With the Apple Watch finally arriving in stores for trial and then initial deliveries starting on the 24th of April, a number of reviewers have had hands-on time with the device and shared their first impressions. These include Steven Aquino at iMore and David Woodbridge at AppleVis, both of whom have done an excellent job with their reviews. Apple has also created a nicely laid out page describing the key accessibility features that are available on the Apple Watch, which it divides into two categories: vision and hearing. To summarize, the Apple Watch continues Apple’s excellent track record of including accessibility and universal design features on all of its new products. On the new Apple Watch, these features include:

  • The VoiceOver screen reader
  • Zoom screen magnification
  • an Extra Large Watch Face option
  • Large Dynamic Type and Bold Text
  • Reduce Motion and Transparency
  • Grayscale and On/Off Labels for those with color difficulties
  • Mono Audio and balance control for those with hearing loss
  • an Accessibility Shortcut (triple-clicking the Digital Crown) to enable accessibility features such as Zoom and VoiceOver

Features can be enabled or disabled on the device itself or on the companion app that runs on the iPhone. From David’s review it looks like you will find learning the accessibility gestures of Apple Watch fairly easy if you are already familiar with these features on the iPhone or iPad. For example, with Zoom instead of using three fingers to zoom in/out and pan around the display, you use two fingers to account for the limited screen real estate.  The Zoom level can be adjusted in much the same way you used to on iOS before a slider was added in iOS 8 but instead of double-tapping and holding with three fingers and then sliding up or down, on the watch you do it with two fingers. Similarly, for VoiceOver you can flick left or right to move by item, move your finger over the screen to navigate by touch or double-tap with one finger to activate a control or launch an app. This is one of the things I have always appreciated about Apple’s approach to accessibility. What you learn on one device usually translates to the use of other similar devices, reducing the amount of time it takes you to become proficient with the accessibility features even when it is a new product category like the Apple Watch. 

 Surprisingly, there is little mention of any features for those with motor challenges on the Apple page for Apple Watch or the reviews I have read. This is surprising to me given the fact that the Apple Watch relies on the Digital Crown as the main way of interacting with the device. People with poor motor skills may find the Digital Crown to be difficult to operate, though initial reviews indicate that it is much easier to operate on the Apple watch than on traditional analog watches.  Sure, the user can use Siri to control the device with voice recognition, but Siri may not work accurately in environments with a lot of ambient noise, or for people who have speech difficulties. 

 One area that has not gotten as much attention in the reviews I have read is the potential for this device as a communication aid. With a press of the side button, the user can bring up a list of key people (parent, caregiver, etc.) to communicate with not only with a phone call or a message, but with sketches (quick drawings that animate on the other end if the other person also has an Apple Watch). For people with autism and other related disabilities, this more visual way of communicating could be very helpful. Taps are also supported for custom messages between two Apple Watch wearers who have hearing difficulties (the taps are felt on each end of the conversation as a silent tap pattern on the wrist). The true potential for the Apple Watch as a communication device will probably not be known until the app store for the device matures. One app I would love to see is one where the user who has a hearing loss can hold up the watch to another person’s face and have the audio amplified on a Bluetooth headset (similar to the Live Listen feature for hearing aids on the iPhone). 

Then there is the integration of the Apple Watch with environmental solutions Apple has developed: Apple Pay, HomeKit and iBeacons. As Steven Aquino suggests, Apple Pay and Apple Watch will make payment at places of business easier for those with motor difficulties, who will not have to fumble around trying to get the phone out of their pockets or a handbag to pay. The same goes for checking in for a flight at the airport with Passbook. Similarly, an app for Starwood Hotels will let you open your hotel room from the watch. HomeKit could also make the Apple Watch the controller for a number of devices, from lights to the alarm, the garage door and more (such as the Honeywell Lyric app for controlling a thermostat). As for iBeacons, their integration with the Apple Watch could be used to develop educational activities that add a kinesthetic component to learning (hints or prompts that are activated based on the user’s location in relation to a classroom-based beacon and more).

I believe the App Store will be key to unlocking the full potential of this new product, and if the iPhone is any indication the app store will grow rapidly, especially after Apple holds the World Wide Developer’s Conference this summer.

As for me, I will probably not be getting this first version of the Apple Watch. I want to wait to see how the battery life holds up, as this is an important consideration for an accessibility device you need to use for an entire day. Any device, no matter how fancy it is, will be of limited use if the battery dies when you most need it. If history holds, future versions will be better in this area. The Apple Watch is also expensive at $350 (for the Sport version). As a person with a limited tech budget I have to think about which device will have the most bang for the buck for me. As a photographer, that means that for me that device remains the iPhone, which I hope to upgrade as soon as my current contract runs out later this fall. Wouldn’t it be nice if in the future you could get both of these devices as a bundle (with a discount for buying this way). I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one…

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