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Has Casio Perfected the Digital Watch?

Atomic Casio Watch Talk

Casio Digital

Casio’s solar powered atomic watches are the ultimate in digital watch technology, says Kazuo Kashio, president and Chief Executive Officer of Casio. According to this article in the Times Online, Mr. Kashio (or, as we Westerners might pronounce it, “Casio”), believes watches that don’t require batteries and that are always correct are pretty much the perfect digital watches.

“From my experience of the watch business, I think I can say that our solar-powered watches that set themselves by radio control are the ultimate form of watch we can expect. Look, they are never inaccurate by as much as a second and never need batteries.”

As a big fan of Casio digital watch technology myself, I was worried when I first read Mr. Kashio’s words. Was he implying that Casio is done innovating? Was one of the most important electronic companies in the world about to back-burner their watch business in order to devote more resources to things like digital cameras or their new cell phones? As it turns out, it meant just the opposite:

“So this leaves the major question of what else will watches do other than tell the time? Wrist-based machines, that is the future, and we have a lot of dreams on that score. It’s going to become the ultimate mobile gadget that you can’t drop.”

I like the sound of that! Now that Casio feels they have essentially perfected timekeeping, what’s next? According to the article, Mr. Kashio seems to believe that a great deal of Casio’s existing and past digital watch technology is “gimmicky” and that “a breakthrough is near.” He doesn’t get into details, but I think we can assume the gimmicky technology includes things like the camera, MP3, remote control, PDA, and GPS watches Casio has experimented with. As far as the breakthrough he alludes to, Mr. Kashio hints at credit card and mobile phone related functionality. In fact, Casio has already announced the solar powered Casio GWS-900 G-Shock which uses RFID technology to allow drivers to pay for their gas electronically at certain gas stations in Japan.

Mr. Kashio realizes that the key to expanding the capabilities of digital watches is going to be powering them. Both Casio and Citizen have proven that tiny solar cells and batteries can easily gather and store enough energy to power quartz movements for months. Casio has even demonstrated that relatively small amounts of light can generate enough energy to power watches with both analog and digital readouts, atomic time calibration, and several functions like alarms, a countdown timer, world time, electroluminescent backlight, and more. Seiko has taken a different approach to the problem of power by combining traditional self-winding energy generation techniques with rechargeable batteries and quartz movements into what they call kinetic watches. All these approaches are great for driving relatively low-powered functionality, but it’s not going to power a miniature mobile phone. MSN Direct watches — watches from manufacturers like Swatch, Tissot, Suunto and Fossil which can receive and display data broadcast via FM radio waves — solve this problem with rechargeable batteries. Though effective, in my experience, taking your watch off and plugging it into the wall once a week is not the most convenient solution. Mr. Kashio says his company is working on fuel cell technology to address the power problem, though he does not indicate whether he is referring to hydrogen fuel cells like the ones car manufacturers are pursuing, or some new technology of their own. Either way, more power definitely means more potential.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure I’d be interested in a mobile phone watch. Sure, I’ll get one when they are finally available, however the reality is that I demand a pretty feature rich phone (SMS, keyboard, speakerphone, bluetooth, instant messaging, email, etc.). Additionally, I like to have the freedom to pick my watch based on what I’m doing, what I’m wearing, where I’m going, and who I’m going with, which would mean I’d only have my phone with me whenever I felt like wearing my phone watch. And I think I have even less interest in using my watch to conduct financial transactions. The last thing I need is for someone to make it even easier for me to spend money. I’m all for a cashless society (in fact, I’m constantly cashless myself), though I’m happy using a card or perhaps some other type of device that I can keep on my key chain. I realize the advantage of integrating phones and payment systems into watches is that you always have them with you and you won’t lose or drop them, and having broken several phones myself, I can appreciate that. However, a simple wrist tether that Sony seems to be attaching to many of their devices now fixes that problem, and I can’t remember the last time I left the house having forgotten my wallet.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement and innovation in world of digital watches. Quite the opposite, in fact. I believe Casio makes some of the best and certainly most accessible and affordable digital watches in the world, though I can think of all kinds of ways to improve them. For instance:

  • High contrast displays. Analog watches are still usually easier to read than digital since the physical separation of the dial from the hands creates depth and more contrast than LCD readouts produce. I’d love to see very bright, high resolution miniature screens embedded in digital watches like we are becoming accustomed to on all our other devices like cell phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, laptops, handheld gaming systems, etc.
  • New ways of telling time. Rather than trying find new things for a watch to do, I’d like to see designers put some thought into new ways of doing what watches are meant to do. The YES Watch, for instance, is an amazing digital watch that not only tells you the time, but, among several other things, also graphically indicates exactly when sunrise and sunset occurs wherever you happen to be in the world. Innovations like these add new dimensions to watches, and potentially to our lives, as well. (Review forthcoming, by the way.)
  • Vibrating alarms. I’m really surprised more watches don’t have silent alarm modes these days. As watches assume more PDA-like responsibilities, the more useful and, at the same time, obnoxious they can become. Personally, I’m embarrassed when my digital watch draws attention by beeping, just like I hate when my mobile phone rings in public. I usually keep my mobile phone silent, and I’d love to keep my watch silent, as well, without having to give up alarms and hourly time signals.
  • Customizable faces. As soon as you have a bright, high contrast, high resolution display, the next thing you’ll want to do is create your own time-telling arrangements, or perhaps download and install those created by others. Personalization is becoming a priority in consumer electronics, though digital watches are not
    adapting. MSN Direct watches are starting down this path, though they still have a ways to go.)
  • Customizable functions. Again, consumers are becoming less content with their devices being carbon copies of everyone else’s. Customization and personalization are become increasingly important. Why should I have to have an alarm, or countdown timer, or a time recording function on my watch if I never use it? Or why can’t I have 10 different alarms if that’s what I need? Or a stopwatch with 50 split times? Downloadable content and personal configurations are standard on phones and PDAs now, and eventually will be for watches, as well. (The Timex Data Link currently allows you to use your PC to choose the types of functions you want on your watch, and even to choose their mode order — well done, Timex!)
  • User interface improvements. As watches offer more and more functionality, their user interfaces can potentially become less and less effective. The user interface is how the user interacts with and experiences the watch’s functionality, so it is every bit as important as the functionality itself. Tissot has made some important advances in watch usability with their Tactile collection, and I’d love to see others innovate, as well.
  • Aesthetics. Even with all the functionality in the world, nobody will want to wear a watch that is too big, too heavy, or just plain ugly. Design, functionality, and user interface all need to be given equal priority.

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