Accessibility takes a magic leap with Apple Watch gesture control

Any enterprise eager to meet accessibility and diversity targets now has additional reasons to consider Apple’s technologies, with Assistive Touch for Apple Watch hinting at a gesture-based future for wearable tech.

Accessibility for the rest of us?

Apple made a series of announcements to mark Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which is today. New accessible user interface (UI) enhancements included support for third-party, eye-tracking hardware to control iPads and a very interesting use of machine vision intelligence so your device can identify objects within images when using voice to control the device.

But it’s Assistive Touch for Apple Watch that feels most like watching Minority Report, because it introduces new gesture controls. These use built-in motion sensors inside the watch, including the gyroscope, accelerometer, optical heart rate sensor, and on-device machine learning to detect subtle differences in muscle movement and tendon activity.

These gestures are then translated into actions, so it’s possible to answer a call by clenching your hand as your raise your wrist, or to scroll an on-page app interface by moving your hand.

How to use Assistive Touch on Apple Watch

Assistive Touch understands a small number of gestures. It knows when you make a “pinch” by bringing your thumb and forefinger together. It also recognizes when you clench your fist, move your arm, or shake your hand. These gestures can be combined to invoke controls on an Apple Watch.

From what Apple has told us so far, Assistive Touch lets you do the following:

Double-clench your hand to focus on an interface button, such as the Stop button on your timer. Clench to confirm the selection and invoke the action.

Double-clench your hand to answer an incoming call.

Assistive Touch on Apple Watch can also handle more complex navigational tasks. In one example, the user will use the double-clench gesture to raise the action menu, pinch to move the pointer, and clench to confirm and apply an action. The company also shows a user moving their arm to scroll through a page in an Apple Watch app, hovering to select buttons and clenching to apply them.

Finally, we learn that you can activate a motion pointer by shaking your wrist vigorously. The pointer will then respond to your arm movement, enabling a user to interact with buttons and other items using pinch and clench.

I imagine these controls will be enabled using the Watch app on your iPhone in the Accessibility section and is to be made available in a future software update. Perhaps we’ll learn more about this at WWDC 2021.

Apple is developing UIs for tomorrow’s world

We know Apple is working on sensor-based gesture recognition on account of its acquisition of PrimeSense and its more recent failed Leap Motion purchase. Gesture recognition is seen as a primary interface element for the use of AR and VR technologies and wearables, but Apple clearly also sees it in more immediate terms as technology to enable better accessibility in devices we already own.

While I don’t anticipate Apple will introduce its much-expected AR glasses this year, the company continues to develop UI elements we may see deployed in them when they do ship.

Many of these seem visible within its tools for accessibility, for instance: Voice Over to control items in virtual space, gesture controls in Apple Watch, People Detection in iPhones, and the addition of machine vision intelligence that understands an increasing number of domains (tree, car, dog, and so on) in an image as now used in VoiceOver on iPad.

All of these (and many other tools) are of profound significance for the many communities unable to access so-called “conventional” UIs, but all may also have implications further down the line as Apple seeks new wearable interfaces.

Indeed, as the computer disappears and the way we control these machines becomes increasingly contextual, it’s possible the next era of ambient computing will be one which is more accessible to more people than any of the big tech advances have been yet.

Even if such a future never reaches reality, it’s of perhaps more profound significance to many that Apple’s continued commitment to accessibility means its devices continue to be effective solutions for more diverse workplaces, hybrid or otherwise.

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