Product review: Renaissance haptic watch

Product review: Renaissance haptic watch

No face, no hands, no digital display. Ian Macrae tries a watch which claims to be a new concept in telling the time.

Some people may remember that with digital watches in their earliest versions you had to press a button to find out the time. In a masterpiece of product placement, this was incorporated into the modus operandi of everyone’s favourite Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin.

Since then digital watches have gained functionality and ease of use, and as a blind-ish gadget fan, I’ve owned some which pretty much did everything but let the cat out even though I found them difficult to use and operate with my very limited degree of sight.

The obvious alternative for me was a talking watch, not quite as multi-functional as the latest thing from Casio but they had at least one relative advantage. They were cheap. Trouble was they often looked it. Also their voices which either boomed or squeaked out in stentorian English or unidentifiable female oriental accents did not provide the most discreet way of checking the time.

Meanwhile, when it came to the other blind-friendly alternative, the problem was never solved of how to render digital time in a tactile format. So the tactile or “Braille” watch stayed where it had always been as a single function teller of analogue time.

But now, Austrian access technology company Caretec has developed the Renaissance, essentially a digital watch that tells the time in a tactile, or more accurately, a haptic way.

Let’s deal with the look and feel first. The design is highly individual and stylish. It is slim and extremely light-weight and comfortable to wear.

Getting under the bonnet, it works like this. The watch has four buttons around the edge of its casing. Pressed singly or in combination these allow the watch to deliver a number of time-telling or timekeeping functions. These include straightforward hours, minutes and seconds time read-out, day, date, month and year, multiple alarm functions including wake-up and reminders and a stopwatch and countdown timer. There is also, as the watch has just reminded me, an hourly chime.

Explaining how the digits are represented in haptic form is more difficult than reading them is once you’ve got the hang of it. But I’ll have a go.

Press the top right button on the watch once and it gives you the hour as a double digit number expressed in a series of bursts of either vibration, audible beeps or a combination of the two. For example, if I do it now I get one short beep to represent the first digit of the hour, and two short beeps for the second digit. This means I know it’s twelve something. Pressing the same button again gives me the current minutes; a longer rippling pulse which I’ve learned represents zero and a pulse of similar length without the ripple which stands for four. Therefore it’s 12:04 in digital time.

These pulses can be used in different combination to create double digit numbers. Two short pulses followed by a longer rippling one would be 20, for example (two tens and a zero) or one longer pulse followed by another longer pulse plus two shorts would be 46, a four, another four and a two.

This really is all much easier to learn than it looks on the page.

Things get a little more complicated when it comes to setting. Not that it’s necessarily difficult to do, in fact, again once you get it, it’s very easy. It’s just that the manual does not make it necessarily easy to follow.

So I was very grateful to have the assistance of another blind user, Steve Nutt, whose company Computer Room Services is distributing the Renaissance in the UK. With his help I learned that there are a number of quite straightforward steps common to many tasks such as setting time, date, alarm, etc. which make them very intuitive to perform.

So in the end what this product needs is a manual which is as good as it is.  Nowhere in the current documentation, for instance, is there a heading saying “How to set the time”.

The manual’s approach to explaining how the watch works is to set out the principles by way of explanation. Steve Nutt told me that this was quite an accessible and understandable approach for him but what I needed was something which took a more step-by-step narrative approach. Something more literal.

Having said that, with Steve’s assistance and some graft of my own, I’m now using the watch very effectively. It is undoubtedly the most discreet and accurate way of checking the time without sight I’ve ever come across. In the dark, for instance it is particularly good when you wouldn’t want to disturb a partner by using a talking watch.

In addition, its multi-functionality is an absolute boon and something entirely new to getting information about the passage of time.

So now I have a fully multi-functional digital watch and I can use it without anyone noticing I’m even looking. No more peering at a tiny display or fumbling for a magnifier. The information I need is there at the push of a couple of buttons. My only wish is that the user manual was equally clearly laid out.

For UK enquiries, contact Computer Room Services.

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