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CONTEXT Special Report; Apple September Event
For those common situations when your other hand is occupied.
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At this year’s September event, Apple made several announcements, including notch-less iPhones, goals to be carbon neutral by 2030 (via a stare-down between Tim Cook and Octavia Spenser), and Apple Watches that achieve a brightness of—wait for it—2000 nits.
Then, there’s Double Tap, a new feature for the Apple Watch that lets you answer a phone (watch?) call by tapping your index finger and thumb together twice.
Apple Chief Operations Officer Jeff Williams will now demonstrate:
Apple has been all about gestures (and patenting gestures) ever since the advent of the iPhone. That said, the folks at Apple seem particularly thrilled to announce Double Tap—and for good reason. Double Tap is certainly something else. Double Tap is many things else, in fact.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. Biomarker decision-making
The Apple Watch leverages a machine-learning algorithm on its S9 chip that examines data streams from three components: the accelerometer (wrist position), gyroscope (wrist rotation), and optical heart sensor (wrist blood flow). The wrist position, rotation, and blood flow conditions must unilaterally signal an intentional tap-tap.
Here's another way to look at it. The chip's algorithm listens for three notes to hit at the right time, like a chord or a chord progression. Once the tap-tap chord hits, boom, the Apple Watch answers the call for you.
Are there more unique chords corresponding to subtle gestures like Double Tap? Absolutely. However, finding them would require additional health sensors looking for other biomarkers, which is tricky for a few reasons. On the whole, current health sensors are inaccurate. Second, even if you could get accurate readings, finding the right cadence of signals and differentiating one from another can prove troublesome—although, there is something hilarious about an Apple Store Genius Bar with everyone quite literally up in arms because Apple Watches can't tell the difference between Push Pull™, Wave Bye™, and Clock Hands™.
2. On-ramp to gesturing
Double Tap is an addition to a series of Apple product enhancements that are targeted at teaching mixed-reality capabilities to their users. Apple Music, AirPod Pros, and Maxes introduced users to spatial audio. Apple’s Measure app familiarized users with augmented reality. Double Tap is Apple’s hello-and-welcome to spatial gesturing.
The power is in its simplicity. Double Tap is a straightforward gesture with a clear objective: do “this” (tap-tap) to do “that” (answer a watch call). Its do-this-then-that nature also makes Double Tap an excellent foundation for building a more elaborate gesture repertoire. A rough example might be tap-tapping and raising your arm to increase volume and then tap-tapping and moving your arm down to lower it.
Double Tap can also go beyond the Apple Watch to provide functionality across the full spectrum of Apple products. Tap-tap to lock your iPad screen, launch Apple Music, or activate creepy-eyes transparency mode on your Vision Pro.
Speaking of Vision Pro, Double Tap, along with the newly announced spatial video capture for iPhone 15, will undoubtedly increase the approachability of Apple’s upcoming headset, which may integrate similar gestures. Users may not get Vision Pro as a concept, but they do get Apple Watches and iPhones. After all, what better way to get customers excited about a brand-spanking new piece of hardware they don’t own or care about than associating it with the familiar hardware they own and care about?
(Design Note: During the Keynote, Jeff demoed how Double Tap can affect other aspects of Apple Watch's interface. While using Double Tap to “stop a timer” made sense, using it to “scroll through apps” did not. It's best to think of Double Tap as a gesture with binary intent—go/no go, pause/play, stop/start, etc.—making it great for those purposes. However, it does not make Double Tap conducive for browsing, like scrolling through a series of files or photos, where a gesture with variable intent would be better suited.)
3. Off-screen interaction design
Over the past ten years, Apple has predominantly focused on device-centered design improvements. This ethos goes off the auspices that products like iPhones, Apple Watches, and iPads should be focal points in a user’s life. As such, all interactions between devices and users must remain predominantly on-device. Apple uses this design approach across all its devices—including Vision Pro, as seen here by a father who is far more inclined to film his kid’s birthday in a headset than actually being present at her party.
However, Double Tap offers us a glimmer of hope for a genuinely human-centered design future where devices do their jobs most effectively when they get out of the way. Though it doesn’t require a Double Tap to answer a call, the Apple Watch offers up an interaction off-device that lets us tap-tap out of staring at a screen and revert attention back to our physical lives. What a concept.
One More Tap
—to introduce the new CONTEXT side-publication, Tell Us How You Really Feel, a no-holds-barred, gloves-off newsletter that pokes and prods at tech news, trends, and announcements to get to the heart of what any of it means and why we should care. Tell Us will be available for all subscribers, so watch for it in your inbox.
CONTEXT returns next month. Until then, continue to enjoy all those one-handed activities. ✌️