“It’s a watch for the blind.”
That easy explanation, in a single stroke, justifies the avant-garde form of the Eone Bradley watch and makes it immediately both understandable and intriguing. Looking a little closer, this is a strikingly original and fascinating product on multiple levels, and its creator Hyungsoo Kim has a compelling story to tell about how it came to be and why it raises important issues.
Rather than using a traditional dial and hands covered by glass, the Eone Bradley tells time by touch via ball bearings, which lends it a unique look. While initially intended for blind customers, its combination of unique design and compelling story have made it a successful fashion item that can be regularly spotted on wrists around the world. Indeed, 95% of Eone Bradley watches are bought by the sighted. In a time when most analog watches are functionally obsolete, something that stands out visually and conceptually, genuinely fills an important niche, and has a practical purpose behind its design is rare and refreshing.
What’s it like to use one? Even the sighted might sometimes need to check the time discreetly. First, feel around the edge of the watch until finding the ball bearing. You’ll then slide your finger to the top of the watch to find the nearest index, orienting yourself because the 3, 6, 9, and 12 o’clock indices reach all the way to the edge while those in between don’t (different versions’ designs vary). The 12 o’clock index is palpably the fattest. Now you know the hour, and it’s then easy to find the minutes via the ball bearing in the groove on top of the watch.
It takes a little getting used to, but becomes easier. If you’re sighted, you can also read the time visually, of course. Driven by a Swiss quartz movement, the ball bearings are moved by magnets — if they become disengaged from the magnets, a flick of the wrist will send them rolling in their grooves to easily find their place again. It’s all so simple, and yet not at all an obvious solution.
The Eone Bradley has been around since its 2013 Kickstarter launch, and subsequent models have mostly represented minor design differences and colors. A quartz movement helps keep the watches affordable at under or around $300, but watch enthusiasts should appreciate that new models all use ceramic for the top ring — something that’s a trend now among many luxury watch brands for the material’s luxurious feel, technical interest, and scratch-resistance.
Compared to the crowds of luxury and indy watch brands at constant pains to stand out with something that looks “different” and rationalize it with contrived backstories, Eone appears effortlessly original. Many brands claim to “break the mold” with alternative concepts or displays (discs instead of hands, anyone?), but Eone offers a genuinely novel experience.
Eone’s founder and CEO Hyungsoo Kim charmingly refers to “touching time.” He is down-to-earth but has a unique perspective, and he recently discussed his brand and products with Gear Patrol. [The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Q: Bradley Snyder is a big part of Eone’s branding. Why did you name the watch after him?
A: Bradley Snyder is a former naval officer who was blinded defusing bombs in Afghanistan. He later went on to win gold and silver medals in the Paralympic Games. We named this watch after him because his story is inspiring not only to the blind community but to everyone, and his goal aligns well with our goal, which is to break stereotypes and misconceptions people have towards the blind. It might sound a little cliche, but we want to change how people think about disabilities and abilities and inclusion. We also work with charities to support the blind in various ways.
Q: You were a graduate student in business management at MIT when you developed the Eone Bradley. How did you get the idea to make a watch for the blind?
A: One of my classmates was blind, so that was how I found out about the problem they have. When I sat next to him, he had to poke me all the time to ask what time it was. It was very surprising that in the 21st century there wasn’t a good solution. It’s not that designers are excluding blind people on purpose when designing objects like clocks and watches, we just don’t know what’s going on with them, we don’t have much interaction with them.
For example, technology is advancing really fast, and all the products and gadgets are becoming smaller, slimmer, good-looking… but even on vending machines and microwaves all the buttons are now a touchscreen panel. If you can’t see, you can’t use them at all. So many people who are blind, when they need something, they go to the junk stores to find old products with buttons and knobs. But even those are disappearing.
It’s a very big problem they are facing, but we just don’t know. We just assume that their lives must be taken care of somehow because of all this amazing technology, but it’s actually going the opposite direction. So we wanted to raise awareness so more designers and engineers would pay attention to inclusive design.
Eone stands for “everyone,” because we want to raise awareness and promote inclusiveness, not to focus on disabilities. The action of touching something is a universal experience that can be shared by the blind and the sighted together. When I “touch time,” now and then it makes me think that this must be something that blind people are also doing as well. So it kind of leads to a sense of connection.
Q: Something like high-end minute repeater watches that chime the time on demand aren’t an option for average people. What alternatives do blind have for checking the time in their daily lives?
A: There are talking watches and braille watches, but most options are really cheap. Many of them break easily, and having a watch speak the time out loud is inappropriate or embarrassing in a lot of situations. Blind people can also use smartphones with earpieces, but for them, being able to hear the surrounding environment is very important, so that’s not the best option.
Q: What were the challenges in developing and designing the Eone Bradley?
A: At first, we wanted to make a watch for the blind with braille dots, but it turned out they really didn’t like that approach. It was very shocking and surprising: we brought the prototype for the first user group testing of about 50 blind individuals, and the first question they asked us was: “do you know how many of us can read braille?” I never thought about it, I just assumed that if you’re blind you can read braille. So I said, “maybe eight or nine out of ten of you can read braille.” It turned out only 10% or 20% of blind people can read braille because unless they’re born blind they don’t get to develop the necessary sense of touch. A lot of people, like Bradley Snyder, become blind later in life.
The other thing that surprised me, and embarrassed me, was that I had assumed that they would mostly care about functionality and less about the looks. They want to look good just like everyone else. They asked how big it was, what it was made of, and what color the strap was. Finally, while I thought they would be happy to have something made just for them, blind people didn’t want something made just for blind people. They didn’t want to use a product that focuses on their disabilities and separates them. They wanted a watch that everyone wants to wear.
After the first prototype, we had to start from scratch. We built a team consisting of not only MIT designers and engineers but people with all kinds of abilities and disabilities. It was a little more than a year and a half from our first user group meeting to launching the Kickstarter campaign, and we went through 50 or 60 prototypes for the first model.
Q: Were you surprised to see the watch well received by the sighted?
A: Our Kickstarter in 2013 was a huge success compared to what we expected. We were surprised because most people who supported us were sighted. They supported us because they liked our story as well, but mostly they just liked our design. That’s what we want from our customers. We don’t want our customers to buy our watches because we are supporting the blind community, we want our customers to like our products because the design is unique and it looks beautiful.
To be honest, among our blind customers, it’s split. Some people who are blind find the price point to be too expensive and they’re not happy with that, and for them it was a disappointment. But some people are happy to have an option, and to have a watch to wear when they dress up.
Q: What particular technical challenges were there in developing the watch?
A: We do a lot of user group testing. Usually, visual design can be done really quickly. You can send out the drawings and get feedback, but because we rely on tactile functionality, we actually have to print the physical prototypes to be able to touch it and feel it. Even the size of the ball bearings went through so many iterations because of needing to find the balance between the ball bearings with regards to size and look. For example, for the markers’ design: our latest one went through about 15 or 20 iterations.
We can use thinner quartz movements, but their torque is not strong enough to drive the magnets. When we test different sizes that are smaller, they look nice and the watch could be thinner, but it gets hard to feel the ball bearings. To increase tactile functionality, bigger ball bearings are better, but then the watch becomes too heavy, too large, and looks too chunky. So finding the balance takes time and is quite challenging.
Q: What watches or products have influenced you? Do you wear or have any other watches?
A: This might make you laugh, but I used to hate wearing watches. I bike all the time, and I just don’t like wearing expensive watches. I used to like Skagen — I like their designs. Skagen was one of my favorites.
Nowadays, I’m really into environmental and eco-friendly products — they call it upcycling. They make bags and clothing from plastics and recycled materials. Ive been really into that and we’ve been exploring it, for example, with recyclable packaging and straps made from leather car seats.