Yesterday Apple were granted a patent that they applied for in January 2011, for an ‘Electronic Wristband’. Termed iTime for now we’re likely to see this wearable device by the end of the year, I’d guess October, and by the time we see it, it will probably have been renamed iWatch.
iTime will likely be the gong that silences the the nay-sayers who mumbled that ‘there’s no innovation at Apple anymore’ – despite new frameworks like HealthKit and HomeKit that will kick-start entire industries, new iPhones this September and incidentals like a whole new programming language, Swift the market wanted Apple to spring something so huge it would change the world. In yesterday’s quarterly results we noticed a 36% increase in Apple’s R&D spending. At a company where much work is done and cost already accounted for in a type of modular innovation process before a new product is created a surge in R&D is a good clue that there is plenty going on. No doubt there will be lots of speculation to come on cost, features and of course colours, but here are the first three of things in the patent that made me think:
Haptics : Sensors and Piezo-Electricity
It’s unsurprising that iTime will integrate with or carry a haptic sensor. Haptics is the science of touch. Apple know a lot about touch, and Android users are familiar with a little nudge feeling whilst typing. In 2010 there was speculation that Apple may employ technology from Senseg to do something special not just with iOS but even the Mac, giving certain areas of the screen say a ridged feel and at the same time, other areas a sandy feel. Finnish company Senseg are experts in haptics for smart-phones and it’s now easy to understand the speculation from 2010 and again at iPad 3 launch 2012; iPad is a big screen so localised haptic feedback – different parts of the screen feeling differently, sounds sort of fun. Immersive. But haptic feedback costs at least twice as much to include as a good old standard vibration. Haptic feedback solely for gamers? Unlikely.
Custom haptics has been available since iOS 5, and was initially designed as an accessibility feature, allowing you to configure different vibrations for instance, for different people in you contacts list.But how will Apple use haptics in iTime for a broader audience? Beyond the blandly obvious: iTime nudges you when your spouse is calling, nudges you twice when your kids call and almost knocks you out of the chair when your boss calls. Brilliant. But what if iTime knew it was dark, knew you were in bed, asleep and would therefore vibrate slowly first before your usual ringtine. What if it flashed a low lux light as part of your wake up routine, before replicating the dawn-chorus. There’s been plenty of chatter about the potential for Apple’s custom haptics; I think more contextual haptics.
What if Apple’s haptics also encompassed input? Hae Youn Joung and Ellen Yi-Luen Do from Georgia Tech published an article in 2011 entitled Tactile Hand Gesture Recognition through Haptic Feedback for Affective Online Communication. Could a wrist-worn device accept a gesture input to answer your phone or snap your fingers to confirm a Siri request? Of course it will. Could iTime let you navigate the AppleTV menu or replace your TV remote control? Yes. Could you browse an entire menu or file hierarchy? Michael Crichton wrote this some time ago, and NASA made us gawp at the data-glove. And in the context of haptics in the patent filing, there is also a note that the device will carry ‘at least’ a Piezoelectric device. And doesn’t Piezoelectricity cover a multitude. Could we soon pay for our power, for our battery life in the most equitable way this planet knows: with movement?
Personal Wireless Environment: the evolution of the personal cloud
We’re adding a new device to our personal digital portfolio every couple of years; laptop, smart-phone, tablet, fitness tracker and early adopters are adding devices like Google Glass and smart(ish) clothing. Apple’s use of the term is interesting; Personal Wireless Environment. We’re adding devices that are using up our bandwidth, our wifi and our mobile phone data – but these devices often only need to function within our personal digital ecosystem. Some of them use Bluetooth: usually BTLE, a low-power type of Bluetooth, but sometimes this isn’t enough for the sort of data that will need to be exchanged from device to device. As technology begins to get more consumerised – each of us is becoming like a small network. Our fitness tracker needs to send steps to our phones, our phone needs to upload that to our FitBug account our FitBug account needs to upgrade our tracker software or firmware, our GPS (phone/watch/Garmin etc) needs to set an alert on the Fitness Tracker not to run a certain route as flooding or traffic are an issue. We are small networks. We live everyday in a Personal Wireless Environment. Our movies, music and photos could exist only in the cloud, and with our software updates be pushed only to our devices when needed. Storage can be smaller – devices can be lighter and cheaper. And we won’t use up bandwidth or valuable IP addresses – it would be like each room in your house having a separate address with the post-office. The creation of a smart Personal Wireless Environment would be a serious development for consumers. It would need a company who have an ecosystem of content and devices and who have access to remarkably robust CDN (Content Delivery Network) where content, personal data and software can sit quietly until needed. If this environment also included HealthKit devices and HomeKit home automation products it would be even more useful. The personal cloud that Apple create for iOS users as part of the iTime project could be the most useful and personal online service we have not quite used yet.
Oh, and iTime will be Detachable: i.e. Dockable, and have lots of nice straps
In the patent images, one of the ’embodiments’ indicates clearly that iTime will be detachable. So, tomorrow expect to read in various places hat Apple will make a watch, similar to the (and my favourite) 6th generation iPod nano, that you’ll be able to pop-out and change lovely coloured straps on. It’s far more likely that iTime will be ‘dockable’. iTime will live happily on your wrist, but could likely end up in your car-dashboard and do clever things like make it go and display the fact that you are sober, fit to drive and have insurance. It will happily display QR codes and airline boarding cards for travel, but many transactions aren’t easily achieved by lifting your arm. Maybe you can’t. Could a paramedic dock it in an ambulance if a patient can’t speak, review a lifetime of medical records, and then spot that the owner ran more this week than ever before; data sent ahead to the cardiac unit and iTime helps with electronic triage. Yes, you can swap iTime’s strap for a slinky PRODUCT (RED) version – but maybe you want to reconnect your iTime to enzyme strap? Or the insulin monitoring strap?
As a fresh faced teenager I listened to former Apple CEO, Jean Louis-Gassé talk about the soul of user-interfaces one morning in San Francisco over twenty years ago. He quoted from two books which I have returned to a hundred times when I wrote software for a living; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks and The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. I hadn’t even finished school when I heard Gassé that morning: Context and Balance. And as I read Apple’s patent : 8,787,006 – I can see those two elegant, pure qualities in the foundation of iTime. See them? I can touch them. I can feel them.
- Apple iTime Patent : US Patent 8,787,006
- Sensing a Touch Feely Haptic Future : Electronic Engineering Times
- A Hybrid Piezoelectric Structure for Wearable Nanogenerators : PDF : GA Tech, Nanoscience
- Tactile Hand Gesture Recognition through Haptic Feedback for Affective Online Communication: Hae Youn Joung and Ellen Yi-Luen Do : PDF
- The data glove and user input
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat : Oliver Sacks
- The Mythic Man-Month : Fred Brooks
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