Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Time-Honored: Why Some Fans of a New Gizmo Are Eager to Misuse It, by Rob Walker

Last September, at one of those periodic events where Apple offers up a new product with much fanfare, Steve Jobs invited the audience to join him in admiring the latest iteration of the iPod Nano. With the touch-screen interface associated with the iPhone and the iPad, the music player had shrunk to a square, weighing less than an ounce and almost comically wee. Some observers took it for a joke when Jobs said an Apple board member intended to sport the thing as a watch. Others didn't laugh; they sprang into action.
Plenty used the gizmo's clip to simply attach it to a sturdy watchband, and a few began devising brand-new bands specifically meant to accommodate a Nano. Soon the gadget blogs were pointing readers to wristband sources and offering reviews of the device not as a music player but as a time-teller. Today you can buy several wristbands manufactured by the companies iWatchz and Griffin Technology directly from Apple's online store, each about $25. (The Nano itself is $150 or more, depending on memory capacity.) And most recently, a Chicago design firm set off a frenzy with its Nano-watch product proposal, hitting a new record on the Kickstarter, where creative types can solicit donations to underwrite new projects.
The Nano-watch fad merges two well-established developments of the gizmo era. The first is that Apple's various handheld devices have spawned ecosystems of spinoff and add-on products and accessories, from function-adding attachments to style-focused cases and covers. The second is that no matter how many devices we carry around that happen to have clocks built into them, the idea of the wristwatch soldiers on. And Apple seems to have anticipated - maybe even hoped - that its unnamed board member wouldn't be the only person to use the thing as a watch: as an item on The Huffington Post noted at the time, the device came with "clock functionality" preinstalled. ("Clock functionality" seems to refer not only to the fact that the thing tells time but also that one of the choices for the default screen mimics an analog watch face.) Still, it's curious to witness a sophisticated piece of technology wholly reimagined for use for as a mere timepiece.
The case is best made by Minimal, a design firm based in Chicago that set the fund-raising record on Kickstarter, setting out to drum up $15,000 and instead attracting an astonishing $941,718. (Many of the donations amounted to preorders - any pledge of $25 or more entailed receiving at least one of the products as a "premium.") In a promotional video, Scott Wilson, a designer who founded Minimal, directly acknowledges the declining need for wristwatches, which "have been reduced to a status symbol and a fashion accessory," as he puts it. But, he continues, watch designers have long "chased" the notion of a "multitouch watch," and the Nano's interface and petite size almost accidentally resolve that quest.
And so Minimal offers two wrist-wearable bands. With the TikTok (preselling for $35 in January), you snap your Nano into a reinforced plastic case attached to a "high-grade silicone rubber" strap. (You can pop it out via an empty space on the back that happens to be the right size to reveal the Apple logo, and is referred to the promo video as the "brand hole.) The LunaTik has a two piece, bolt-together compartment fashioned from "aerospace-grade aluminum" and is meant for someone less concerned with removing the Nano for nonwatch uses; it's preselling for $70.
Despite the exciting sound of a "multitouch watch," the truth is that the Nano's functions are limited. It has a stopwatch and a timer, and the built-in pedometer syncs with the Nikeplus tracking system for runners. The clock face can be black or white. It's true that the thing holds gigabytes of music, but this incidental fact is completely ignored in the Minimal video. And honestly, even in this stylishly done promotional piece, it's distracting when the LunaTik appears on an actual wrist: it's a little too big and a little too weird, and looking a lot more hyperprop than hyperpractical.
Although in fairness, it could also send another signal - that its wearer is tech-forward and inventive, the sort who embraces not only what's new but also the latest way of using the new for something other than its stated purpose. The slightly off-kilter, blatant geekiness of the result underscores this message. Yes, the watchified-Nano wearer silently declares, I do think I'm Dick Tracy.
Adding a gizmo to the wristwatch formula doesn't avoid the idea of the watch as status symbol or fashion accessory - it squares it. If there's one business that matches fashion in its relentless efforts to make this year's model fashions in its relentless efforts to make this year's model seem dated and in need of prompt replacement, it's technology; before long there will be another batch of gadgets, unveiled by Apple or some rival, that will no doubt render Nanos-repurposed-as-watches obsolete. But for the moment it's a highly noticeable, and vaguely fun, tech-fashion statement. And it does add something new to the history of wearable clock functionality - an idea, that, surprisingly, really has stood the test of time.

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