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“time” by Sean MacEntee

Feeling Time

Ben Galbraith
Jul 28, 2015 · 4 min read

When I was very young, I saw an episode of Beyond 2000 that featured an innovative watch that let its wearers tell the time just by feeling its surface. I was captivated by the idea, reinforced by its inventor’s assertion that just the subtle act of looking at your wrist could negatively impact a conversation.

Over the last few years working in the world’s largest company, the majority of my day time has been spent in meetings. I found myself having to juggle being fully “present” in each meeting along with being very aware of the passage of time, a task I often failed to do well. I often wondered how I could do it better.

Having observed first-hand that stealing glances at my watch or other clocks during a meeting does indeed create a negative impression on others, I experimented with several alternative ways to seamlessly manage time. While I did find some schemes that worked, especially when meeting with people in my own office, the thing I really wanted was what I saw all those years ago: a watch I could touch to tell the time. But despite my best efforts, I could never find one.

So, I decided to make one. I didn’t want it bad enough to start from scratch, so I bought a Pebble Steel and used its SDK to create an app to do this.

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The Pebble doesn’t have hardware I can touch to tell the time, but it does provide another mechanism that can be adapted for non-visual time-telling: the vibrate API.

Using it, I created a Pebble app that vibrates with a distinctive pattern every quarter hour and, whenever I push a certain button, vibrates the number of minutes in the hour. I spent a bit of time experimenting with different vibration timings and finally settled on something that worked well for me. Then I integrated the app (and the watch) in my work life to find out if it would actually help me.

I loved it.

I was instantly more effective at managing my time, especially when in short fifteen minute meetings. I was able to stay much more engaged by never needing to stress about how much time I had left. I was also able to perceive the passage of time more effectively when engaged in tasks such as checking email, a benefit I hadn’t anticipated.

Later, I added a “focus” feature that, when toggled on with a button press, vibrates the watch every minute. This would help me stay focused in situations where every minute counts, such as when I only have 10 minutes to finish a task or when I’m giving a short speech or presentation and there’s no clock in my field of vision.

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The app in “focus” mode; clearly, I didn’t spend much time on visual aesthetics

One downside of my app is that it turns the Pebble into something of a single-purpose device. The app replaces the standard Pebble watchface mechanism with a fixed watchface and, to avoid buzz overload, I turned off all other Pebble notifications. This was fine for me but I can see it being a show-stopper for others.

So, what about the Apple Watch? I’ve been wearing one for the past few months. It’s sort of the opposite of my app; because the display hides the time unless you make an explicit wrist gesture, you definitely make it clear to others that you are checking the time. Kind of a bummer.

But, I’ve been on an extended work sabbatical after Dion and I left Walmart Labs back in May, so I haven’t missed the time tracking all that much. I may go back to the Pebble when I return to work but it’d be a tough trade-off.

I looked at implementing a similar app on watchOS but it doesn’t seem feasible, even with the new 2.0 APIs. Still, I’ve run into enough people that want some kind of subtle way to tell time that I’m hopeful Apple will introduce it as a native feature sometime soon.

Have a Pebble and want to give this app a spin? You can find the code on GitHub and the app in the Pebble appstore. (Apologies for the cheesy icons and banner; both were required to publicly publish the app.) Let me know what you think!

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