality.
They put up ads at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, inviting students to build a watch and present it to the Mutewatch team.
Johan Thelander simply sent them photos of watches he had already built at home, and he was instantly taken on board. Three years later, the watch is being mass-manufactured and sold around the world.
It is not the most high-tech of watches, but it encapsulates a dramatic shift occurring in the world of watch design and in watches as lifestyle and accessory choices.
While there will always be room for classic analog watches, those are history for a new generation of consumers raised on cutting edge smartphones that are compatible with their lifestyles and self-images.
Three years ago, Chicago entrepreneur Scott Wilson came up with the idea of turning the iPod Nano music player into a watch, by snapping it into a custom-made wristband.
He turned to Kickstarter, a web site where anyone can put up a product idea with a funding target, and solicit random, anonymous investors to contribute to the project. Most projects never reach their target, typically between $1 000 and $10 000.
Wilson’s requirement for his TikTok project was $15 000. Within weeks, he had raised more than $900 000 from 13 510 people (the campaign is closed, but still online
Wilson’s sequel, the LunaTik, is a “premium conversion kit” for the Nano: as if a touchscreen watch running on Apple’s iOS operating system and apps, with Bluetooth connectivity, isn't enough.
This one takes the simple snap-in strap to a new level of industrial design, fully integrating the Nano and the strap.
There have been numerous copycats since then, and then there have been even more dazzling advances. Kickstarter was once again the destination for the innovators behind the Pebble E-Paper ”smartwatch”, a customisable watch that allows the user to download apps and new faces from the internet.
It also connects to Android and iPhone devices via Bluethooth and gives vibration alerts of new e-mail or messages. A built-in accelerometer even assists in direction finding.
It came to Kickstarter with a more ambitious target of $100 000. And raised … $10m
. Not surprisingly, Pebble was the darling of the Consumer Electronics Show in January, when the device was finally unveiled.
The first 89 000 investors were promised shipment at the end of January.
Now Apple itself has woken to the potential. Business news services were awash with a report from Bloomberg last week that Apple has a team of 100 product designers working on an iWatch.
As with phones, however, Apple already has competition from the Android world. The suspiciously titled “i’m Watch”
runs on a modified version of Google’s mobile operating system, called i’m Droid.
It also uses Bluetooth to connect to other devices but, once you have the apps on your i’m Watch, the device itself becomes a phone and e-mail reader. Yes, it also takes a customised SIM card for connecting to mobile networks for calls and SMS.
They call it the “world’s first real smartwatch”. That’s a phrase we can expect to hear a lot more in the coming year.
is managing director of World Wide Worx
and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za
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. Views expressed are his own.
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