There’s no denying that the Apple Watch Series 9 (and Ultra 2) were minor updates – but Apple still made a game-changing announcement at its Wonderlust event.
The addition of its Neural Engine, a special 4-core processor dedicated to machine learning tasks, has enabled a new ‘double tap’ gesture control for Series 9 and Ultra 2. And its implications could be huge.
Apple's new 'double-tap' gesture explained
The feature is controlled by making a ‘double tap’ gesture between thumb and forefinger on the watch-wearing hand. This is mapped to the main control option for any Apple app – and we’re sure third parties will find ways to enable them into their apps too in time.
An example would be accepting a call. A double tap will accept the call, and you can double tap to end it.
Anyone who’s wanted to cancel a timer, take a call, or dismiss a notification while walking a dog, carrying a baby, or any task that ties up one of your hands will know the frustration of not being able to use the watch properly.
But Apple has gone further and mapped the control to the new Smart Stack feature in watchOS 10, which enables users to quickly switch to their preferred apps. That’s crucial, as Apple is not only using gestures for convenience but also as a way of controlling the Watch even when your other hand is free. It wants gestures to become part and parcel of the watchOS experience.
A nice gesture
Gesture control has been an area of interest for wearables for some time.
We’ve been writing about research around gestures in wearables since Wareable started in 2015.
The Myo armband was an early device that explored gestures via a wearable, and in May 2016 we wrote about Project Soli, a Google/LG venture that put a gesture-sensing radar chip inside a Wear OS smartwatch – and Google again in 2022.
We also reported on an Apple patent in 2020 that enables Apple Watch users to answer calls with a clenched fist (above) - a clear precursor to what was revealed on stage.
Huawei also rolled out gestures to the Watch 3 in China.
Apple has also been using gestures as part of Assistive Touch (below) for a couple of years now, aimed at those with limb differences who struggle to use a smartwatch.
The path to gesture control
But there's a difference between what's gone before and its appearance on Series 9 – and that's mass appeal and the chance of mass adoption.
Gesture control has been a niche feature until now – but Apple has put it front and center as part of this launch.
It wants to change how everyone interacts with their smartwatch – not just power users, geeks, and those with physical differences.
It’s launched one single, simple gesture – and will enable people to learn it, get used to it, and for it to become second nature. This is what Apple does best.
If you add too many gestures, it becomes fiddly. And people will just continue to use their smartwatch as they always have.
It’s also the culmination of several innovations, that haven’t gotten widespread attention.
That includes the precise gyroscope and accelerometer sensors that were upgraded for Fall Detection and Car Crash detection back on Series 7 and Series 8.
The three-axis gyroscope included in Series 8 captured angular velocities at 4,000 degrees per second. And the accelerometer sample rate is now 800 Hz or 800 times per second. The max sample rate of older Apple Watch devices was 100 hertz, so accuracy was ramped up dramatically.
That enables the level of precision you need to detect subtle gestures. Apple says it uses machine learning to examine not only movement but the precise changes in blood flow that signal that a double tap has been performed.
And that machine learning has been enabled by the work done on the new S9 chip – and the new Neural Engine.
If Apple can successfully get users to use gestures to control wearables, it will create new opportunities and use cases we haven’t thought of yet.
As ever, Apple has taken something that’s been worked on industry-wide, and created something simple, user-friendly, and useful – and that’s what the company has always done best.
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