I admit that I’ve been cooly analytical about most of Apple’s recent product announcement. Part of that may stem from the fact that it’s usually pretty clear what Apple will be announcing based on their refresh cycle; part of it may be that every detail of Apple’s upcoming products are called out by intrepid bloggers months ahead of time. The end result is that there are usually few surprises remaining by the time Tim or Phil take the stage for the official announcement. Yesterday, Cook’s “One more thing” brought back a feeling I haven’t felt watching an Apple event in a long time: joy and astonishment.
There are numerous things that make the Apple Watch unique in a sea of prematurely ejaculated shartwatches, but I believe the most impressive thing about it is the way Apple has – again – reinvented the ways we physically interact with technology.
The Digital Crown, the most vital interaction a user will have with the device, is a variation of Apple’s enormously popular iPod clickwheel, which is probably why Cook in his presentation and Apple on its website referenced it as a parallel innovation. The original iPod introduced the concept of rotation for input selection. Something about that interaction is so familiar that it’s ingrained, whether you’re adjusting your thermostat (which I’m sure is why Nest (and iPod) founder Tony Fadell used it), dialing a rotary telephone – or obviously setting the time on your watch. Apple used this near-universal familiarity and incorporated it into cutting edge technology in a way that’s truly useful. Pressing the Crown serves as the home button; “winding” it serves as a selector, a means of zooming content and doubtless myriad other uses that will make themselves known the closer we get to an actual product launch.
The button below the Digital Crown, for which I haven’t seen a proper name given yet, is analogous to the Menu button on the original iPod; it’s an input that allows an entirely different set of shortcut and contextual options separate from the Crown. It’s a pairing with which users should be familiar – like the right-click a mouse. If you agree with the premise that numerous gestures on the face of a smartwatch would be not only confusing by obstructive to content, it’s a smart way to create selection options away from the watch face.
Apple also introduced a deepening of their touch metaphor – literally – with the addition of the Force Press. Instead of trying to work with interaction paradigms that wouldn’t make sense on such a small screen, Apple took one of its most successful input methods and expanded it along the same axis of interaction. A tap will select; a tap and push will bring up an entirely different set of functions. Again, this is a way to create thousands of interaction options using just a few familiar, unobtrusive movements.
Taptic feedback is the way users will receive notifications through what Apple is calling it the Taptic Engine. It’s a gentle tap emanating from the backside of the watch to your wrist. For a device as body-personal as the Apple Watch, it’s a suitably subtle method of notification – miles away from the beeping and flashing that seems to be taking over my iPhone. Upon hearing about the feature, my first reaction was “Of course that’s how notifications should work.”
These interaction technologies are a strong reflection of Apple’s greatest skill as creators of tools. They think deeply about how people use things and design their offerings around this use. Back when the Moto revealed its
270 360, I wasn’t as impressed as a lot of people about the fact that it was round (turns out it isn’t). I wrote:
Instead of letting history dictate or limit the things it can do because it’s worn in a place historically occupied by a watch, maybe Motorola should think about what they want the device to do and let those things dictate what it looks like. I’ve heard of a certain Apple designer who thinks of what he works on that way and he’s regarded as pretty good at what he does.
The Apple Watch is not a hollow harkening – it doesn’t run on references devoid of practical use. It’s Jony Ive’s reimagining of how a watch should work based on how we use technology. I remember listening to Moto’s head designer talk about how they were “reinventing the modern-day timepiece,” and I really hope they have those guys on suicide watch. Apple just announced its smartwatch – amateur hour is over.