Apple has built an army of robots to stress test its running and workout features, as it looks to keep its algorithms and analytics ahead of its competitors.
The details emerged in a chat with Kevin Lynch, Apple VP of Technology, who heads up watchOS at the Cupertino-based company.
At the beginning the Apple Watch team were involved in tracking and training the Watch to do all manner of activities, from dog walking to running long distances. But Lynch revealed that the company also uses robots, put to work running marathons and other repetitive bio-mechanic activities, to keep feeding the algorithm with new data points.
“Internally we actually have robots that we've constructed that do these activities. We have robots running marathons every day, day in and day out, so that we can make sure that the devices are still acting as they should," Kevin Lynch said.
And that doesn’t just mean physical activities. The robots will talk to Siri as they run, to make sure that the Apple Watch is delivering the right responses in the right way.
We have robots running marathons every day, day in and day out
Whenever Apple adds new workouts, like Tai Chi, Lynch explained that the company gets people participating in those activities and measures the calories burned via calorimetry.
Calorimetry means hooking participants up to masks and breathing apparatus to measure the calories being burned, by tracking every ounce of breath in and out.
"Doing that for something like swimming was interesting," he said. "We actually had people in swimming pools swimming with the mask on, and then somebody walking alongside them next to the pool holding up the equipment above their head."
Tai Chi was added in watchOS 8
And that doesn’t just apply to sports and medical features – but everything the Apple Watch does.
"In the early days we actually rented an apartment and we would have people go there and do everyday activities, while wearing prototypes of Apple Watch," Lynch told us.
That meant tracking the calories burned doing everything from vacuuming and washing dishes to eating dinner and walking the dog. Everything you do in your daily life has been measured by Apple – and its smartwatch has been trained to recognize it.
Experience takes time
Google Maps disappeared from watchOS before coming back with full features in 2020
We also got time to speak to Kevin Lynch about the Apple Watch App Store. It’s taken a long time for app developers to really build the kind of apps we expect – and in some examples, such as Google Maps, full features didn’t arrive until 2020.
We were curious about the process and how the approach and ethos over Apple Watch apps have changed in the eight generations of watchOS.
"It does take some experience and some time to realise what's right for this new medium – and the Apple Watch is a new type of medium," Lynch said.
Complications are a key way people launch apps on the Apple Watch
And that’s because people interact with the Apple Watch differently to how the company expected at the outset.
People are consuming information, mostly through watch faces and complications, which took us a while to understand
Lynch revealed that people consume information more via watch faces and complications than traditional apps – and it took a while for the company to understand this new type of user experience.
Since 2014, the approach to apps has been changed, with independent apps run entirely on the Apple Watch, rather than handing off data to an iPhone companion. And Swift and Swift UI support has boosted third party development.
GoSUP and other watchOS apps
So what are the apps of choice for Apple Watch execs?
"There's a really fun app that's specific to paddle boarding called Go SUP and it's an independent app, and it tracks metrics that we wouldn't track in our apps. The other one is for surfing called Dawn Patrol," said Deidre Caldbeck, Director of Apple Watch Product Marketing.
And after spending a few seconds diving into his Apple Watch, Kevin Lynch revealed his top apps:
"These days the air quality apps for me were really helpful in terms of understanding what's going on and having that on my watch face. And another one I use almost every day is the Remote app to unlock my Tesla."
'Obsessed' by watch faces
watchOS 8 saw more watch face love
With watch faces such an integral and unexpected part of the Apple Watch experience, how has Apple’s approach to watch faces changed?
The watch faces are just so core to what the Apple Watch is...we obsess over them
There was such a sparse selection for so long – we wanted to know why the company kept choices on such a short leash.
This was a realization that like the iPhone, where the icon screen is the de facto home screen, Apple Watch faces act as a starting point.
And Lynch explained that Apple was “obsessed” by watch faces, because they’re so core to the Apple Watch experience.
Watch faces are often animated – as well as displaying complications
"The watch faces are just so core to what the watch is and how it, how it expresses itself and how and how it expresses your own personality we obsess over them. The design effort and the engineering effort on the watch faces is significant."
But while the company has increased the selection – it's also made customization easier, too. While the template and structure of faces is static, there are almost limitless variations via complications, color choices, fonts and even pictures.
And Face Sharing, which was introduced with watchOS 7, means that brands like Facer have been able to offer ready-made and unique watch faces available for people to download – so there's more choice than ever before.
It's clear that even as watchOS 8 is unveiled – presumably ahead of the Apple Watch Series 7 this Fall – that Apple is still pouring development into its smartwatch. And the company has adapted along the way. From apps to watch faces to marathon running robots – obsession is driving the Apple Watch.
And it's paying off.
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