So, what do I think of Apple’s Time Flies event today? For starters, I appreciate this more egalitarian approach to Apple events, where everyone gets to watch the live stream at the same time regardless of their station in society. I also love the idea of not trekking down to Cupertino early in the morning. Of course, asking everyone to do so wouldn’t be very carbon-neutral of Apple, so this is a win.
Let’s focus on the actual news of the day. While we saw a slew of upgrades — the Apple Watch SE, a new iPad, and a fresh iPad Air — the star of the show was the Apple Watch (Series 6). And that’s not just for the obvious reasons.
Thanks to the smartphone boom, component economics have been turned upside down, and sensors have gotten cheaper. Apple (and others) can afford to cram them into everything they make, and the Apple Watch Series 6 takes this to a new level. Naturally, it has the usual touch sensor, speaker, and microphone. It is also outfitted with an accelerometer, a gyroscope, an electrical heart sensor, an optical heart sensor, a GPS, and a barometric altimeter. However, it is the Blood Oxygen sensor that has everyone’s attention.
The watch uses four clusters of green, red, and infrared LEDs, four photodiodes on the back crystal of the watch that measure light reflected back from one’s blood. This is used to measure blood oxygen between 70 percent and 100 percent. This new sensor allows further Apple’s ambitions to turn the Apple Watch into an uber health device.
The Apple Watch was already an excellent example of what a conglomeration of sensors can achieve, especially when paired with machine learning and intelligence focused on solving a small subset of problems versus taking a boil-the-ocean approach that gets more attention — and more funding. Apple has astutely figured out that, given the proliferation of time-telling devices in our lives, the Apple Watch can’t be just about time. (What is time in the age of pandemic anyway?) They have zeroed in on making the Apple Watch all about “health and fitness.”
Admittedly, I am not a huge Apple Watch fan (I like my watches analog and handmade). But I do wear Apple Watch because it allows me to do some small things that actually make a difference.
I am a diabetic. I have suffered from hypertension, and I have had a heart attack. I am accustomed to taking my readings: my blood pressure, my oxygen levels, and my blood sugar. And I often go to the hospital to get a read on my heart’s health. I can easily interpret the signals and data coming out of my body.
In order to do that, I have needed different hardware to help me accumulate that information in the past; the Apple Watch is quietly moving towards replacing many of those devices, such as the electrocardiogram and the blood oxygen monitor. I would love to see them evolve the Apple Watch to keep tabs on the blood pressure and sugar levels. They seem to have plans to do that.
By replacing other hardware, Apple can make its devices more sticky in our lives. The iPhone replaced an MP3 player, a phone, and a PDA. And then a voice recorder, a camera, and a video camera. Then came GPS. Apple Watch is walking on an all too familiar path. I don’t think it is particularly good at anything other than the “health and fitness” stuff. And a lot has to do with the sensors and the data they gather and aggregate.
The more aggregated data Apple provides, the better informed I will be about my health. And that is, perhaps, the right role for the Apple Watch. The device is not about giving the most accurate information or replacing the official medical devices. Instead, it becomes a useful observer of the body’s functions and peculiarities.
In other words, the watch starts to learn your standard range, already knowing what medical professionals think is normal. So, when a measurement is suddenly outside that range, it can alert you to reach out to a medical professional. In the past, I have written about augmented intelligence is more critical than “artificial intelligence.” Apple Watch and its capabilities are an excellent example of such thinking.
And that is a big deal!
Not just for the Apple Watch, but technology at large. This is a good template for how we need to be thinking about technology and its interaction with us, the humans. So, before we get to artificial intelligence, we need technology to become human intelligent.
Apple has used its core strength of being able to build smaller, smarter, and energy-efficient silicon, and married it to a growing army of sensors. These sensors and the silicon inside allow our data to make the device to become more personal. That is more meaningful and impactful than colorful straps, watch faces, and other visual ephemera.
Longtime readers are familiar with my theory around hyper-personalization, and Apple has brought that to a mass-produced product.
Oh, and it also tells time!
September 15, 2020. San Francisco
Archives worth a second look
- March 2011: Why the future of hardware is services.
- January 2013: This Mirror with sensors points to a new connected future.
- August 2013: The Hype and Hope of Artificial Intelligence. (The New Yorker)
- September 2017: Steve Jobs’ Legacy & the iPhoneX
- August 2018: Time is on Apple’s side.
- May 2020: What really is time in the time of the pandemic.