OMATA: A Modern Mechanical Design Approach

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

At its essence, simple design is a maximization of utility and a minimization of excess, the unneeded, and the superfluous. It is about finding the most efficient yet elegant solution, an Occam’s Razor approach to design. For those unfamiliar, Occam’s Razor is the principle that among competing scientific hypotheses, the simplest theories are best; they are most testable (of course, this is simplified). However, a theory has to explain something, so keeping it simple yet useful is a massive challenge.

In other words, there can be a simple design heuristic in complex design questions.

Simple design is not the removal of flare, it is an attempt to get that essence of a thing. 

Meet Julian Bleecker and Rhys Newman, former Nokia designers and founders of OMATA, a new brand of cycle-computers emphasizing elegance, utility, and minimal distraction. Confessedly, Julian and Rhys are Stinner owners. It has been a linking up of similar design philosophies, a merging of communities. OMATA’s speedometers utilize GPS for their analogue display, stripping the readout of information that is unneeded. What started as mere artistic doodling for Rhys in 2009 turned into an all or nothing pursuit by December 2014.

OMATA is an attempt to reduce the cognitive requirements for processing numeric information, and, instead, orient us toward the information most important in that moment: the wheels moving under us, the feel of the wind, the shared social experiences. Unfettered, freed of the entanglement of distracting, nebulous thought, we can be brought into the present. Humans have a need for certain information. Julian and Rhys want that information to be integrated into the experience of riding a bike, not a new definition of what riding is.

The following conversation starts with an article Rhys read written by a scientist studying human cognition, that there were certain values that resonated with people, including the ideal speed to travel on a bicycle being 18 MPH.

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

Danny: So you have all these ideas in cycling about what’s “proper” and also thinking about the cognitive scientist’s approach to people’s inherent propensity towards the pace at which we travel. And that seems to be part of the inspiration for OMATA, yeah?

Rhys: So, it started with that article on human cognition and I started thinking about certain “absolutes.” Flat tires come in threes…every time you pull up to a stop light, the second you put your foot down, it changes to green. You go for a ride and it has to be a headwind, always. I started doing these curious drawings, and when I read that 18mph thing, I started to draw these . . . these mechanical objects and bells. Something happened on a bicycle, something happened when you get to 18mph. Like a bell went off. In a very childish way, it wasn’t a design, just a drawing. 

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

Danny: How did Nokia play into the creation of OMATA?

Rhys: I just kept drawing, one of those side projects while Julian and I were at Nokia, part of the advanced design team. We were at Nokia when it went through tremendous success then a rapid decline. We were asked to consider the question, “If Nokia stood for something in the world, what would it stand for?” So we did a body of work, where we started to look at the way smart phones and cellular devices are designed, and essentially, these things are designed for your maximum attention. Essentially with all these apps and all the functionality, it is assuming all you’re doing is using the device. It got to a point where all you’re doing is walking off and bumping into things, driving off cliffs, sitting in restaurants paying attention to this rather than to your wife. So we did a small project which we called internally, “heads up.”

It was essentially that we could design things from a human cognition point of view, an interactive design. What happened if you designed something where your primary task was not interacting with the phone, but walking or being with someone, so these two things were running in parallel. Now I had this slight design [in the form of drawings] for an analogue speedometer that had something to do with 18mph.

But then long story short, we did a lot more work with Nokia, a lot more outdoor active devices, and Julian and I started to create almost like a design decision making sensibility within Nokia. We were asked to design a new camera, a sort of LTE connected camera.

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

Danny: So cameras started this, something that has an analogue to digital design path as well.

Rhys: If you look at the heritage of cameras, they’re beautiful objects. And you look at these things [showing a phone], they’re still beautiful, but it’s all beneath the glass like all the dials are gone, all the ways of interacting with the device. So we start with the terminology: “Modern Mechanical.” What’s a modern mechanical connected device? So this was all Nokia world. As this time was coming to an end, Julian and I were sitting next to each other and we started to get obsessed with modern mechanical things and I started showing the Julian the drawings. We built some amazing relationships in terms of engineering and R & D teams outside of Nokia, we could do very advanced GPS things but we still had no sensibilities to say when I’m on a bike I looked Garmin products and I looked at cycling computers and essentially they looked like a piece of plastic telecommunication on my handlebars. And the more I looked…I just don’t want any of that.

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

Danny: And bikes are kind of not . . . that, yeah?

Rhys: Every other choice I was making about my frame, or my components or my shoes, or my clothing, I was making a decision on emotional beauty and performance. That compromise. I wanted a very fast bike that had straight steel tubes. Very advanced but very beautiful.

Our time at Nokia came to an end, and we started talking about what this modern analogue GPS cycling computer could be and I had a strong point of view, that all that really matters about that product, is that you’re out there riding and all that really matters is the heads up thing. If you design a GPS computer for your bike it should only show the things that matter most and it definitely shouldn’t get in the way of your riding.

An IPhone on your handlebars, text messages while you’re riding…Why on Earth would I want an I Phone on my handlebars? It’s the antithesis of why I go riding. Let’s build a modern GPS analogue speedometer that shows just basics such as speed and distance and time. It was so clear and so compelling from a product for cycling point of view. For us it’s very much a statement on design and technology. Why do all connected devices have to be beneath the glass. It’s a strong belief about what products could be like in the future.

We looked at each other and said if we don’t make this somebody else will.

Danny: What was the jumping off point?

Julian: It feels like everything came to a boil, we got exquisitely drunk in San Francisco. We kind of looked each other and said “I’ll do it if you do it.” It wasn’t necessarily like it was an obvious startup thing to do, there was a sense of dread insofar as will this make sense to anyone?

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

Can we make this into a thriving business as opposed to a hobby? But this was…so many things depended on us. It was just force of will to make it happen. Aside from the tech, with what you guys are doing. There’s something very modern about the visual design the way [Stinner is] painting the frames. It’s very contemporary and modern. You’re not saying let’s do it the way they did it back in the day. You gotta resonate with your audience beyond steel frames. What’s modern and fresh?

Danny: You guys are designers but obviously there was lot of tech that went into this product.

Rhys: The engineering team we used is a young R&D company based out of Finland, comprised of ex-Nokia and engineers. Everybody you need to make a modern digital connected device and have the experience of doing it at the scale you’d expect of typical consumer electronics.

Danny: Where do you see the product going?

Rhys: What we’re trying to do…we started off with this very clear idea of a beautiful modern analogue speedometer, we’re looking for…we haven’t done anything like this before, for example in terms of looking for investors. What we’ve done is that on the inside is a very advanced GPS computer, Bluetooth, low energy. So the plan is launch a company that has a strong point of view that says what matters most. We can make this very advanced thing represented in a beautiful analogue way. We’re talking about the classics, speed, distance ascent, time. How fast am I going, how far have I climbed, how far do I have to go to get home and how long will it take? At the same time, we can eventually do a training version: Time, watts, heart rate for instance. What are the four things that matter to somebody that’s training? Pick the three or four bits of data that are relevant, and forget everything else. It’s capturing everything, you can have the data later, we just can choose not to display it.

Then one thing we can do is start to behave like a watch company. We can have fun with design and color, material. Fabian Cancellara is part of the team. We’ll end up doing a Spartacus edition for him.

You know, some people are asking what do you want to be when you grow up, and there’s no reason we couldn’t do trail running. We designed this product that can have many iterations.

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA

Perhaps, in conclusion, in our age of information, it is becoming necessary to remind ourselves to pick our faces up off our stems and out of our digital devices. The human connection, extrinsic and intrinsic, will helps us all do a bit of true exploration. Again, we can return from rides satisfied about the experience. But you won't have lost any information.

Photo: OMATA

Photo: OMATA