Chris Farnell talks to inventor Sandy Noble about his Linear Clock, the problem of conflating clocks with time, and what designers can do to help. This article was taken from Issue 1 of Hack Circus.
Some of us have spent a long time learning the complex "Big hand, little hand" system of traditional clocks. This linear clock is new and strange. How are we supposed to tell the time with it?
It works the same way as a circular clock, but unrolled. Imagine snipping the outline of a circular clock with a pair of scissors at the 12 o'clock mark, then unrolling the perimeter into a straight line. There you go. Instead of hands being fixed in one place, and swinging around and around to point at the numerals, they slide up and down the line. Do they fall off when they get upto 12? Are there two twelves?! Or a 0 o'clock?! Heresy.
Well the short answer is, you tell the time just the same way as with a circular clock. You have an hour hand that points to the big numbers, and a minute hand that moves faster and points at the bigger numbers.
The linear clock is as absolutely straightforward as a regular circular clock. It solves a couple of issues, and replaces them with a couple of new issues, that may or may not be more intuitively challenging.
Why have a linear clock?
There are two main problems with circular clocks. The first one is that there's two different scales sharing the same axis – minutes and hours are both measured as distances down the same edge, and that's a bit confusing in itself. The second thing is that it’s circular. That's pretty genius because it reflects the cyclic nature of night and day, but it's essentially an engineer’s solution to a human problem. Clocks have historically been circular because it is easy to make circular, continuous dials, and hard to make linear indicators.
I suppose the concept of numeric time is a engineering solution to a human problem too. I'm not touching that one though, at least not with this project.
But the problem with a circular, continuous dial is that there is no end – no conclusion. It doesn't come from anywhere, and it doesn't go anywhere – it is dislocated, an open loop indicator. It's like being in the middle of a king size bed. All the edges are too far away, so you don't know how far you are from escape.
It's debatable about whether the linear clock solves the shared-axis problem. There's a benefit in that one hand moves down one edge of the scale, and points to one sequence of digits, and the other hand moves down the opposite edge of the scale and points to another sequence of digits. So technically, the two sequences are separate, but in practice they are both on the same physical surface, and it is likely that the hands will be perceived as pointing to the whole surface, rather than just the closest edge.
In fact, the way that I've styled it, it was designed to resemble a radio tuning dial, and so it was deliberately unclear about whether the hand was sliding along the top or the bottom edge. That could be made clearer for some applications I suppose.
The clock does solve the circular dislocation problem: the hands march on in one direction, past each digit, and once it's past the digit, it isn't going to hit that digit again. Circular clocks are funny because the hand goes past five (for instance), and as soon as it is past five, it is on it's way towards five again. Doesn't make much sense except without some deeper intuition about what the clock, and time is and isn't. It needs learning.
The real reason I made it, in an afternoon or two was just because I had spare parts. I was curious about how readable the clock would be, and what kind of behaviour it would promote. I'm interested in how people looking at analogue clocks round up and down, and the language that we use when talking about it. I wanted to see if the continuous format of a circular dial changed how we talk about time and how we relate to the four main stations of the clock.
It didn't go anywhere for a long time while I was busy doing drawing machine stuff (polargraph), but I got a message recently from a mum who was particularly interested in having a linear clock to help her young son. He has autism and finds circular clocks particularly boggling. I can entirely see why – the circular dial requires a lot of implicit knowledge about how to operate a clock. So I didn't necessarily restart the project because it has an "enabled" feature, but more because I'm very aware that something that increases readability, or usability (or thinkability) for a tiny proportion of folk, then there's a very good chance that it will improve the situation for the majority too. The mum thought that the linear, one axis at a time approach would reduce the amount of concurrent thinking required to read the time. And the single direction of progress model would be helpful. I'm going to show her some prototypes and see where that takes us.
I'm not really positioning a linear clock as a revolution, or even novel (it isn't), but it is consciously intended as a variation on a theme, and a variation that is genuinely more functional for some people, but primarily, different for everyone. Recognisable enough that you can still work it easily enough (not like a binary clock or something wilfully obtuse like that), but affecting in other ways. There's a weird bit of dissonance that happens when then hands rewind, or when you try and look ahead to the next half-day because it isn't there, you've got to do a bit of jiggery pokery in your head to unremember how a circular face works. In that way it’s bit like trying to get used to a 24hr digital clock when you are used to a 12hr clock, or vice versa.
How long did it take you to build?
It took a couple of afternoons to actually put together, but there's a lot of sketching involved in between actual cutting and screwing. Recently, I'm designing for manufacturability on a "multiple" scale, rather than just hacking together something that works. So it's going more slowly, but the results should be cheaper in the long run and more reliable.
How could you tell if you hadn't finished building the clock yet?
If I hadn't finished then it wouldn't run for longer than 12 hours at a time. As far as a "product" is concerned, the finish line is a lot less definitive, depending on how slick or prototypy I want it to be, on how much support I can reasonably offer to buyers.
What interests you about clocks and time?
Time is weird, it's a physically linear thing, but perceptually absolutely elastic. It's consumed in our heads, I mean we literally use it up – the brain runs on it like fuel. There are certain brain tasks that use a lot of time points for the same unit of experience. When we're "in the zone" we step up into a high-consumption mode, and use up four hours-worth of time in only one "thing" experience blob. It's like a kind of supercharged, fuel injected mode. The fact that there isn't a fixed relationship between physical time and perceptual time is fascinating.
Clocks are devices for measuring the passage of time, but it is so easy to conflate clocks with time itself, to think that the numbers and digits we use to describe time are somehow the same thing as time. The 24-hour day is almost universally used across all published human works, and that in itself is bizarre. It makes it quite easy to argue that it is universal because it reflects some essential Truth. I think it's completely arbitrary, but I like the dogma. Clocks themselves have some mystical power. I love how some numbers (12, 3, 6, 9) are more important than others, and that events on those hours bask in their reflected glory. The symmetry of the device used to measure time somehow makes the events that happen on those times more special. Two o'clock is neither here nor there. Seven is just past six, five just before six. There's a weird relativism at work, and the linear clock adds "ends" to that mix.
I read a interesting exchange on an email list once about a speedometer on a car – it was non-linear. The first portion was linear, but the second half was more tightly spaced. If it was entirely linear, then the direct centre (12 o'clock) would have been 85mph, but it had been stretched so that instead it was 65mph dead centre – 65mph being the speed limit in the US. It was entirely speculative, but the suggestion was that it had been distorted because if 85mph had been at the centre, drivers would tend to try and speed up so that their needle was perfectly vertical, all lined up nicely. So the commentators thought that the design of the speedometer was to discourage speeding. Now I don't know if that's true or not, but it certainly rings very true that certain orientations of hands or needles have certain magical values, or create certain psychological conditions that are preferable to others. They just seem more "right". So our appreciation of time, or the recording or passage of time is very linked to the shape and form of the tool we use to to express it, and that's pretty exciting and funny. We can change our relationship with time by changing the format of our clocks.
It's a bit like the old aphorism: when your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Globally, our only tool has been a circular clock for a long time, so time is always seen through this circular prism, and that affects living patterns, it affects language, and those things (particularly language) affect the totality of human experience.
Now, that's a generalised description of the power and responsibility of design. But it's particularly potent in the context of clocks because of their universality, and I think the effortlessness with which we use them.