As laptops continue to become smaller and smaller rectangles and smartphones, illogically, continue to become bigger and bigger ones, another high-tech product segment is evolving with far less predicability. High-tech gizmos intended to be worn on the body, from the Nike+ FuelBand to the Fitbit One, are already staking out the next frontier of consumer tech, and even though the CST-01 is just a watch—no Internet connectivity, no fancy sensors, no pedometer—its design, and the technologies that make it possible, are worth getting excited about.
The CST-01 is a thin, stainless-steel cuff, just over an inch wide. It looks more like one of those '90s slap bracelets than anything resembling a typical wristwatch. It’s also incredibly thin—less than a millimeter thick, which is almost impossible to believe—and it’s physically flexible, bending ever so slightly to wrap snugly around wrists of all sizes. The timepiece has no buttons whatsoever. Even changing the time has to be done from an included dock, which doubles as a magnetic charging station. A single 10-minute charge will power the watch for about a month.
What makes the unique design possible—and what allows it to claim the designation as the thinnest watch ever made, according to the designers—is its novel use of an e-ink display, the same kind of low-power tech used in e-readers like the Kindle. The CST-01 isn’t the first watch to tap e-ink, but previous units tried to apply the technology to more conventional smartwatch designs. It was never a very compelling match.
The duo behind the CST-01—Ideo designers Dave Vondle and Jerry O’Leary—have wisely tried to build a watch around e-ink, not the other way around. Having worked with the technology for a number of projects at Ideo, Vondle and O’Leary agreed that they hadn’t seen a timepiece that "really celebrated its uniqueness," O’Leary explains. "We appreciated how it looked but became more fascinated with its other values. E-ink is thin, flexible, low power, and robust."
So the watch, too, would be all those things. And after finding the other necessary componenets—a Thinergy energy cell and a Seiko Epson microcontroller—they realized that in addition to being flexible and low power, their watch would be very thin indeed. "We explored adding as little mechanically and aesthetically," O’Leary explains, "so that the qualities of these partners could shine through."
Next they made the bold decision to remove the ability to change time from the watch itself. "This would only add complexity and thickness to the watch," says O’Leary, "and all for the sake of an interaction that was rarely used by the owner." So, continuing down the button-free path, a stainless-steel band was decided on as the foundation for the timepiece, and a thin polycarbonate mask was added as a face. Total thickness: 0.8mm
The designers, which are launching their new venture under the moniker Central Standard Timing, sagely launched a Kickstarter campaign for the watch right in the middle of the mega-trade show CES, which they attended with their working prototype. In a sea of uninspired new gadgets and chintzy accessories, the CST-01 was something truly novel, and it blew past its funding goal of $200,000 (the watch is slated to retail somewhere around $170). Currently, with over a month left in the campaign, the watch has reached nearly half a million dollars in funding.
Aesthetically, the CST-01 will not be for everyone. Though decidedly minimalistic in functionality, it definitely makes a statement (and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that statement might be something like "I love Star Trek!"). But at a point where it’s hard to get excited about new gadgets, where most new consumer electronics products are noteworthy for being a little smaller or a little faster or a little sharper, the CST-01 is a peek at some exciting things around the corner.
For one thing, it hints toward the arrival of flexible devices, like e-ink readers we could roll up like paper newspapers (fly swatting discouraged, maybe, until things get even a bit more robust). It also continues the exciting trend of exploring new ways to put technology not just in our pockets but on our person. But most notably, it takes an evolving technology, in e-ink, and imagines an entirely new design around its unique qualities, instead of relying on old forms and outdated thinking. And whether you’re keen on wearing a Star Trek snap bracelet or not, that type of innovation is a good thing.