Apple Watch and the Era of Wearable Computers

November 2014

Here's the coolest detail of Apple Watch: you ask it for walking directions, and as you walk down the street you'll not only feel a buzz on your wrist when it's time to make a turn, but the buzz will be different depending on whether you need to turn left or right.

Who but Apple would think of something like this — and implement it?

Smartwatches have been around for a few years now, but haven't really taken off. That will likely change when the Apple Watch, which was announced in September, becomes available in 2015. Apple always seems to know how to do things right.

Just as the smartphone has become an all-purpose tool (gps, camera, music, video, books, Internet, email, etc.), so too are smartwatches. And so far, the Apple Watch looks like the one to beat.

It's a watch, a communication device, a health & fitness monitor, and a mobile payment system. Plus, a wide variety of apps are available, such that it can do just about everything a smartphone can do: weather, stocks, maps, music, email, calendar, photos, Siri, and more.

Typical of smartphones, the Apple Watch has a variety of faces. Want an animated Mickey Mouse face, tap the display. Another tap will get you an elegant classic analog watch face. Another tap will bring up an animated face with a blooming flower or a lovely butterfly flapping its wings. Another face not only shows the time but also your calendar and indicates upcoming appointments.

The face that fascinates me most is the astronomy face, which has an interactive, real-time 3D model of the earth, sun, moon, and planets. Obviously Apple put a lot of thought and time into designing this and other faces. Again, who but Apple? As with other smartwatches, it's likely Apple will open up face design to developers, so you'll have hundreds of options. In addition, you can customize Apple's watch faces, giving you some two million different possibilities.

Of course, as a high-quality watch, it keeps time within 50 milliseconds of the global time standard. If you're traveling, it automatically adjusts to the local time.

You can also use Apple Watch as a communication device. In conjunction with an iPhone, you can use it to make and receive calls, do text messaging, and even send taps that will be felt by another Apple Watch user.

How does one type a text message on a display the size of a watch face? Apple's thought about that, too. With a tap, you can send a voice message. Or if you receive a text message, the watch's software analyzes the content and presents several optional replies. Tap on one, and away it goes.

Apple has even invented a new communication tool they call Real Touch. You can draw on the display (maybe a heart shape) and send that as a message. You can send taps, as mentioned above. It also has a library of customizable emojis that you can select from and send. Plus, you can use the phone's heart rate monitor to even send your heartbeat.

Two built-in apps let you use the Apple Watch as a health & fitness monitor. The Activity app keeps a record of all your activity, such as how many steps you take, even measuring the quality and frequency of those steps. The Workout app takes the knowledge the watch has gathered about your activity and suggests fitness goals. Plus, it tracks your progress toward them.

You can also use Apple Watch to pay as you leave a store using the company's new Apple Pay system. It works in conjunction with mobile terminals that are becoming increasingly common at checkout. You simply double-press a button on the side of the watch and then hold your wrist near the terminal. Payment complete. Apple's new system is highly secure, such that the store only receives a transaction-specific code, but not your name or credit card number.

The Apple Watch will come in two different sizes, 1.5 inches and 1.65 inches. There are three different models, from the base model at $349 to one that actually has an 18-karat gold casing. There are also six different bands to choose from.

The display is touch-sensitive, but because of the smaller face, it doesn't use the standard pinching gestures. Instead, one rotates the "digital crown," the dial on the side of the watch.

I think Apple has a winner. Just one hitch, though: it only works in conjunction with an iPhone.

This Month's Hot Tips

Other popular wearables include the Pebble watch, which also works in conjunction with a smartphone; Fitbit wearables for tracking steps, miles, calories burned, heart rate, and sleep patterns; and Nike FuelBand, which tracks activity and energy burned.

© 2014 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen