Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The future of watches?

The Casio CA53W-1 (C) Casio
Many of you will no doubt recall the Casio and Pulsar databank watches from the 1980s. These "wrist computers" were large, bulky, plastic gadgets that stored (up to) 30 phone numbers, completed basic calculations and included multiple time zones, chronos, countdowns and associated alarms. In fact, everything the business (wo)man of the Eighties needed, but couldn't fit into his (or her) briefcase, because all the available space had been taken up by his (or her) mobile 'phone and the planet-sized battery required to power it. Since then, not much has changed: watches are still largely for telling the time and 'phones are still the size of Belgium. Ish. 

However, the dream of wearable tech just won't die. We may not yet be the 'gargoyles' that Neal Stephenson envisaged in Snow Crash, but we're not far off it, with an increasing number of applications using augmented reality to various degrees, and many people seemingly plugged into their 'phones almost permanently. The only difference being that computer power and technology has largely been aimed at mobile (smart) 'phones, and not at watches. Until recently, that is, when Kickstarter and other micro-VC 'sites began to be inundated with ideas to use the iPod Nano as a watch. Simply fashion a suitable holder, attach a strap, et voilĂ . A 'watch' that also plays music, video and even tells the time. 

The Meta Watch (TM) Fossil Watches
But, according to at least one set of developers, the technology-based opportunities of the wristwatch do not end there. Fossil Watches and Texas Instruments would like to use the wristwatch as an additional screen for your 'phone. A mini version of it, that's attached via Bluetooth and can run apps hosted on your smartphone. They call it the 'Meta Watch'. And it may just be the future of wristwatches... I must admit that I'm not entirely sure whether the "meta" in Meta Watch refers to the device being somehow beyond normal watches, or merely some uber-self referential item (after all, the current concept device is entirely referential - if only to the host 'phone). Either way, it's certainly a clever idea, and one that seems to be rapidly growing in followers. The device is certainly very, very interesting. 

Ana-digi version
In effect, it's simply a device that removes the need to take your 'phone out of your jacket pocket / bag / jeans. Available in a 96x96 LCD display, or analogue-digital version (see right), the Meta Watch is quite nicely designed, and not a thousand miles away from existing models on the High Street. I don't think it'll be winning any awards for aesthetics, and it's a shame that there's no touch screen, but this is the first commercially available version. Applications running on your (Android) 'phone can be piped via Bluetooth to the Meta Watch, displaying snippets of information, such as unread emails, messages, missed calls, etc. It'll be brilliant for business meetings, where the surreptitious use of one's BlackBerry is often frowned upon. No more pulling out the BB to see whether anything interesting has happened - instead, just casually glance at your wrist, notice that there's a message waiting, and then dive into that jacket pocket to read it. With the approach that TI are taking (i.e. throwing this open to developers), you just know that there's a killer app out there. Something so devastatingly simple that it'll make this device indispensable. But is this the future of watches? No. I do not believe it is, as I believe that timekeeping is secondary to the concept. This may be the next iteration of wearable tech, but I can't see it beating out the wristwatch just yet... 

the #watchnerd

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hands on with Bremont's P-51 watch

Fragile but Agile on the Flightline, Duxford 2011
You may remember that I penned a quick overview of this watch for The Prodigal Guide when it was announced last year. This is an update to that piece, now that the final production version has been released and is finally available for viewing. But before I go into the details, perhaps a quick recap: the P-51 watch is a Limited Edition Bremont (251 pieces) that's based on a very famous, and until recently presumed lost, 'plane called Fragile but Agile ("FBA"). FBA was rebuilt by Planes of Fame by the Hintons over the past few years, and has been flying as part of the Horsemen. It's a well-decorated 'plane, having flown in WW2 and the Bremont watch is made with original parts from this 1944 Mustang aircraft (P-51K-10 - serial number 44- 12016). 

FBA's instrument panel and distinctive nose
"FBA rolled off the North American Aviation assembly line in Dallas, Texas, on 18 December 1944 and was then loaded on a ship on the 15th January 1945 for an assignment in the Far East. It was to take part in the American campaign to retake the Philippine Islands from the Japanese. On arrival in the Pacific Theatre of Operations, the aircraft was assigned to the 342nd Fighter Squadron of the 348th Fighter Group, which then was stationed at the San Marcelino airbase, just north of Manila Bay. Lt. Bert Lee Jr. was assigned to fly the aircraft. Lt. Lee was credited with two confirmed victories during the war, which accounts for the two Japanese flags painted below his name on the plane – one was a Japanese A6M “Zero” fighter near Manila and the other a twin-engine "Betty" bomber. A lot of his missions in the P51 were ground support, in what was then Indochina. Lee and his Mustang both survived the war. Following its time in the US Air Force, FBA then spent time serving with both the Swedish and Israeli military before being overhauled and operated for many years by The Fighter Collection, based at Duxford in the UK. Recently, the Mustang was again treated to a major overhaul by Steve Hinton‟s Fighter Rebuilders at Chino, California having been acquired by the Friedkin Family‟s Comanche Fighter Collection."

Bremont's P-51 Chronograph (Limited Edition of 251)
I must admit to being not only a #watchnerd but also a bit of a 'plane dweeb, so this watch is pretty much the nexus for me. Nick and Giles English have certainly been busy making this watch. The attention to detail is incredible. Take a look at the final dial and see how many elements of the P-51 you can find: notice the hands, echoing the 8-day clock. Then look a little bit closer - the chronograph seconds hand has two distinctive elements: the markings are taken from FBA's tail, while the arrow-headed back of the hand is from the clock. The lume on each of the numerals is just about identical to the honeyed colour of the instruments in the cockpit. The little constant seconds is similar to the EP120 watch, and ticks over nicely against the dark background of the dial. A subtle grey has been used on the UTC (or GMT) hand, as well as on the UTC numerals. Lumed and raised "pips" highlight the dial at five minute intervals. It's a very * harmonious* dial, and not at all fussy.

The Star is replicated on the Roto-Clik bezel crown
The 43mm case will be familiar to all those who have seen the range: it's very similar to the existing ALT1-P and ALT1-Z range of watches, combining the three-part Trip-Tick elements, with those classically curved lugs, and the PVD'd barrel that has become Bremont's trademark. The star-emblazoned crown at eight o'clock is to operate the internal bezel. Previously only available on the non-chronograph models, the Roto-Clik bezel is incredibly smooth. When i spoke to Peter Roberts (Bremont's Technical Director) last week, we were discussing the Roto-Clik on the Martin-Baker watch. Peter's original idea had been to create a mechanism that reminded the user of a Leica: that perfect, soft 'click' as you turn the aperture control. I already own an MB2 watch, and am therefore quite used to the feel of the bezel, but this new version takes the MkI Roto-Clik to a new level. It's nigh on perfect, and may well become a defining piece of Bremont design.

The distinctive nose of FBA can be seen on the rotor
Then there's the caseback: a sapphire window onto the Bremont-modified movement onto the rotor. The movement is a well-made and decorated automatic 7754, but it's the rotor that will have people talking. Hand-made from the aluminium skin of FBA's tail section (see below), the rotor perfectly captures the spirit of the 'plane: it spins and glints in the sun, while turning around that distinctive blue nose. When Giles English was unhappy with the original prototypes, he took to wearing the P-51 reversed - with only the caseback showing. Now I've spent time with the final version, I can see why! At £7,450, it's not a cheap piece, and many will surely baulk at paying over $10k for a watch that doesn't even have an in-house movement. But where else can you find something like this?

I've waxed lyrical about this watch since I saw it yesterday; something that I didn't think I would. To be honest, while I absolutely "got" the EP120, I wasn't sure how I'd react to this big, brash Mustang-inspired piece. But I do get it. I absolutely get it. I hope it will appeal to watchnerds, 'plane dweebs and all in between. It's a very wearable, approachable piece, quite reserved on the wrist, but at the same time containing a link to the past that is very un-2011. It's slightly anachronistic, while also having modern touches such as the scratch-resistent coated steel and PVD sections, and nine layers of anti-reflective coating on the glass. And it's very, very clever: I defy you to be impressed with the internal bezel. I hope it makes you smile.

the #watchnerd

Bremont's P-51 will be available in October; interested parties can place a deposit securing one of the 251 pieces with ATG Vintage Watches or other Authorised Dealers. More information can be found in the official Bremont Press Release here.

FBA fuselage markings
FBA's distinctive tail