The Open-Source Smartwatch Built by a Teenager

Arduino Technology Wearables
The Open-Source Smartwatch Built by a Teenager


You’d have to look pretty hard to find a greater sign of dedication to making than a 15-year-old skipping driver’s ed. But that’s exactly what John Wall did last year, when he was so engrossed in his OLED watch project that he waited a full year to get his learner’s permit.

Now 16 and working on version 6.0 — a Bluetooth Low Energy version — Wall has upgraded the open-source Walltech OLED Watch to include custom fonts and time displays and even an Asteroids-style game.

It all started when Wall impulse-bought an Arduino Uno and used it to build a bedside clock. It was his first exposure to making and soldering. “I didn’t really have any hobbies before this — probably Lego when I was a kid — and I think I saw it on the internet one day that someone had made something, like a little robot, so I looked into it a bit and thought, well, people are making some really cool stuff with this,” he says.

DSC00947Then, when he noticed an LED ring and a Femtoduino, he figured he could put them together into a watch. With a coin-cell battery and a PCB designed in Fritzing, he says it sort of worked. “I knew I wanted to make one that was a step up, that was functional and was much more customizable, and maybe had a pixel-based screen instead of LEDs,” he says.

He discovered Tindie, Make:, SparkFun, and Adafruit. Along the way he learned to code and to solder. He built his own fume extractor from a PC fan and carbon filters they sell at pet shops for fish tanks. (“That’s a lifesaver. It’s almost as useful as the iron itself,” he says.) He worked on it on his family’s kitchen table, packing everything up so they could eat dinner.

And it’s paid off. MakerBot founder Bre Pettis noticed the (exhaustive) blog post Wall wrote about the project, and asked for 20. “He’s a collector of do-it-yourself watch kits, and open source watches. That’s a big project that I’ll definitely need some space for,” says Wall. “I haven’t figured out how I’m going to scale up if I go beyond 20.”

IMG_20140420_161507Wall is still exploring ways to polish the project, coding it to interact with Android and iOS, making it smaller, and adding a new exterior. Though he likes the exposed look of the current prototype, he’d love to get his hands on a 3D printer so he can print a custom band. (The current band is made to fit a stock iPod Nano.)

Aside from the watch, Wall is working on a Bluetooth headset with bone-conductive transducers, a wireless game controller, an ambient noise-canceling device for headphones, and a clock based on multiple bicolor LED matrices from Adafruit. “I just like clocks, different ways of displaying time with LEDs,” he says.

But even beyond clocks, he loves the process of making.

“Making things is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” he says. “Finishing this watch, the OLED watch, it’s a feeling of love and hate basically. You put it together and then you’re terrified it’s not going to work, and then you flip the switch and the code you’ve written for it beforehand works and it’s the best feeling ever. You put it on, you wear it around, and it’s just, you’re so proud, I’m so proud of it.”

WearableWeek_Badge_small_bur01This week, July 14-19 2014, we’re exploring wearable electronics of all kinds on Make! If it is electronic and belongs on your body, we’d love to hear about it! You can find all of our wearable articles by going here.


Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Nathan Hurst is an editor at Make. He loves anything having to do with science or bicycling. He tweets as @nathanbhurst.

View more articles by Nathan Hurst