Many years ago, when I was tottering on the edge of total deafness, I did some work with Sheffield University testing out an experimental device for the deaf they were developing at the time. As one's hearing diminishes, any kind of auditory or pseudo-auditory information is at a premium, and even the distinction between sound and no-sound can provide you with vital clues that can help you build up a sound picture of your environment. The sudden commencement of a sound - even if you are incapable of interpreting what that sound is - in certain circumstances can mean that there is someone at the door or the dog is barking to go out or your pie and chips are cooked in the oven. They had designed a device that could be strapped on your wrist that contained a sound sensor and some circuitry which would convert sound to electric impulses. The idea was that if there was a sudden sound, a small electric impulse would be delivered to the wearers' wrist and alert him accordingly. With practice, I was assured, you should be able to interpret patterns of impulses and thus distinguish between the constant tone of, for example, a doorbell, and the intermittent tone of an alarm. Equally, they were anxious to explore the idea that louder sounds could provoke slightly more powerful electric shocks and thus add another level for sophistication available to the trained interpreter. Well that was the theory.
This was back in the 1980s and things were not quite as electronically sophisticated back then. The device itself was quite bulky, not exactly the wristwatch-sized contraption I had been promised. It probably had to be that large - and that heavy - to accommodate the battery power that was needed and the accumulators necessary to build up sufficient charge for the necessary shocks. The main problem was not, however, the size of the contraption, but the level of shock it was capable of delivering! At high sound volumes it could be sufficient to cause your arm to go into spasm. The worst situations were when you were doing something like walking down a street and a large wagon or bus would apply its' screeching brakes and thus generate a prolonged high decibel burst of sound: this was enough to turn one into a twitching wreck of humanity, clutching one's arm and issuing a string of expletives that, whilst unheard by you, was clearly discernible to anyone within twenty yards of you.
At the time I was working as a lecturer - you don't need ears to lecture, you just stand there and proclaim wisdom and the students copy it down - and I would introduce my new experimental device with a few sentences of introductory explanation. Often this would cause them to laugh - it was, in reality, a quite ridiculous contraption - and the effect of their laughter would start my arm twitching in response. This, of course, caused them to laugh louder and longer which was instantly translated to even more jerky - and painful - quivering and thrashing of my arm. I became convinced that previous trials of such a device had been carried out during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany which was why they used to march around with their arms raised in what looked like a salute all the time. After two or three weeks I packed the device back off to the people who were developing it, telling them that, whilst the idea was good, they had finished off developing something that was probably outlawed by the Geneva Convention on Instruments of Torture.
I was reminded of this episode in my life yesterday when my much anticipated Apple Watch arrived. Here again is something that you can strap to your wrist and which will alert you to a whole manner of things (most of which were undreamt of back in the 1980s) by a gentle pulsating pressure on the wrist. But my oh my, hasn't technology moved on! This isn't Dr Frankenstein sending 2,000 volts up your arm and causing you to dance like a fairground monkey, this is Julie Christie (feel free to insert your own fantasy figure here) teasing the hairs on your arm as part of some kind of high-tech courting ritual. This isn't some heavy, crudely bolted, metallic box of batteries and wires that resembles something that was constructed in the Cammell Laird Shipyard, this is sleek, polished and Apple-beautiful (If I carry on in this vein long enough, what are the chances of Apple sending me a complementary 18 carat gold Apple Watch Edition?).
After discovering that I had ordered the watch, the question most people have asked me is "why on earth do you want one of those?" I have usually gone on about the advantages of the technology to someone who, like myself, is hard of hearing. It can let me know when my phone is ringing and it can wake me up in the morning by a gentle caressing of my wrist: but that is not the reason. I justify the expense by telling myself that, all those years ago, I did the experimental development work, therefore more than most, I deserve the fruition of all that painful research.