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by James Huang
December 16, 2017
Photography by James Huang
Take just one glance at the Omata One, and it’s clear that it’s unlike every other GPS cycling computer on the market. Although it tracks your movements via orbiting satellites just like Garmin, Wahoo Fitness, Bryton, and others, the information is displayed not on the usual rectangular LCD screen, but on a mechanical face not unlike a diving watch.
Omata calls the One an “analog GPS computer.” It’s wildly different, intricately designed, and outrageously expensive, but according to CyclingTips US technical editor James Huang, it doesn’t quite feel as polished as it should be.
Omata co-founders Rhys Newman and Julian Bleecker don’t have long histories in the cycling industry; in fact, Bleecker hasn’t even been riding bikes for all that long. The idea for the Omata One came about when both were working together at Nokia. Bleecker was the senior creative lead at Nokia subsidiary HERE (a company that focuses on mapping services for mobile devices), while Newman acted as HERE’s VP and head of design.
The Omata One is an “analog GPS speedometer” that combines the mechanical movement of a watch with the digital precision of GPS.
According to Bleecker, Newman approached him one day with an off-the-cuff idea to create a bicycle computer that looked and functioned like the speedometer on an automobile or motorcycle. However, the pair were deeply engrossed in an activity tracker that the one-time mobile electronics giant wanted to develop at the time, so there wasn’t exactly a surplus of time or energy to pursue such a thing on their own. But then, without warning, Nokia canceled the project.
“We were literally at the second pre-production build, and they decided to just cut the program,” Bleecker said. “I knew that there would be something next. We said we should do this. We should do the speedometer.”
The idea of the “bicycle speedometer” went counter to everything Bleecker and Newman had come to accept as standard practice at Nokia. Instead of a digital screen, there would be mechanical hands. Instead of having more functions and buttons, there would be as few of them as possible. Simple took the place of complicated; analog instead of digital.
The design is certainly distinctive what with the circular display and machined aluminum body. It’s striking to look at, but also arguably too similar to a hockey puck.
“All of these things are designed to demand your attention,” said Bleecker. “We wanted to do the opposite. This allows you to keep your attention elsewhere. Don’t worry about the data, don’t worry about the flashing LEDs, don’t worry about the text messages and alerts. It was meant to be a stripped-down computer.”
And so, Omata was founded in 2014, and the One was launched on crowdfunding site Kickstarter in April 2016. Bleecker and Newman set a goal of US$150,000. By the time the campaign ended, they had raised almost US$230,000.
Omata was in business.
Omata worked with K-Edge to develop a new mount insert for the One. The quarter-turn interface felt adequately secure.
Older riders might look at the Omata One and recall the old Schwinn speedometer of the 1970s. Much like Bleecker and Newman’s vision, that old device mimicked the look and feel of a gauge you’d be more likely to find in a car: one simple arm that swept across an arc of numbers, one rolling odometer in the middle.
The Omata One is admirably small as compared to this Garmin Edge 1030 (left) and Wahoo Fitness ELEMNT Bolt (right). Even ignoring the size, it couldn’t be much more different in appearance than virtually every other GPS computer on the market.
The One isn’t quite that distilled, but it’s close. On its round face are two primary hands — one for current speed, the other for total trip distance — and two secondary dials for elapsed time and total elevation gain. It’s meant to evoke a simpler look and feel on the outside, but the intent was always to power the device with cutting-edge technology on the inside.
That old Schwinn speedometer measured speed and distance through a steel cable connected with a toothed cog down by the hub. In contrast, the Omata One’s machined aluminum case is filled with the latest electronic gadget and doodads.
Instead of just relying on the usual GPS and GLONASS satellites to determine the rider’s position like the latest Garmin and Wahoo Fitness devices, Omata uses three additional systems: SBAS (which uses ground-based stations to improve accuracy), Japan’s QZSS orbiting network, and the BeiDou navigation array that China put into operation in 2000.
The Omata One’s mechanical display includes four hands: two on the outer perimeter that indicate current speed (in red) and trip distance (white with black tip). Two smaller dials indicate total elevation gain and elapsed time.
There’s also ANT+ and Bluetooth Low-Energy wireless protocols, a three-axis accelerometer, a barometric sensor, and temperature sensors, all of which are guarded by an impressive IPX5 waterproof rating that will supposedly stand up to pressure washing. The built-in lithium-ion battery has a claimed run time of over 17 hours, and charging is via the latest-and-greatest USB-C port. Seiko is contracted for the One’s watch-like mechanical movement, and the whole lot is assembled in Oulu, Finland.
An associated app is used to extract the stored information from each ride, and automatically upload those rides to third-party platforms, such as Strava, as selected by the rider. It’s worth noting, too, that while the One only displays four pieces of information, it’s capable of reading much more. Future updates will allow the One to link to heart rate monitors and power meters, for example, with that data recorded in the background and uploaded for review only after your ride is completed.
Actual weight for the device alone is 77g; the included K-Edge mount (with an Omata-specific insert) adds another 48g. Retail price in the United States is US$550; pricing for other regions is to be confirmed.
After more than twenty years of staring at digital screens, there’s certainly some adjustment period required when using the One. Omata acknowledges this, too, saying that riders need to develop a “visual sensitivity of the spatial relationship of the hands.”
Indeed, it took a few rides before I came to more easily read the One’s multi-layer face — not so much reading the numbers themselves, but more mentally relating the position of the hands to the related information. I can’t say that riding with the One changed how I ride, or my attitude while riding, but it certainly changes your perspective on how much data you need while pedaling along and it wasn’t long before I appreciated the simplicity that Omata’s intriguing device provides.
The Omata One has just three settings, all of which are operated with a rotating bezel. Red denotes “stop” or “off.” Grey turns the unit on when you’re starting a ride. Yellow puts the device in pairing mode when it’s time to upload your ride data.
There are no buttons to push, pages to scroll through, or any audible or visual alerts. It really is like an automobile dashboard, before they were festooned with all sorts of additional screens and functions. The rotating bezel has just three positions: start, stop/off, and connect.
It’s also perhaps worth noting that no other computer I’ve used garnered so many comments and questions from onlookers.
Nevertheless, Omata may have strived for visual simplicity in designing the One, but I still found it more visually confusing than it needs to be. Newman may have a background in art and design, but in my opinion, the display face could use a rework.
When you turn the Omata One on, the speed dial briefly points to the “gps” symbol to indicate that the unit is searching for satellites. Once it has a location lock, the needle moves back to the zero position.
My biggest issue is with how speed and trip distance are displayed. Both of those are marked on the device’s outer circumference, but the starting positions aren’t the same: 9 o’clock for speed, 12 o’clock for distance. Making matters worse is the fact that they’re also scaled differently.
Trip distance uses the full 360-degree sweep for 100 miles (for longer rides, the hand would simply continue another rotation). In contrast, current speed tops out at 65mph and occupies about 330 degrees of the display face — just enough that the individual hash marks don’t line up. Making matters worse is the fact that some of the speed markings are obscured by the two sub-dials.
The fonts are also a bit hard to read, and there isn’t as much contrast as I would prefer between the hands, lines, and numerals, especially in very bright sunlight.
Omata cleverly uses the hands for other functions, too. Here, the elevation needle is briefly indicating an 80% battery charge after the unit was switched off.
One particular decision in the One’s display face seems to have been made more in the interest of design than pure function, too.
On my imperial-unit sample (there’s a separate One for metric units, since they’re not convertible after assembly), there are numerical speed markings for 0, 10, 18, 25, 35, and 55mph — a seemingly haphazard array, with 18mph denoted at top dead center.
According to Bleecker, this is rooted in two ideas: “18mph is the ideal speed for a human being to travel across the landscape,” and “in terms of instrument design, everything is perfect when the needles are straight up and down.”
After your ride is finished, turning the bezel to the yellow position tells the Omata One to link with its associated smartphone. Note how the speed dial is pointing at the “bt” symbol.
In fact, Bleecker and Newman believe so strongly in that 18mph concept that they even once built a blog around it. That sentiment is all well and good, but to have it define the design for a product that is supposedly so purely function-driven seems a bit kitchy.
There are other annoyances, too: the proprietary quarter-turn mount (made by K-Edge) works well, but the entire unit has a tendency to rotate on that mount when you’re trying to switch between modes since turning the bezel uses the same motion. And while the Omata One looks a lot like a diving watch, it seems more than a little ironic that it doesn’t actually tell time.
Bleecker says that my sample was a second-generation preproduction pilot sample, and at least more revision was slated to be completed by the time the first units are delivered to original Kickstarter backers. One change that was sure to be done was the sticky bezel. Hopefully Omata reconsiders some of the graphics and layout of the face, too, although given that anything more than a font change would require a mechanical redesign, that seems unlikely.
The three-position bezel is an elegant way to switch the Omata One through its various modes, but it seems like green would be a more obvious color for the “on” or “start” position than the current grey.
Many years ago, well before the rise of consumer-grade GPS, Specialized’s Speedzone family of computers debuted with a then-radical design. Like the Omata One, it was built on the premise of a round multi-function display modeled after something you might find on a motorcycle. In this case, though, the display was digital: one “needle” indicated current speed, and two other shorter lines marked average and maximum speed on the same scale. A smaller round dial at the middle provided the time of day, and other bits of information like trip distance and time were provided on a smaller digital display.
That old Speedzone embodied the same information-at-a-glance design philosophy as the Omata One, but in a far more mundane plastic case, and with a less romantic digital face. And with its pedestrian asking price, it carried none of the cachet of the One, either. But it worked, and worked well. From a purely functional standpoint, I might argue that, in some ways, it actually worked better (I know because I owned several back in the day).
Omata designed the One to be instantly legible from the saddle, with the idea that your brain eventually learns how fast you’re going and how far you’ve gone by the physical position of the needles, not the numbers on the screen. That said, there isn’t enough contrast between the needles and the dial face, the numbers are hard to read while riding, and the design not only obscures a bunch of digits, but also uses different scales for the current speed and trip distance markings on the outer perimeter.
I love the concept behind the Omata One, and I really want to love the device itself. Life has indeed become more complicated than it needs to be, and riding should be an escape from the demands of everyday life, not a continuation of it. The One is beautifully designed and intricately built, and such a departure from everything else that competes in this space.
As a conversation starter, a neat piece of design, or a bold middle finger to the digital LCD hegemony, the Omata One is a resounding success. But as a way to elegantly convey critical information at a glance, there’s still work to be done.