(As published in West Country Life- April 2018)
If you wanted to wow your friends back in 1982, then few items would impress them as much as the Seiko T001 TV Watch. At first glance it looked much like any other stainless steel digital watch of the time and offered the same time, date, alarm and stopwatch features that were then standard. But with a simple accessory and the press of a button you could instantly be catching up on your favourite soap opera, watching the winning goal of a live televised football match, or listening to the radio; all from the comfort of your own wrist. OK the price was extortionate, the quality was terrible and the battery life was not that good; but even so it was the realisation of a dream that stretched all the way back to Dick Tracy or the Jetsons. This was the early inklings of an interactive ‘smart’ watch long before the rest, and for what it achieved has remained a coveted object since it first appeared 36 years ago.
The TV Watch was first released by Seiko in Tokyo and Osaka during the summer of 1982 (as the DXA001 model), and then offered to the rest of Japan shortly afterwards. Priced at an expensive 98,000 yen (or the equivalent of just under £800 today) the watch was never really pitched at the mass-markets. It had cost Seiko millions of Yen and 3 years of hard research and development but was clearly their pride and joy. Despite the obvious novelty appeal of the watch, the engineers had somehow packed a working TV screen into just 1.25 inches and in 1984 it was officially awarded the title of the World’s Smallest Television by the Guinness Book of Records. Of course, you also needed the pocket-sized receiver to actually pick any signal up, but it was still pretty impressive and the user manual illustrated how to discreetly feed the wire and box through your shirt sleeve to hide in an inside pocket. Since regular TV’s at the time still used cumbersome cathode ray tubes to work this watch was somewhat revolutionary. Seiko opted for an improved mini LCD screen which just relied on a thin membrane of the crystals to work, and as such was one of the first commercially available TVs to use liquid crystal (LCD) technology, again years ahead of the rest. Of course even their own engineers estimated the screen would only last 7 years and it offered a pathetic resolution of just 31.9 pixels and 10 shades of grey. Yet because the headphones also acted as an aerial it supposedly offered very good sound quality perhaps compensating for the fact you probably couldn’t actually see very much of anything!
With its constrictive price, initial sales of the TV Watch were quite slow and only 2,200 were sold in Japan in the first 9 months. When in spring 1983 it looked to export the watch to the US the critics there were also worried that the price was just too high. Even so, Seiko pushed on and an official launch date of mid-September ‘83 was set for the US.
Sluggish products sometimes have a way of exploding in popularity and for Seiko, they had 007 to thank. The James Bond franchise has always been a great spring board for many consumer tech products and when the movie Octopussy was released in June 1983, Roger Moore uses a prototype version of the Seiko TV Watch to both catch a bad guy and of course secretly admire the cleavage of his co-workers. Upon close scrutiny Bond’s watch isn’t the shop floor model as for one thing it had a colour screen and more buttons. He also wasn’t shown using the slightly cumbersome headphones or receiver that were vital to make the whole thing work, but for a Bond loving public- they wanted one anyhow. The connection with the Movies would be made again in 1987 when Tom Hanks also uses a Seiko TV Watch in the comedy Dragnet.
When we look back at the 1980s with its plethora of competing electronic gadgets and gizmos, it is curious to wonder why no-one else had tried to steal the TV watch market from Seiko? There were plenty of other giant electronics firms around and in truth many had toyed with the idea themselves while Seiko were hard at work in the lab. But it is easy to look at iconic products of the past through rose tinted glasses. In an article from May 1983 reviewing the new TV Watch, a New York Times reporter asked Sony why they had not come up with their own variation? ”We already have the capability in the laboratory of making the TV watch, but we don’t feel there is a big enough market.” In truth Sony were right. The TV Watch had been an expensive labour of love for Seiko, whose dedication and passion created a unique and memorable product that is now viewed warmly as part of the cultural heritage of the late 20th Century. Despite discounting the watch steadily, Seiko would never have managed to sell the volumes needed to recoup the costs of development and the watches novelty wore off as small cheaper handheld portable TV’s took the market instead.
For myself and the countless fans out there, the TV Watch will forever remain a fantastic product. It had true vision and represents the cross-roads between realising the dreams of a wearable TV, and opened up the possibilities for what else an interactive wrist watch could be.