Robert Brodrecht

First Thoughts: The Apple Watch

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Introduction

On September 9th, 2014, Apple introduced the Apple Watch. It may not be an obviously revolutionary device, but I saw a few features that could prove to be the prototypes for ways the device could change our lives.

Apple sees the Apple Watch the same way they saw the iPhone, the iMac before that, and the original Mac before that. CEO Tim Cook made that clear not only with the choice of venue, but also by invoking the phrase “one more thing” for the first time since Steve Jobs last said it. This is the first Apple platform developed completely in the post-Jobs era of Apple. This is Apple’s chance to prove they can continue to create unexpected, innovative products without Jobs at the helm.

Apple believes the Apple Watch is a revolutionary device. Much like the iPhone, though, the potential for the device to change how we live is not as clear as it will be in hindsight. The first iPhone was (and, I think, the first Apple Watch will be seen as) a rudimentary starting point that pales in comparison to the game-changing device that Apple had planned to eventually build.

There were some very neat things Apple gave plenty of screen time to, such as the health and fitness tracking, that are clear ways Apple will grow the platform. Sometimes, though, it’s the non-obvious uses that drive the revolution.

You may want to download the keynote for reference.

Extrasensory Perception

At around 1:25:00 in the video, Kevin Lynch demos turn-by-turn directions on the Apple Watch pointing out:

While you’re walking, Apple Watch will give you Taptic feedback on each turn so you know whether it’s time to turn left or turn right, and those feelings are different for each direction so you can actually know, without even looking at your watch, which way to go. It’s like having an invisible guide with you.

You may already be familiar with the idea of magnetoception. This sense of perceiving magnetic fields is present in many animals, such as birds and sharks, helps them migrate across the planet. With the right kind of “taptic” feedback from the watch, humans can achieve something similar backed by the power of the device and the power of the Internet; humans can gain extrasensory perceptions.

It’s hard to know at this point how the Taptic Engine feels in use. The description by Apple is a little hard to translate into an understanding of the tactile experience the watch can send to the user.

It’s called the Taptic Engine, a linear actuator inside Apple Watch that produces haptic feedback. In less technical terms, it taps you on the wrist. Whenever you receive an alert or notification, or perform a function like turning the Digital Crown or pressing down on the display, you feel a tactile sensation that’s recognizably different for each kind of interaction. Combined with subtle audio cues from the specially engineered speaker driver, the Taptic Engine creates a discreet, sophisticated, and nuanced experience by engaging more of your senses.

I’ll probably give it more credit than is due in this first iteration, but I would be willing to bet the Taptic Engine is something that Apple will focus on improving in future iterations in much the same way that they have focused on improving the iPhone’s sensory inputs over time by creating discrete chips such as the motion coprocessor first introduced as the M8.

“Knowing” where to turn is a nice trick, but, in order to really bring extrasensory perceptions, the watch must go further. That’s where third-party developers come in, and I think the right creative minds could take the simple idea of sensing which direction to turn into some life-changing sensory perceptions.

Dark Sky provides alerts when it is about to rain at the user’s location. By using taptic feedback instead of a push notification, the user would be able to sense when it is about to rain and maybe even how much it is going to rain. Given the right style of feedback, magnetoception would be possible through a simple compass app. Integrating with something like the new location-awareness in the iOS8 Messages app, you could sense your proximity to the person you are messaging. With the right kind of thinking, some really neat things could happen.

Microcommunication

Kevin Lynch spent a little time discussing the communication aspects of the device around 1:27:00 in the keynote. The Apple Watch allows the user to use taps, doodles, and even actual heartbeats to communicate with other Apple Watch users. I’m calling this microcommunication for lack of a better term. Apple hammered on the idea that the Apple Watch is intimate, and these forms of communication, especially using heartbeat, are inherently intimate.

While I don’t see myself interacting with friends very much in this way, I’m blown away by the idea of tapping my wife on the wrist from anywhere in the world to get her attention or let her know I’m thinking about her. While the means of communication is ultimately an indifferent signal from one small device to another, the intent behind it is powerful. If I focus on the intent instead of the technology, this mode of communication sounds very endearing, and it is the human element that will make this idea revolutionary, harkening back to a time before cold, digital text messages supplanted note-passing with inherent human contact.

That is, at the core, these microcomunications will be more about emotions than ideas, expressing sentiment rather than expressing intelligence, because a feeling can be conveyed with something small in a way that a reason cannot.

While I’ll give the Apple Watch a few years to slim down in size and grow in features before I commit to wearing one regularly, I’m excited by the potential I see in the finer details of the device.