The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

The Mac had the mouse. The iPod had the clickwheel. And the iPhone had the touchscreen. So what does the Apple Watch have? Something called the "digital crown", a tiny knob replacing the conventional crown on traditional watches, and a "Taptic engine" that helps it communicate. They didn't get the most play in today's big, Bono-packed spectacle, but they're pretty damn interesting.

Apple is notoriously good at containing leaks, but the company's silence on this launch was unprecedented. And as a result the internet lost itself in dream-like reverie: Would it be a bangle-style device with a screen that looped your entire wrist? Would lack a screen entirely, an anonymous sensor wristband that acted in tandem with your iPhone? Would it be a flexible screen that solved major problems with medical tracking?

Anything seemed possible, but as is so often the case with Apple, the simplest answer was the right one. The Watch looks a hell of a lot like, erm, a watch. And it acts a hell of a lot like an iPhone or a fitness tracker. But what's really truly different? Its interface.

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

Smarts, If Not Looks

On the face of it, the Apple Watch's industrial design is what, in polite society, you might call plain. It's big, it's got distractingly giant beveled edges (not to be confused with bezels), and its proportions make it look like the second cousin to the iPod Nano. Sure, you'll be able to dress it up with a gold case or a Skagen-inspired band, but there's no escaping that clunky, balloon-y shape. Compared to the Moto 360, it's verging on cartoonish.

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

So on the surface, the Apple Watch doesn't look particularly new or surprising, or even that attractive, depending on your tastes. But it does have something more exciting than looks: An entirely new type of user interface; a collection of input and output mechanisms that will, in theory, become the standard for years to come — the Watches of the future might look different, but the dial-and-taptic system is clearly designed to run through the entire paradigm.

The Clickwheel Returns

Unlike every other smartphone design we've seen so far, the Watch doesn't just rely on a tiny touchscreen. It relies on a physical moving part, a dial called the digital crown that acts a lot like a clickwheel: You turn it to zoom, to scroll, to move through the space of the Watch. To use it like your home button, just push it — it takes you back to the home screen. It's "a versatile tool that answers the fundamental challenge of how to magnify content on a small display," says Apple.

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

It's a charmingly simple solution to a complex interface design problem — namely, that of edges. As smartphone manufacturers have moved towards flatter, thinner screens, they have struggled to solve one of the simples problems: Where do you put the buttons? Jony Ive's team has solved it by hiding the Watch's main moving part in a knob that everyone expects to exist on a watch. It just acts like a clickwheel, instead of a watch pin. Easy.

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

But, as anyone who remembers trying to type on a clickwheel — or hell, trying to type out a show to watch on your AppleTV remote — knows, the clickwheel is a great navigation device but a less great way to actually input any kind of information. So Apple has given us a series of systems to both add information and and extract it.

Tapping, Clicking and Talking

To save us from living in a hell of scrolling through a keyboard, character by character, we get three systems to communicate with the Watch: First, a sapphire glass-encased touchscreen that's familiar to us all. Second, Siri, another familiar feature that can take down notations and messages.

And most intriguingly, third, a kind of screen never before seen in Apple products: One lined with tiny electrodes that adds a new kinetic layer of interaction — and can tell not only where your finger is, but how hard it's pressing. Where a touchscreen can read two dimensions, a kinetic screen can read three. It's an exponential difference in terms of the vocabulary with which users can talk to their devices. It will make all the difference.

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

And what about how the Watch communicates information to you? Beyond the screen, of course, we get something called a linear actuator: A common mechanism across all manner of electronics but, in this case, the thing that will deliver haptic feedback to the inside of your wrist. Tim Cook compared it to being tapped on the shoulder — a tiny, soundless alert that an event is occurring. If you chose to look at it, the Watch's accelerometer will notice, blinking on the screen and showing you what's up. If you're walking somewhere, it will buzz when you need to turn.

A Brave New Interface

So we know roughly how we're going to talk to this baby — and how it's going to talk to us — but the major unanswered question lies in the software itself. At today's event, we saw a black background covered in bubble-style app icons, which are zoomed in upon through a series of touch-and-dial interactions. This is a big shift away from the method Apple has always organised information in iOSes — it relies not on grid-based logic, but intuition-based touch.

The Apple Watch's Smallest Parts Are Its Biggest Bet

Until we actually try it, it's impossible to say how this new graphic standard will actually work. Zooming in on a complex, non-linear series of icons on a tiny screen seems like a potentially frustrating sticking point in an otherwise seamless-looking set of interactions. It's a big, weird risk. But after more than half a decade of Apple playing it safe, it's a risk that's more exciting than annoying.



    Ugh, it's ugly. I prefer the Moto 360.

      Can't say I'm a big fan of the design either. I'd prefer a round face, but it's not like I was going to pick up the first model anyway. Wearables are still a long way away for me adopting one.

      I think even the Gear and Gear 2 look better. There's entirely too much bullnose trim on the edges of the iWatch and it gives the whole thing the look of being overly thick and bulky.

      Then buy the Moto 360?

        That's a useless comment. They're just expressing an opinion that was completely unrelated to whether they were intending to make a purchase. You make similar opinion statements on this forum all the time and nobody throws sh*t at you.

          I wasn't throwing shit at anybody either. The post just seemed to be lacking in detail so I was having a bit of fun. Apple launches always make people so uptight.

          I'd love to know what Will doesn't like about the Apple Watch. I personally don't like the Moto 360. That black space at the bottom of the screen makes it seem unfinished to me. It's like they were so desperate to make a round screen they didn't care that they couldn't actually do it properly (You are welcome to tell me not to buy one, I won't mind).

            The black space serves a purpose - it's there as an ambient light sensor. Although I to wish it wasn't there and they implemented the sensor in another seamless manner. Still it looks much better than this watch imo.

        Until there is an industry standard smart watch API that allows you to use any watch with any phone this is a wasted comment. Seeing as all these watches require a phone with a specific OS to even basically function.

      But the big question is can I use any of these devices while driving in Australia or am I committing an offence by looking at my smart device? Instead of everybody sitting at the traffic lights staring into their laps, will they be scrolling through notifications on their wrist resting on the steering wheel instead? Probably safer but still most likely illegal in most Nanny states.

    Beyond the screen, of course, we get something called a linear actuator: A common mechanism across all manner of electronics but, in this case, the thing that will deliver haptic feedback to the inside of your wrist. Tim Cook compared it to being tapped on the shoulder — a tiny, soundless alert that an event is occurring

    56 words to say that the watch vibrates... holy crap!

      Don't know about the Android Wear devices but my 1 year old Pebble vibrates too =)

        Yeah, but this isn't VIBRATING, it's LINEAR ACTUATING. There is so a massive world of difference, I would not even spend a single second discussing the difference with you, because UGH, how could you not know?!

        (Note for the oblivious: That was sarcasm)

          Just nitpicking, but there actually is a difference between devices used for vibration in phones and linear actuators. Not anyone really cares unless they design devices though.

    For a company known for their design intelligence, has it occurred to anyone there that not everyone wears a watch on their left wrist? You are going to look like a gumby trying to use the clickwheel with your left hand!

      Tried to play with the crown on my watch and realised how difficult it is to use while wearing it regardless which hand you wear your watch on. A circular face with a "click wheel" gesture would have been superior.

      I have heard reports that you specify what wrist when you set it up.

      I have always thought watches were worn on the left wrist anyway (I am left handed).

      you could probably turn it around and set the screen to 180 degrees? problem solved/

        That'll come in iOSw v2 which will require the second generation Apple watch to run because it requires twice as much processing power to turn the screen upside down. Pre-orders start March 2015

    Can I mount it my hipster beard?

      Is it organic cold drip coffee waterproof?
      nah just kidding, hipsters only use watches made from bamboo or responsibly forested wood these days right.

    Apple invents . . . the watch-stem.

    Now, suppose they attach a helical spring to it next, and while you're talking to someone you can cooly turn the stem for a minute, and the spring is attached to a little generator that, well I won't give away the secret.

    To me it looks like Apple released a smart watch only because everyone else is doing one and they, with their 100 billion in cash, couldn't do one that looked anywhere near as good as the moto 360.

      Everybody keeps saying that the 360 looks good. How do you stand the black space at the bottom?

    Yawn... why would I give up my 4mm thin swiss watch that has a 10+ year battery life just so my friends can drain my "all day - charge at night" (read < 7hours) battery by sending me vibration pokes to get my attention!

    Do love how they are still referring to their "new" 1080p display as a retina display! So 2012!

    sorry, but a crown you constantly have to fiddle with is silly. it's tiny and would be difficult to use quickly. Not to mention that if you wear your watch on your right wrist, you're gonna look even more stupid with your arm awkwardly curled over your hand

    given that there are no distinctive hardware features discerning the top of the device to the bottom and that the watch face is software driven, there is nothing from having an option to flip the face for wearers on the right hand. The crown being at the bottom left of the device being the only noticeable feature that I can make out. I do agree that the crown could be a pain to use all the time however...

      I'd say that doing up the strap upside down could be awkward but probably not impossible. The button on the side could be weird to reach when the clickwheel is below it instead of above it.
      Minor details, but then again minor details can kill products like this.

    so... what do I do with my other real watch....?

    anyway.. i like how this watch is different to all the other ones on the market, i can feel that it actually tried to make a proper smart watch, as oppose to a lot of the competition, just did not think out of the box and made more like a digital watchin stead...

      how is it different? Because it has a knob on it?

        If that was Apple's PoD for this watch then they must've forgotten the Moto 360 already has a knob on it.

          I think it's more the interface in geneal, where most others kinda just put the normal android on a watch, and you still pinch and etc like a smart phone?
          and if 'feels' like apple put a little effort in for that?

            Android Wear is specially designed for watches... It's not normal android

    Today's top stories:

    Switzerland re-pegged its currency to the Indonesia Rupiah overnight after Apple launched its watch. Giant smoke cloud formed over South Korean capital's landfills. Though initially thought to be missile tests from the Northern borders, officials confirm that the cloud was due to Samsung burning its failed smart watch inventory. Samsung PR declined to comment.

    Last edited 10/09/14 10:49 pm

      In other news, forty thousand people were admitted to hospital with methane poisoning earlier today. While it's unclear what caused the poisoning in so many people worldwide, sources close to hospital staff in various countries claim that the people were watching Apple's keynote and may have been poisoned by sniffing their own farts in an act of perceived superiority.

    What they did differently is that they spent millions on marketing their knob. Something that moto did not consider as worth any particular mention. Now that's innovation.

      Apple are rather pleased with their knob and want to shove their knob into the hands of fans worldwide.

      Though frankly, I think the presence of it is will just lead Apple fans to shove their knob into your face, rub it around and shout "LOOK AT MY KNOB. IT'S GLORIOUS"

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