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Although the Apple Watch has been through a few minor design changes since its inception in 2014, the user interface and controls on this year’s Series 7 have remained largely unchanged from the original model.
To be fair, by the time the third iteration of watchOS came along, Apple had refined the UI, axing a few of its earlier features such as Glances and the Friends circle, but generally speaking, these didn’t really change the core experience of using an Apple Watch.
This stands in stark contrast to the iPhone, where Apple changed things up completely in 2017, when the iPhone X replaced the Home Button-driven UI with something that was entirely gesture-based — and considerably more intuitive.
Now, it looks like Apple may be looking to do the same for the Apple Watch. A new patent uncovered by Patently Apple shows that the company has been considering ways to phase out the venerable Digital Crown, replacing it with an optical sensor that could read user gestures instead.
The patent, which is rather appropriately titled Watch with optical sensor for user input, outlines an idea for a new multipurpose optical sensor on the wearable that could not only identify user gestures, but also measure biometrics like heart rate, respiration rate, blood oxygen, blood pressure, and more.
Apple’s reasoning, according to the patent, isn’t just about providing a cooler way to control the Apple Watch; there are far more practical engineering and design concerns behind this as well.
For one thing, Apple notes that the Digital Crown takes up space on the Apple Watch that could be put to better use. After all, unlike an iPhone, there’s a limit to how big a wearable device can be. Apple Watch engineers and designers are regularly faced with trying to bend the laws of physics, cramming as much technology as possible into the little space they have to work with.
User input components, such as crowns, can occupy space on a watch that could otherwise be occupied by other components of the watch.Apple patent 11,209,783
So, it makes sense why Apple would be looking to replace the Digital Crown with a multipurpose sensor that could handle more than just user input. Waste not, want not, as the saying goes.
Then there’s also the fact that moving parts wear out and are more susceptible to damage. An optical sensor would be considerably more durable in this regard than the mechanical Digital Crown.
When it comes to recognizing user gestures, the patent isn’t proposing anything particularly fancy either, so we’re not talking about something like Minority Report — Apple’s likely saving that sort of thing for its AR Headset.
Instead, Apple suggests that users would still interact with the optical sensor just like they currently do with the Digital Crown, providing the same type of “motions and gestures near the input component.” For example, you would likely still be required to turn your fingers over the sensor, as if you were rotating a physical Digital Crown.
Figures in the patent Illustrate how a user would move their finger in a downward motion over the proposed optical sensor as you would over the Digital Crown. The optical sensor would be able to detect motion, position, orientation, speed, acceleration, contact, and even proximity of the user. This would also potentially allow the new “virtual crown” to do a lot more than just scroll through menu options, images, or screens of text.
The patent also suggests that the new optical sensor could double as a fingerprint sensor, lining up with rumours that Touch ID could soon come to the Apple Watch.
Of course, the usual cautions apply when talking about Apple’s patents. These always offer interesting insight into what Apple is thinking about, but they never guarantee that the company is actually working on something. Further, patents cover conceptual implementations, and don’t factor in the engineering challenges involved in producing a working design.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]