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E-paper Rorschach wristwatch will have you seeing spots

Visiting Tokyoflash Japan, maker of puzzling wristwatches, was nothing like we expected. Crave gets some hands-on time with the company's first electronic-paper watch.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read
Kisai Rorschach
Perfect for a Watchman: The Kisai Rorschach tells time with inkblots on an e-paper display that have increasing levels of complexity. Tim Hornyak/CNET

You'd think notorious watchmaker Tokyoflash would be run by a gang of mad scientists determined to drive people crazy with their incomprehensible timepieces.

But during a recent visit to its headquarters in Yokohama, Japan, I found a positively tranquil office housed in a charming and rare prewar building.

I was quickly given some hands-on time with the Kisai Rorschach, a recent creation that uses an e-paper display from E Ink to create inscrutable inkblots that would have made Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach proud.

Established 13 years ago by a Canadian entrepreneur in Japan, Tokyo Flash has carved out a niche for itself as a maker of brain-bustingly bizarre wristwatches, from stainless steel cuffs that tell the time in Morse Code to sleek, Tron-inspired luminous LED bands.

The Rorschach is no different: it uses inkblots in increasing levels of difficulty for telling the time. Billed as "easy, medium, and hard," they might make you feel dumb, dumber, and dumbest.

But I soon realized the hour is a squiggle in the top right, the minutes on the bottom left, and the rest of the inkblot is a mirror image of them. Pushing a button on the side of the watch increases the complexity of the blots, or changes the display to an inky readout of the date or alarm. Clear as mud?

"We regard these watches as wearable art," says Paul Cooper, marketing manager for Tokyoflash. "They are something that's creative, a talking point. When someone sees one of them, it catches their eye and you can explain how it tells the time."

"I think sometimes the names we come up with for watches are as crazy as the designs," he adds, pointing out to one of the company's first timepieces, Pimp Trip the Light Fantastic. "I think the goal of the company from the beginning was to design something that was unique, creative, and you know our motto is 'Change the way you think about time.'"

From its fans and watch design enthusiasts around the world, Tokyoflash receives design ideas for unusual timepieces that it shares on its blog, where readers vote for the best.

Some submitted ideas, like the Rorschach, get turned into real watches, and designers can profit.

Time out: Tokyoflash's cryptic watches (pictures)

See all photos

Tokyoflash has produced more than 70 watches so far, with one coming out about every month. They retail for less than $200.

"People look at first and think, 'Oh, that's just too much,'" Cooper says. "Actually, after wearing a Tokyoflash watch for a few hours or a few days, it becomes second nature to read the time.

"And it's quite fun to have friends or acquaintances say, 'What's that on your wrist?' It becomes a talking point."

Check out more pics of Tokyoflash watches in the gallery above.