(Note: This article first appeared in the BCAB Newsletter, Spring 2018)
There has been an increase recently in the number of Smart watches available on the market, all competing and offering similar functions to each other. From Fitbit to Apple, Garmin to Samsung, so many manufacturers are now vying for what is essentially thought of as a Smartphone on your wrist. When it comes to mainstream Smart watches and their accessibility to the Visually Impaired, there is only one winner out there: the Apple Watch. If you are an iPhone user, then the Apple Watch is a very useful companion to allow you to stay productive on the go and carry out some, but not all, of the things on your phone.
I have owned my Apple Watch series 1 for quite a while now. I purchased it just before the launch of the series 3 model at Apple’s event in September 2017, as I didn’t want the latest. The hefty price tag of the Series 3 was also another reason to put me off, not to mention that it did not really seem to offer anything new to the Series 1 apart from it being waterproof.
When it comes to the packaging of any Apple product, in my opinion, Apple have never failed to impress me. This was exactly the case with the watch, which came in a very sturdy but nice cardboard box. This contained the watch itself, instructions, and a USB magnetic charging cable. Note that the watch does not come with a wall plug to charge it, and the supplied cable which comes with it is a standard USB cable – which you can either plug into a USB wall plug, such as the one which comes with an iOS device – or into a PC’s USB port.
The physical layout of the watch is very simple. There are two physical buttons on the right-hand side of the watch. The button on the top right-hand side is round and can be turned, this is known as the digital crown. When pressed three times, it turns VoiceOver on and off during setup, very much like the Home button on the iPhone. When turned, the crown can also simulate the swipe right and left gesture to move between items, and pressing and holding the crown activates Siri.
The button below the digital crown on the right-hand side of the watch is a long button, known as the Side button. Like the digital crown, this also has a number of functions. Pressing this button once enters the dock; this is the same as the dock on iOS. Pressing and holding the button is used to power off the watch, very much like pressing the power button on iOS to do this. Pressing and holding the button can also be used to call the emergency services or a set family member chosen by the person using the watch. Pressing the Side button twice is used to activate ApplePay when this is set up.
The left hand side of the watch does not have any buttons and simply houses the speaker. At this point, I would like to mention that the watch orientation can be changed, meaning that it can be used so that the speaker is on the right hand side of the watch, with the buttons on the left. I would highly recommend doing this if you struggle to hear the watch and find the speaker too quiet but do not want to use a headset. I have found that reorientation of the watch has made it easier for me to hear and use in noisy environments such as car journeys.
The top of the watch simply has the touchscreen, which is very small and narrow and rectangular in shape.
The underside of the watch is where the magnet is positioned for charging the unit; this is very easy to feel and easy to find when the watch needs to be charged, using the supplied USB cable. One end of the cable plugs into the power source, such as a plug, the other end has the magnetic circular disc, which goes onto the underside of the watch.
Setting the watch up was a fully accessible process, and I found that I needed no sighted help at all. I would recommend turning on VoiceOver on the watch as soon as you can, then following the setup instructions given to you by the watch. Pressing the digital crown three times turns VoiceOver on, and you can use standard swiping and double-tapping gestures to navigate. Zoom magnification is also offered on the watch, but I am unable to comment on the effectiveness of this as I am totally blind. You need to make sure that Bluetooth is already enabled on your iPhone, and you are required to use the watch app which should come on your iPhone by default. This is used to pair the watch to the iPhone via Bluetooth, and it is very accessible with VoiceOver, even to the point where all images are described on both the watch and within the app. There are two ways of pairing the watch: the default way is to align the watch with an image using your iPhone’s camera. I was never successful in using this method, but Apple have thought of a workaround for this. If you choose the option to pair manually, you need to enter a code which is made up of a series of digits into your iPhone. The code is displayed on the watch, and if VoiceOver is turned on, it is read out. You have to be quick when doing this though, as not entering the code quickly enough into the phone would result in frustration as the code displayed on the watch changes. Also, as soon as you have entered the code on your iPhone, you need to swipe to the “done” button on the Apple Watch and double-tap on this quickly to complete pairing. Be aware though that failure to complete pairing quickly when entering the numeric code does result in taking you back a step where you need to select your region using the Apple Watch. This is the only step which requires all of your patience as it is presented in an alphabetical list which takes some time to navigate. The rest of the setup is very straightforward and is completed using the Watch app. It mainly involves syncing of apps and contacts which are already on your phone, then some security setup of a passcode to unlock your watch if it is taken off then put back on again, such as after charging. Note that if you want to use ApplePay, you need to set a passcode or it will not work. However, setting up of a passcode is simply a recommended but non-obligatory security measure.
Using Apple Watch
The way the watch works is that you can manage many of your notifications and calls without having to touch your iPhone. When your phone is locked, notifications will come through on your watch, however, this will not happen if your iPhone is unlocked. You are fully in control of which notifications come through on your watch, for example, if you do not want any of your Email notifications to appear on your watch, then you are free to customise these to your needs. This applies to any app notifications, whether they are third-party apps such as Twitter, Facebook, PayPal, or Apple apps such as Mail, Messages, and Calendar.
Although I do like the gimmick of doing simple replies to Emails or messages on my watch, I very rarely use these functions. Replying in Messages only works in iMessage, so if you try to reply to a standard text message, you will keep getting an error message. You are able to pick phrases for both Emails and iMessage, such as common short phrases, and Apple have set some as default which you are able to change to your liking.
In terms of calls on the watch, I also tend to find myself using the iPhone more to make and receive calls, despite this being less convenient. I always tend to find that if I try to talk during a call on the watch, the other person really struggles to hear me, despite me being able to hear them without a problem.
A really interesting – and in my opinion very useful feature – is Taptic Time. When VoiceOver is on, this is a setting which, when activated, allows you to tell the time discretely through the use of a series of vibrations of different lengths. This setting is off by default, but is turned on in the watch app. To use Taptic Time, you tap the screen twice with one finger while it is locked, then count the number of vibrations to tell the time. A long vibration is used to indicate 10, and short vibrations are used for single digits. For example, 2:30 pm would be presented as a long vibration followed by four short ones to show the hours, done in 24 hour format, followed by a short pause, followed by three long vibrations for the minutes. The concept does take some getting used to, but comes in so handy, especially during meetings.
The main reason why I purchased the Apple Watch – and this is what I mostly use it for – is fitness and health tracking. When it comes to Smart health accessibility on the go, the Apple Watch is the winner for me. You can sync the watch to your Health app which I highly recommend. But there is an app called Activity which is automatically installed on your iPhone. This is again fully accessible, and allows you to track your hours of exercise, calories burned over time, and my favourite feature, called Achievements. The best way to describe these is like virtual rewards and challenges which motivate you to get up and move about more, some are easier to achieve than others, and they could range from something simple like hitting your Smart move goal every day for a full week, to completing a goal for a full month.
The watch also offers additional health options for people to use, which are fully accessible. Those who are interested in mindfulness may like the Breathe app, which allows you to carry out a breathing exercise for a time of your choice. The app works by tapping you on your wrist, and this is when you breathe in. When the taps stop, you breathe out, and follow this pattern for your chosen amount of time, the lowest being one minute. At the end of the exercise, you are given a summary, which tells you how many mindfulness exercises you have completed that day, and also how your heart rate was affected.
You can also measure your heart rate separately using the Heart Rate app, where you can also monitor how your heart rate changes as VoiceOver announces this in real-time.
You can install some additional health apps if you want to: I have installed a sleep tracking app and a pedometer app to count my steps. This also allows me to track my workouts.
What I really like about the watch is the ability to fully customise it to my needs. I really like being able to pick my watch face. This is like an iPhone’s lock screen, and you can make these as simple or as detailed as you like. To customise your watch face, you simply press on the right side of the watch, swipe to the name of the face you like, swipe down to customise, then pick your complications and colour. The complications are the different types of detail you have on your watch, for example, you may choose to have the battery, weather, and your activity level, or you may choose certain apps which you frequently use and can open more easily.
Pros and Cons
Although I really like the watch overall, like pretty much any product, there are always some bugs or areas for improvement. For the Apple Watch series 1, one problem I have is that I am unable to change the VoiceOver voice, which is set to the low-quality Daniel. However, I do know that you are able to choose a different voice in later models of the watch, such as the series 3.
One other area for improvement is the amount of settings you can do on the watch itself. Although you are able to change the voiceOver volume using the watch itself, you are not able to change the speaking rate or the orientation of the watch. I do, however, understand and accept that there is only so much you can do with a watch, and the app certainly has its place.
The battery life on the watch is very poor, it needs to be charged daily but can be greatly improved by turning off notifications you do not want to receive, and also by turning on the screen curtain, which is done within the Watch app. It is therefore important to remember that unless you have an iPhone, the watch is useless, unlike some other similar watches which are totally inaccessible but can work with both iPhones and Android phones.
Despite all the bugs I have mentioned above, I am by no means discouraged from using the watch, and feel it is really worth forking out the price I paid for it. I think Apple have yet again nailed it with accessibility, and will hopefully teach some of the other companies a lesson, as there is currently no competition when it comes to finding an accessible mainstream Smart watch. I would highly recommend the watch to any iPhone user, especially if you want to monitor your health independently.