The story of Hyungsoo Kim’s start-up 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 went on sale for $128 Thursday through a Kickstarter fundraising campaign. Within the first hour, Eone was more than a quarter of the way to its $40,000 goal.
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. With 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 others.
The watch’s working mechanism is a magnet that holds the ball bearings in place. 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 inadvertently move when checking the time.
Kim hopes the watch’s design also 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 may be considered rude to glance at a watch or phone.
Eone’s innovation comes at a time when wristwatches and wrist bands are becoming a popular platform for the latest technology, from mobile computing to health monitoring.
Many have broad applications: The Silicon Valley start-up Pebble Technology has developed a watch that synchs with a wearer’s smartphone and provides notifications when calls, e-mails, and texts arrive. The Pebble, as the watch is called, can also help runners and cyclists track their workouts, and even works as a rangefinder for golfers.
Pebble was also launched on Kickstarter — with great success: Customers pledged more than $10 million last year, and the first watches were shipped in January.
Larger companies are entering the fray, too.
The Sony SmartWatch performs many of the same functions as the Pebble. And Apple is widely reported to be working on an iWatch that mimics its iPhone, while Google is developing an Android version.
Even the athletic apparel giant Nike has made a play with the FuelBand, a combination watch and pedometer that also logs calories burned.
Other wearable devices have narrower purposes, typically health-related.
There are wrist bands to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, and even hand-washing. IntelligentM, a start-up in Sarasota, Fla., makes a wrist-worn tracker for health care workers that contains an accelerometer and vibrates when the wearer has scrubbed for a sufficient length of time.
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 start-ups.
“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.”
Kim kept fashion in mind when designing Eone’s first watch after blind people testing the timepiece said they did not want to wear something that called attention to their disability.
The result is a stylish chrome watch 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.
“I remember the caliber of the college projects I worked on, so my expectations weren’t very high when he told me about the watch,” said Snyder, who won two gold medals and a silver in London last year. “But the first time I put it on, I was blown away.”
Kim’s goal is to sell a first batch of 350 watches, scheduled to ship in November. He’s banking on a successful Kickstarter campaign because traditional funders have consistently turned him down, saying that the watch market is too competitive.
Eone’s only source of funding so far has been a $150,000 personal investment by Kim — of which just $15,000 remains.
“The Kickstarter is going to be our only hope,” Kim said.