Trying to reinvent the wristwatch? For this latest concept the collaboration has been undertaken with none other than iPod creator Tony Fadell. The experiment is to bridge the worlds of smartwatches and haute horology in a way not seen before.
Fadell was brought in to advise on making a version of its already groundbreaking wristwatch that took the concept one stage further. This isn’t a smartwatch with a luxury brand makeover, nor is it a traditional timepiece with a nod towards connected tech.
The approach combines all the best parts of conventional and connected timekeeping. It’s powered both by the kinetic energy created by the movement of the wrist and photovoltaic cells concealed beneath discreet micro-shutters. The time is set and adjusted via an app on the smartphone, while the mechanical mode lets it function like any other watch.
Once the time is set using a flip-out lever on the caseback, an electro-motive module linking with the automatic movement ensures accurate timing. The electronics track the time and correct the display rather than influence the automatic movement.
The result is that when the mechanical watch veers off time by a few seconds, as all high-end watches do, the e-Crown recognizes this and then engages to reset the watch to the correct time. The accompanying app also allows to instantly switch between time-zones via Bluetooth.
"We had 20 different ideas on the table with pros and cons on the electronics side, mechanical side, user side and the UI," Fadell says. "It was great to work with someone who has decades of experience, to be able to leapfrog ahead, taking the best of both worlds – the benefits of both while getting rid of the cons of both."
Fadell wanted to correct one of the main failings he sees in current smartwatches. "Today, with certain smartwatches you’ve got to charge them every day. So those were the kinds of things we wanted to get rid of."
To combat this, as well as the kinetic energy generator in the watch, an innovative secondary power source was installed using photovoltaic cells. When the watch needs power, say after it has been left in a drawer for half a year, ten shutters open downwards on the watch face, exposing the cells to light.
One of the issues was the autonomy of the watch. It is inconceivable to plug a high-end luxury watch into a power socket. “We wanted something totally autonomous from an energy point of view, like an automatic movement is autonomous for daily use. So for daily use we have the kinetic generator, but if you leave the watch for more than 150 days even the small battery inside will go flat, then you need something to charge it again. That’s why we have these shutters. Behind the shutters there is a custom-built triple-junction cell. Basically a photovoltaic cell made especially for us."
"These aren’t your typical solar cells," Fadell adds. "These are actual satellite solar cells so they get a lot of energy – even indoors. But the cool thing are these shutters. It's a nightmare to make. They are 2mm by 3mm, they have axles that are 0.15mm and there are 10 in a circle. But it’s magical to see."
Fadell admits the collaboration hasn't always plain sailing. "We argued, but that was the fun. For example over kinetics or solar cell - we were arguing between them, but it turns out we needed both," he says. "And we threw out a lot of other stuff, too. There was going to be this crazy module that would have to be inserted."
"We made a few openings in the dial. Whereas before it was closed, so you can now see a bit more inside, the gears, the ball bearings, it’s beautiful mechanically."
"But the holes are also for the antenna!" Fadell adds. "So there is all this balance of what do the mechanics do and what do the electronics do. Fascinating!"
Describing the two-year collaboration, Fadell compares it to working with Nest or Apple, but crucially mentions that, thanks to the high margins and limited production numbers associated with high-end horology, the team was permitted to use tech that would never be allowed in a mass-produced device.
"Typically you have tons of constraints, like Apple wanted to do OLED screens a long time ago but it wasn’t until the industry caught up with the volumes they needed them to produce OLED that allowed Apple to adopt it," he says. "Here where we are making smaller volumes so we can use the most cutting-edge technology, because we are not going to make a million of them. We can pick and choose the best stuff. With high-volume stuff you have to wait four or five years."
The watch may be at concept stage now, but it will be coming to market later this year – and it won’t come cheap. The project has gone so well that Fadell is already talking of the next watch they will work on. "Hopefully we are going to continue to do this," Fadell says. "There was stuff we haven’t done here. But maybe in the next few iterations."