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Signal through the Noise – Measuring the Precision of Mechanical Watches with your iPhone

by J.Edwards

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A watchmaker’s job isn’t done once a watch is assembled and ticking. The much more abstract task of then getting that watch to keep time – in an almost infinite variety of positions, temperatures, and states of wind – takes place. It’s the most challenging part of our craft and the pursuit for perfection is ceaseless. If careful attention is paid to every detail, right from the get go, you can usually be pretty certain the timepiece will keep respectable time when you’re done with it. Getting to that perfect zero point, though, where the watch doesn’t lose or gain any time in any state, remains elusive. There are just too many variables at play. Literally hundreds.

Little idea did I have, just how naïve I was in thinking that developing a system to analyze all of that ordered chaos would be a simple and straightforward process. Throw in several more dimensions of variability, like differing calibres and escapements, case sizes and materials, ambient noise, processor speeds, and the varying frequency response of microphones, and the end goal becomes that much more complex and less than straightforward to achieve. Following several more months of development on Kello, though, and thanks to the input of a small army of beta-testers, I’m confident I’ve finally got it pinned down in a format tight enough to run on Apple’s latest mobile devices.

With the initial release of Kello, my focus was aimed at making chronometric sense of the data pouring in through the microphone. That first version had to be used in near perfect silence and there was no means of controlling the level of amplification that the incoming audio was being analyzed at. I had unwittingly tailored the app to a relatively small cross section of watches and accustomed myself to working with and compensating for its inadequacies. The result was less than acceptable.

After making the decision to pull the first version of Kello from the App Store, I committed myself to focus on eliminating inadequacies in its performance due to external variables. It took a lot of work to bring Kello to the point it is at today and I am very pleased with the results running on Apple’s ARMv7 based mobile devices.

Completely rewritten, from the ground up, the latest version Kello (which is now available on the iTunes App Store), brings a number of new features and updates that make it easier for the end user to achieve reliable results. The frequency of the watch can now be set manually or detected automatically by Kello, and the range of usable frequencies has been expanded to include 14,400. The amplification of the incoming audio signal can now be adjusted using a simple, on screen slider. The audio data being analyzed by Kello is displayed in wave form, so the user can see exactly what Kello is seeing and adjust the amplification or microphone position accordingly. Lastly, and most importantly, Kello 2 introduces the use of DSP to focus in on the sound of the watch ticking and help eliminate ambient noise.

To see Kello in action, analyzing a Rolex Sea Dweller in a noisy room, check out this video on YouTube.

All of this improved performance comes at a cost, though. DSP is CPU intensive. Unless you have the patience of a saint, Kello 2 is only recommended for use on the iPhone 3GS or higher. The iPhone 3G and second generation iPod Touch struggle to run the app and will crash if they’re running low on memory or haven’t had a fresh reboot recently. I do not recommend trying to run Kello on these devices. I am working to bring this awesome piece of tech to Apple’s older hardware, but it’s proving to be one heck of a mountain to summit.

In the mean time, I hope that those of you with 3rd and 4th gen iPhones and iPod Touches will benefit from having a timing machine in your pocket as much as I have.

Update: Kello has now been updated to better support the 2g iPod Touch and iPhone 3G.

Win a Free Copy of Kello

The first five readers to correctly answer one, each, of the following questions will receive a free copy of Kello from the US App Store. One answer per email address.

Here goes:

  1. What English observatory did Bonniksen’s karrusel watches consistently earn top marks at, around the turn of the 20th century?
  2. At which observatory did Kari Voutilainen have the first in his series of Obervatoire watches tested at?
  3. Which former Royal Observatory did George Daniels first have his hand made pocket watches tested at?
  4. Who is the maker of the chronometre that currently adorns the wrist of George Daniels and is engraved “to George Daniels my Mentor 2010″?
  5. Which watch brand took top marks at the 2009 Chronometrie International Timing Competition?

Good luck!

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