We’ve coveted smart watches ever since since Dick Tracy first started talking into the sleeve of his yellow overcoat, and unlike flying cars or personal jetpacks, the connected watch is a gadget-of-tomorrow that actually might make sense. There’s got to be something beyond smartphones, and high-tech wrist watches seem a lot less nerdy (and a good deal less threatening) than reality-augmenting eyewear like Google Glass. The problem is that most of the ones we’ve seen so far have had more buttons than your average TV remote and have been harder to figure out than your first VCR. With the requisite chips and sensors adequately miniaturized, what smart watches need now are smart interfaces.
One potential solution is to hijack some other finger-ready interface or gizmo, which is what we saw with the TikTok, the clever wristband that let the touchscreen-equipped iPod Nano realize its semi-secret ambition as a wrist-bound mini-computer. But even that gadget’s dumbed-down version of Apple’s already dumbed-down mobile OS still requires a lot of fiddling. The KeiKei watch, a concept by Takemura Ori’s Qixen-P Design, takes the opposite approach, wrapping up the functionality of a smart watch in a package inspired by the beautiful simplicity of the firefly.
The KeiKei’s face, made up of a grid of LEDs, is more minimalist than that of your average watch, but it’s designed to do a good deal more than keep time. Depending on how and where they swarm, the dots can alert the wearer to phone calls, predict rain, or visualize MP3s. The KeiKei is more of a smartphone supplement than a replacement–the fireflies aren’t going to spell out your incoming texts, and doing so, Takemura’s says, would “completely kill the intention” behind the project–but the idea that high-tech adornments might not need to do everything our other devices can is certainly one worth exploring.
Takemura sought qualities of “playfulness and interactivity” in the design, and he refused to sacrifice either in the name of pure utility. “When we say an object is communicating with a person, we should always remember that as living creatures we feel more comforted with the language that is close to nature, not ones and zeros,” he explains. The fireflies were just the thing for making “a digital object more natural,” introducing a visual element that was beautiful and “sometimes chaotic.”
But another part of the KeiKei’s design has to do with staying true to the spirit of watches. “A wrist watch . . . is a very traditional device in a way,” Takemura explains, “and I believe as a design object and as a tool of telling time, there is a need for metaphor, calmness, and serenity in those objects.” Watches are for glancing, not studying–you don’t look at your wrist and say it’s 4:46, you say it’s quarter to five–and Takemura’s fireflies approximate that same level of precision.
In a way, it’s an unwillingness to make the same sacrifice we did with our smartphones–giving up devices that were primarily phones in exchange for pocket computers that could play music, browse the web, and navigate us wherever we wanted to go. But watches have a far richer history than cell phones ever did, and the KeiKei’s approach to the problem is a smart one. Instead of just cramming computers into packages that can fit on a watch strap, we need to make smarter versions of the things we’ve been wearing all along.