What more is there to be said about the Apple Watch? That’s the question I pondered after I tweeted that I’d bought an Apple Watch for me, and one for Bonnie, on it’s New Zealand launch day, and many people asked me to blog my impressions of it after a bit of use.
I think anyone who is interested in the Apple Watch has read comprehensive reviews by now of what the device does, so it’s not my intension to cover every watch function. My favourite review of Apple Watch from a blindness perspective comes from Michael Hansen at AppleVis, who did a thorough and even-handed job.
For resources showing you what Apple Watch does, David Woodbridge’s podcasts can’t be beat. I particularly like that he took the time to write in-depth summaries of each podcast in the show notes, so as you become more familiar with the device, you can often use the summaries as a memory jogger, without having to hear the whole podcast.
That said, one area where I think I can add some value, is writing some thoughts on Apple Watch from my perspective as someone who is totally blind and also wears hearing aids.
Obviously, I’m coming to this party very late. I ordered my Apple Watch the moment the US Apple Store began taking orders on 10 April, using as my shipping address a forwarding service I use with many companies in the US. Apple, however, cancelled my order, saying that they have a policy not to ship to such services.
So when they finally went on sale here at the end of July, the “hey wow” factor had worn off, and I wasn’t sure if I would purchase one. But I headed down to take a look, and enjoy the whole try-on experience.
I was getting a trickle of questions from Mosen Consulting clients about the Watch, so in that sense it was a good business decision to buy one for Mosen Consulting purposes. I bought one for Bonnie as well, because I always thought there was a good chance she would get more out of the watch than I would.
So, here’s one guy’s thoughts on the Apple Watch based on a week of use, and given a pretty unusual use case.
The feeling uppermost in my mind when I think about the Apple Watch, is a strong sense of gratitude. Irrespective of whether we decide that the watch is a product that we want, the great thing is that we have the choice. After years of being at best an afterthought for mainstream companies, it’s still thrilling to me that as a blind consumer, I can make the choice based on perceived need and value, rather than being denied the ability to make a purchasing choice because it’s inaccessible.
So often, you see companies who say “We’ll get to accessibility sometime down the track”. And in fact it wasn’t until the third-generation iPhone that VoiceOver was included. So Apple deserve plenty of praise for making this first-generation product accessible on day one. They were undoubtedly under pressure to get the product out, but they didn’t sacrifice accessibility. It doesn’t happen often.
Setting Up and first impressions
The set-up process for Apple Watch lives up to Apple’s reputation for such things. Even if you hadn’t done some study in advance, most people who know the Apple paradigm would I think intuitively know that they should try triple-clicking the crown. From there, the set-up process is 100% accessible, and very straightforward.
Setting up the watch can take a while, but get used to it. Everything takes ages on this thing. It is slow. When you try to flick through items on the screen with any speed, it’s sluggish. If you navigate between glances, you notice a significant lag. When you shut the watch down and then power it up, it takes a long time to talk. And software updates take a remarkably long time.
I was disappointed at set-up time to learn that the only way I could get the voice I like to use, the UK daniel voice, was to change my region to the UK. It would be nice to have the ability to choose from available voices, even if one needs to do it from the Watch iOS app.
I want now to examine the use case for Apple Watch from a blindness perspective in general, then talk about some of my requirements as someone who also wears hearing aids.
One of the major benefits of Apple Watch for the sighted, is that they can get access to small pieces of information quickly and effortlessly, just by taking a quick glance at their wrist. Undoubtedly, if you’re just getting a quick text message, it’s convenient if you can see it to be able to handle that short exchange from your wrist, without the need to pull out your phone.
The same convenience factor applies to glances, which are small bits of information a sighted person can take in at a glance.
For a blind person, I believe it’s a bit more complicated. As a VoiceOver user, you interact with the information identically, whether the information is on your watch or your phone. You still have to use the same VoiceOver gestures, and you’re getting the information on a tinny speaker that may cause you problems in noisy environments.
If you’re in a very crowded shopping mall or restaurant, obviously a sighted person can still glance at their watch and see the information that caused a knock on their wrist. (I do like that haptic feedback a lot, by the way, it’s subtle but difficult to miss.) But if you’re blind and using VoiceOver, you may really struggle to get that information without the benefit of a louder device.
And if you use the watch with its speaker, it’s hardly the discrete experience a sighted person has when glancing. All those around you can hear that you’re checking your watch unless you use a Bluetooth headset. And if you’re going to do that, you may as well pair it with your iPhone and get full functionality.
The way Bonnie carries and uses her iPhone is quite different, and it was for that reason that I thought she might benefit greatly by having a watch.
Bonnie carries her iPhone in her purse. It’s quite a treasure-trove, that purse, and I continue to marvel at what can be found there…but I digress. She often wears clothing that doesn’t offer a pocket suitable for carrying an iPhone, especially one as large as the 6 Plus she now has.
Sometimes, when she’s out at the mall or somewhere noisy, I call her, and she doesn’t hear her phone, or feel it vibrate in her purse. She’s usually pretty good at checking to see if she has any missed calls when she gets a chance, but it can take a while sometimes.
So in her case, the Apple Watch has had a far bigger, more positive impact. She can hear the watch, and feel it vibrate, when she receives a text or call. She can answer a call from the watch, or dictate a reply to a text using Siri. Phone call quality is far better than I was expecting. When Bonnie calls me from her Apple Watch, I find it hard to tell she isn’t using her phone. Apple have exceeded my expectations in this regard.
Speaking of Siri, for some reason it seems to be far more accurate on the watch than it is on the phone. I’ve found recognition to be really impressive.
And of course, Bonnie and I can send each other our heart beats, or little tapping messages. Cute. Not essential in any way whatsoever, but cute nonetheless.
Bonnie and I can’t tell as readily as we would like when one of us is contacting the other. Unfortunately, there is not yet any facility for assigning custom vibrations to specific contacts, as there is in iOS. I would find this very useful. When in a meeting, I would be able to tell when someone particularly important is trying to contact me, based on a custom vibration.
I am really glad Bonnie has an Apple Watch. For the way she uses and stores her phone, it’s brilliant.
Apple Watch and my Hearing Aids
That brings me to my own requirements, as someone who wears hearing aids in addition to being totally blind. Let me explain how I use my iPhone.
Because I like my technology to be as responsive as possible, I’ve not gone with a Bluetooth connection between my iPhone and my hearing aids. I own a Phonak ComPilot, which is a useful and capable device for allowing a range of peripherals to communicate with my hearing aids. It includes a Bluetooth streamer function. But when paired with VoiceOver, it is sluggish to the point that I find it unacceptable.
For this reason, I have a cable that runs from my hearing aids to the 3.5 mm headphone jack of the iPhone. Since this is an analogue connection, the link introduces no latency at all, and VoiceOver is very responsive.
I keep my phone, currently an iPhone 6 Plus, on my person at all times, from the moment I’m awake until the moment I sleep, with the exception of the bath or shower of course. Even with my 6 Plus, which is a fantastic device, I don’t find it a problem at all to carry my iPhone around in my shirt pocket. It’s in very easy reach all the time.
So, when I receive a notification, I hear it right away, piped directly to my hearing aids. It’s private and effective, and since the phone is right there in my pocket, it’s not at all arduous to grab the phone and answer a text or email with Siri or Braille screen input.
In the summer time, I often walk around navigating apps and the web with the iPhone in my pocket, since summer shirt material is thinner.
You may be able to see then why the Apple Watch doesn’t really make me feel like I’ve gained anything in terms of being able to respond to notifications. In fact in some respects, it’s a step back. I don’t like the noise pollution of it speaking out-loud through it’s little speaker. I can get rid of that by pairing my Phonak ComPilot with the watch. The first time I tried this, I couldn’t get it to pair despite repeated attempts, however a reset of the watch got me up and running. The level of VoiceOver was extremely low, but I discovered that Bluetooth audio seems to have its own volume, and by performing a two-finger double-tap and hold, then sliding up with two fingers, I was able to raise the Bluetooth audio volume to 100%. At that point, the audio was at an acceptable volume, but issues persist.
The first is that good old latency issue. Apple Watch is quite sluggish as it is. When you introduce the latency of Bluetooth audio through the ComPilot, it’s quite an unpleasant experience.
The second issue relates to how quickly Bluetooth audio on the Apple Watch goes into standby in order to conserve precious battery life. An app can take so long to load on the watch that the pause causes Bluetooth audio to go into standby, thus causing the ComPilot to notify me that Bluetooth has disconnected. When the app finally loads and the watch is talking again, it can take a second or so of audio before the ComPilot picks the audio back up.
And the last issue is that you cannot make or take calls on your Apple Watch with the ComPilot. When a phone call comes in, audio is routed to the watch’s speaker, not the ComPilot. In a noisy environment, that can make it very difficult to manage.
The combination of these three things makes working with the ComPilot a less than optimal experience. I do wonder whether the watch might be thick enough to accommodate a headphone jack. From my perspective as someone who wears hearing aids, that would make all the difference.
You know the really cool thing about the Apple Watch? It talks.
You know the really annoying thing about the Apple Watch? It talks.
I’m not going to pull any punches, talking watches irritate the soup out of me. They are obnoxious. Unless you’re someone who has significant dexterity issues, and some people who are blind because of diabetes certainly do, I can’t think of a reason to wear one. If I sound somewhat emphatic about this point, it’s because I have chaired many meetings, ranging from committees to full conferences, where blind people have assembled. When you get a lot of people in one place checking their talking watches at different times, it’s very distracting.
While I know that some people are not in favour of Braille watches being called “tactile watches”, I understand the logic. Sadly, the term “Braille Watch” puts off a lot of people who don’t read Braille, who could in fact benefit from such a watch. Even if you don’t know Braille, the reality is that it’s easy to learn how to tell the time tactually. And in fact, Braille watches have advantages over print ones. A Braille watch user can keep their hand under the table, and check the time as often as they like. So it can be less likely that you’re spotted wishing a meeting or a bad date away, than someone who is caught constantly glancing at their watch.
Presently, there is no haptic way to be told the time on Apple Watch. It would be wonderful if a third-party app found an effective way to do this, or better yet, if it could be an accessibility feature in the watch itself.
So at present, I have the Apple Watch on my left wrist, my Braille watch on my right.
I realise that watches have been going out of style for a long time. Many people haven’t worn one for years, and many young people have never owned a watch at all. But I wouldn’t be without some tactile means of telling the time, not just for those many situations where I don’t want my watch announcing the time to those around me, but also when I wake up just enough to know what time it is, so I can go back to sleep.
All that said, one thing I like about the Apple Watch’s time function is the fact that some of the available watch faces speak the seconds. With some of the radio and audio work I do, this is very useful.
Some of the complications are cool. It is nice to be able to tap your wrist and check the current temperature, or your next appointment.
After a short period of watch use, I think most people realise that one needs to be selective about the notifications that you allow. The watch is really for essential things. Despite two set-ups of my watch from scratch, I remain plagued with an annoying issue where despite turning a bunch of notifications off in the Watch app on my iPhone, they continue to be pushed to my watch.
Since I’m running the beta of iOS 9, Apple won’t be able to help me through the usual support channels until it’s officially released, although I’m told other iOS 9 users are not experiencing this.
Interestingly, I have also heard of another Apple Watch owner with the opposite problem. She has a bunch of notifications enabled, but none of them get through to the watch. I guess I could try setting my iPhone up from scratch next, but that’s a drastic option I don’t have time to try at the moment.
Still, when working, the degree of granularity you have over what is received on your wrist is well done.
Apple Watch’s functionality is going to get a much-needed boost with the next version of Watch OS. But at present, the functionality that mirrors what your iPhone can do was underwhelming to me.
The moment my watch was set up, and I had done a bit of rudimentary navigation, I wanted to make a FaceTime audio call to show off my Apple Watch. To my great surprise, Siri told me that if I wanted to make a FaceTime audio call, it would have to be handed off to my iPhone. That’s ridiculous. FaceTime Audio is Apple’s own standard, and it’s the way I make at least 90% of my phone calls. Yet it’s something I can’t do on my watch until Watch OS 2.0 comes out.
Again, until the arrival of Watch OS 2, I can read email on my watch, but not reply to it or create a new message. Really, you just have to shrug in disbelief.
Third-party apps are extremely limited at present, with exciting new things on the horizon. But for now, I launched the Skype app, hoping to make a Skype call from the watch. I could not. Nor could I use my watch as a walkie-talkie with the Apple Watch HeyTell app. Apps at present don’t have access to the microphone or the speaker. Bonnie was hoping she’d be able to walk around the house listening to a book on her watch. Hopefully that will come with the next OS.
Some apps that are accessible on iOS are not on the watch, with unlabelled buttons. Hopefully those issues can be addressed through constructive advocacy to the developers.
A few news apps, such as the BBC and CNN, are pretty good for getting quick headline information. I check the currency markets regularly, and I have a great app for that. And my trusty Parcel app, which lets me track all the packages on the way to us, works a treat on the watch.
In general though, most of the apps had me pulling out my iPhone for the real thing.
Turn-by-turn directions on the Apple Watch are well done. Haptic feedback that lets you know which way to turn is great. Again from the perspective of someone who wears hearing aids, I have my iPhone associated with my music program, which has no dynamic compression or filtering of any kind. That means that if I’m out in traffic and listening to the iPhone, the traffic is very noisy. So being able to choose a programme that’s easier on the ears in that environment, while getting directions in a way that isn’t distracting to being able to hear what’s going on around you, is brilliant.
Health and Fitness
I read an interesting story recently about a man who began having dizzy spells. By checking his Apple Watch, he was able to see that his heart rate was unusually low. He got medical help, which was expedited by the fact that he had a couple of weeks of heart rate data in his iPhone Health app.
It’s a great story, and even in the short time I’ve had my Apple Watch, I’m more conscious of how much I’m standing and moving than I was before. The rewards you get for meeting your goals are an incentive to be more active. I am most definitely standing more often.
I’ve found it interesting to observe my heart rate in different situations. It goes up when I’m doing the Mosen Explosion radio show, probably because that’s a high-energy show, and it tends to go down when I meditate.
Even though I always have my iPhone with me, and use it to control our Apple TV regularly, the Remote app is well done, and allows you to control your Apple TV via your wrist.
The Now Playing glance is a nice way to control your iPhone, and I have found that this one actually does have advantages for me. Bonnie and I own a pair of UE Megaboom speakers, which output a full, rich, outstanding sound. But since they are Bluetooth speakers rather than AirPlay, VoiceOver on the iPhone is also heard when the speakers are paired with the iPhone. It’s great to be able to control the phone’s playback via a wrist-worn device.
And speaking of remotely controlling things, I think Apple Watch will really come into its own as more HomeKit-capable devices arrive on the market. I love the idea of controlling the in-door temperature, or unlocking my front door, from my watch.
The Bottom Line
For the way Bonnie uses and carries her phone, I think we made a great purchase when we bought her Apple Watch. For me, it’s far less clear cut, mainly because of the hearing aid factor. If it weren’t for the fact that I want to be able to help my customers, and that as a geek I am looking forward to watching this product category evolve, I would be returning mine. It just doesn’t add enough value for me.
Apple’s marketing material describes Apple Watch as it’s most personal device ever, and I think that’s absolutely true. My requirements, requirement that the Apple Watch is not meeting very well, may be quite different from yours.
So if you’re in any way curious, and don’t mind jumping in on the ground floor of a new product category, you can always give the watch a go and return it if it doesn’t meet your needs. This is one of those products where I think it will work well for some people, less well for others. And it takes time to work out exactly what role this device might play in your life.
The nice thing is, at least Apple has given us the ability to make that decision.