Optical TimeKiss Patent Filed

Posted on October 19, 2012 by Richard Hoptroff

7 October 2011, Clink Street, London

At last, the patent is filed and I can tell you about a neat, low-cost solution to a problem that I have been battling with tor the last ten years, long before I ventured into watchmaking.  That is the problem of how to get data in and out of electronics.

As time has passed, the cost of silicon electronics has driven down and down.  So much so that the price of getting data in and out - switches, displays, sockets and cables - is now much greater than the price of the silicon chips.  This is how my Flexipanel business got started back in 2002.  We developed Bluetooth modules so that your mobile phone could become a wireless user interface for your electronics - no cables, no switches, no displays; it didn't even need to be in reach.  That worked well, and eventually grew into a general Bluetooth module business that is still going today.  

One thing annoyed me, though.  I was sure there was a lower cost solution out there. Bluetooth, fantastic though it is - and we expect to be industry players for a long time - it still costs a handful, even if you can do it at scale.  There are regulatory issues with wireless radiation, so you need screen cans;  there maybe no cables, but you still need to be compatible with every phone out there, etc.  A solution, yes, but not a perfect one.   

Last November, it hit me.  Or should I say nearly hit me.  I remember it well - I was on the traffic island where Gracechurch Street and Eastcheap meet near the Monument in the City.  I was half daydreaming over the communication problem, and half grumpy about a board meeting I had been at for a cloud computing company that morning.  A 21 bus screeched to a halt as I walked out, inches away from squashing me flat.  I won't tell you what the bus driver shouted at me, but I knew it wasn't worth explaining why my mind was elsewhere.  Cloud computing - all your software needs from any web browser.  Surely not possible for a watch?

Well it is possible.  Timex and Microsoft jointly pioneered the 'DataLink' technique of sending data to watches from cathode ray screens in the 90s.  They phased it out with the advent of LCD screens, which didn't work so well, in favour of USB, which does.  But time has moved on, and there's more reason than ever to use an optical link: the interface can be with a remote web server.

The problems with LCD screens and web browsers are mostly to do with timing.  Creating the necessary flashes on the screen needs Javascript, whose timing is pretty irregular.  What nearly killed me stepping in front of the bus was the realization that two optical signals could communicate data safely, even with lousy timing.  You can see it in action in the video below.  It's only one-way communication.  It's only 20 bits per second.  But it costs pennies.


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