The story of Hyungsoo Kim’s startup company begins in an MIT classroom, not with some high-tech experiment but with a simple question: What time is it?
The inquiry came from a blind student seated next to Kim during a graduate course at the Sloan School of Management. Kim’s neighbor wore a wristwatch that spoke the time aloud at the press of a button, but he felt that using the audible feature in public was disruptive and, frankly, embarrassing.
“It’s 2013,” Kim said. “We went to the moon almost 60 years ago, and there’s no good watch for the blind.”
Kim’s company, Eone Timepieces, aims to solve that problem with the launch of its first tactile wristwatch, which can be preordered for $128 beginning Thursday through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. The analog timepiece features two metal ball bearings in place of traditional hands — one on the side of the watch, representing the hour, and one on the face, marking the minute. There is no glass covering the face.
Wearers can tell the time by feeling the position of the bearings, relative to upraised number lines on the face. The 12 is represented by a triangle; lines at 3, 6 and 9 are slightly larger and more textured than the rest.
The watch is not only for the blind, Kim said. He hopes its design will appeal to sighted customers who like the idea of discreetly checking the time in settings (at a meeting, on a date, in a theater) where it is rude to glance at a watch or phone.
Eone’s innovation follows a broader trend of watches and wristbands that blend health and technology. Devices made by large corporations and fledgling startups monitor anything from blood pressure levels to compliance with companies’ handwashing rules.
The handwashing tracker, made by Sarasota, Fla. startup IntelligentM, contains an accelerometer and vibrates when the wearer has scrubbed for a sufficient length of time.
More mainstream products include the Nike FuelBand, a combination watch and pedometer that also logs calories burned.
Wearable devices that track activities and vital signs are a fast-growing market, said Halle Tecco, chief executive of Rock Health, a Boston incubator for digital health startups.
“I think wristbands and watches are just an intermediate step to the inevitable invisible wearable device,” Tecco said. “As sensors get smarter and smaller, we’ll start to see them disappear into thin patches or embedded into our clothing. Right now, as watches or bands, they make a fashion statement.”
Beyond the health and fitness realm, the Sony SmartWatch synchs with a wearer’s smartphone and provides notifications when calls, e-mails and texts arrive. Apple and Google are developing similar products.
Eone’s watch is simpler than most — so simple, in fact, that Kim’s original partners, who were engineers, abandoned the project after the group used it to complete a class assignment. The watch’s working mechanism is nothing more than a magnet that holds the ball bearings in place.
But the magnet is critical, Kim said, because it draws the bearings back to their proper locations if they are displaced by the wearer. Other tactile watches for the blind use hands that wearers often move inadvertently when checking the time, and a gear system cannot return the hands to where they belong.
Eone’s first watch is called the Bradley, named for Paralympic swimmer Bradley Snyder, who lost his sight in an IED explosion during a tour of Afghanistan with the Navy. A mutual friend introduced Kim to Snyder, who serves as an unofficial company spokesman. Snyder was training Wednesday with his new service dog, Gizzy, and unavailable for an interview.
Kim’s goal is to raise $40,000 through Kickstarter, money he badly needs to keep Eone going. Venture capitalists and angel investors have consistently turned him down, saying the watch market is too competitive for Eone to be viable.
The company’s only source of funding so far has been a $150,000 personal investment from Kim. One year after incorporation, just $15,000 remains.
“The Kickstarter is going to be our only hope,” Kim said.