Apple Just Solved the Biggest Challenge of Putting a Camera in the Apple Watch

Hand Holding Apple Watch Case Back Credit: Fabian Albert
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In a world of ubiquitous smartphone cameras and FaceTime video chat, it’s somewhat conspicuous that Apple hasn’t yet added a camera to the Apple Watch. While the wearable device can participate in FaceTime Audio calls, and also offers a remote control app for your iPhone Camera, there’s never been much talk about adding a camera directly to the device.

It turns out that there’s actually a pretty good reason for that, and it’s based on Apple’s usual attention to detail and penchant for avoiding half-baked solutions. When you think about it, it’s pretty tricky to hold your wrist in a position that will allow you to get a good image while also being able to see what’s on the screen, and even more difficult to take pictures of your surroundings from your wrist.

Since Apple doesn’t add features simply for the sake of including them on a spec sheet, and doesn’t expect its users to become contortionists, it obviously decided that it was better off to avoid adding a camera until it could tackle the problem in a user-friendly way.

However, Apple has been quietly working on the problem behind the scenes for years now, and may have finally come up with a viable solution in the form of adding a camera to the Apple Watch band, rather than the watch itself.

A newly-granted patent discovered by Patently Apple, describes a plan for a “camera optical sensor … disposed at a distal end portion of a camera watch band” which in plain language means putting the camera sensor at the farthest end of the band, opposite from where it connects to the body of the watch.

The advantage of placing the camera at the end of the watch band is that it would make the sensor independently positionable relative to the watch body, allowing the Apple Watch to capture images and video at angles and orientations that wouldn’t depend directly on how the user is positioning their wrist. In the patent, Apple demonstrates how the camera sensor could not only be positioned above the watch face, simply by looping it all the way around the wrist, but that it could also be designed to flip 180 degrees to allow the user to easily take photos of their environment, rather than just using it as a FaceTime or selfie camera. In an alternate example, the watch band would instead be equipped with two optical camera sensors, one on each side.

Ultimately, this would allow the user to aim the camera pretty much anywhere while still holding their wrist in a comfortable enough position to actually use the watch itself. The patent also describes techniques for ensuring that the camera-equipped watch band more easily holds its position, such as incorporating a “malleable metal core” or “a core of magnetohelogical fluid.”

As with most patents, the text describes a wide variety of implementations and applications for the feature, including capturing images or video simply by pinching the Apple Watch band itself, issuing verbal commands, pressing a button on the camera, or of course initiating the action from the Apple Watch UI itself.

Of course, this also carries the same disclaimer that’s true of all Apple patents that we see — just because Apple gets awarded a patent for something, that doesn’t really reveal a timeline, or even guarantee that the feature will ever see the light of day. In fact, Apple applied for this particular patent back in September, 2016, which goes to show how long they’ve been brainstorming the idea of adding a camera to the Apple Watch, but while it seems like they’ve come up with a sound design concept, there are likely still technical and engineering hurdles to overcome as well.

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