Flat, Gesture Sensing Digital Crowns May Come to Future Apple Watches

Apple Watch at Apple Store Credit: NavyBank / Shutterstock
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Apple may be exploring an optical sensor replacement for the Apple Watch Digital Crown that could introduce new input features as well as reduce the number of times you accidentally trigger Siri. Here’s what you should know about what Apple is up to.

Latest Apple Watch Patents

If you’re familiar with patent applications, you know that they’re typically written in dense, technical language that can be tough to read. But, in a nutshell, this latest patent theorizes that Apple could replace the analog Digital Crown on the Apple Watch with a flat optical sensor system.

The patent goes on to explain that this sensor could read a number of input methods, such as pressure, touch and force. But it may even introduce new methods like light, temperature, position, motion and images.

In practice, the patent adds that this future crown could be used to replace the rotating Digital Crown in a way that frees up internal space (but could also have a number of other benefits, which we’ll get to below).

It’s worth noting that one of the patent’s inventors, Tyler S. Bushnell, is also named on another recent Apple Patent that describes a more joystick-like Digital Crown. More than anything, that suggests that Apple is looking at multiple possibilities for improving the mechanism.

How This Could Benefit Apple Watch Users

The Digital Crown is a fairly intuitive way of navigating the Apple Watch, even though many users may forego it in favor of simple touch gestures. Even then, it has its downfalls.

One of the primary shortcomings of the Digital Crown’s current design, which the patent doesn’t mention, is the fact that it sticks out quite a bit toward a user’s hand and wrist in normal usage.

As many Apple Watch owners have noted, this means that certain normal actions — like wearing certain types of clothing or performing certain types of exercise — can accidentally trigger Siri. That ends up being annoying no matter what you’re doing, and it’s something that a flatter crown option could address.

A Digital Crown in its current form is, of course, also a moving part. That means it’s more prone to wear over time or damage from drops. Apple Watches without a Digital Crown could theoretically last longer and better resist damage. Those are two things important in a wearable fitness-tracking device.

Last, but certainly not least, the introduction of other sensor types could mean that the Digital Crown could have uses beyond navigating the UI and activating Siri. In addition to those standard functions, there’s a chance that it could read hand gestures or other types of input methods beyond what Apple Watches are currently capable of.

Of course, Apple files a lot of patents that never end up seeing the light of day, so there’s no guarantee that future Apple Watches will sport this type of flat crown.

There’s also no word on when they’ll get an improved Digital Crown. So if you run into accidental Siri activations in the meantime, you can try something called “reverse watch orientation.”

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