WWDC2020: Sleep tracking comes to Apple Watch at last, amid otherwise minor fitness updates

New workout modules and automatic handwashing detection were rolled out at Apple's annual developer conference, but no update was offered on contact-tracing efforts.
By Jonah Comstock
03:47 pm
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At the opening keynote for WWDC2020, Apple’s virtual developer conference, the company announced a few additional health and fitness capabilities for the Apple Watch — though the event was relatively light on health content, especially compared to previous years.

Sleep tracking arrives at last

One such feature — sleep tracking — has been a notable omission for the wearable ever since it was first announced in 2014. The explanation has always been that the device’s power requirements generally require the user to charge it during the night.

According to Vera Carr, a senior engineer for health at Apple who presented the sleep-tracking features, the company wanted to focus not just on tracking sleep but on helping users to improve their sleep habits — with tracking forming only one aspect of that mandate.

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"n the evening ahead of your bedtime, your phone can display the Wind Down screen to help you transition mentally before you go to bed. It creates a calm lock screen experience and turns on Do Not Disturb for you," Carr said. "You can also set up shortcuts for simple things you may like to do to help you prepare for bed each night, including using your favorite meditation app or playing relaxing music. Once it's time for bed, your screen will dim and your Watch will go into sleep mode. The screen will be off during your time in bed, so won't bother you."

A tap on the Watch displays a dimmed face showing only the time.

"When it's time to wake up, you'll have a selection of gentle and effective alarm sounds or a silent, haptic-only wake up alarm so you don't disturb your partner. Once you're up, you'll see a friendly greeting easing you into the day. It also shows your battery level so you can remember to charge in the morning." Carr continued. "Apple Watch tracks your sleep using a machine learning model that senses your motion and even interprets the micro movements caused by the rise and fall of your breath, providing signals for when you're awake and when you're asleep. There's an updated sleep section in the Health app, including a view of your trends over time."

Notably, no mention was made of Beddit, the sleep-tracking company Apple acquired a few years ago. Apple still offers the device, but the version 3.5 that was released early last year has been criticized for removing multiple useful features from the previous version.

Handwashing helper

Another feature that’s particularly notable as the world continues to battle against the COVID-19 pandemic is handwashing detection and assistance.

“Our approach here is using machine learning models to determine motion which appears to be hand washing and then to use audio to confirm the sound of running water or squishing soap on your hands,” Kevin Lynch, Apple’s VP of technology said during the presentation. “During this, you'll get a little coaching to do a good job. You'll see a countdown along with haptics and sounds to make sure you wash as long as you're supposed to. If you pause early, there's a polite note to keep washing, and when you're done you'll see, hear and feel it.”

Lynch didn’t expound on the context of this feature, but it could be especially useful in the healthcare field where handwashing is important and compliance is often worryingly low.

Notably, competitor Samsung launched a free handwashing app for its watches earlier this month, though it lacks the automatic detection feature.

Tracking dance and more

As has become tradition at WWDC, the Apple Watch section of the presentation also featured new kinds of workout training. This year the focus was on a new feature that tracks fitness dancing, including hip-hop, Latin and Bollywood.

“Getting the most accurate credit for dance presented a unique challenge,” Jules Arney, Apple’s senior manager for fitness technologies, said. “Arm movements aren't always repetitive or synchronized with leg movements like you're running or walking. The solution was to use advanced sensor fusion. In dance, we combine data from the accelerometer and the gyroscope to detect the difference between dancing with just your arms, just your lower body, or when you put it all together and dance with your entire body. Then we added heart rate data for the most accurate calorie burn.”

The new WatchOS also adds tracking for core training, functional strength training, and workout cool downs. The Activity app in iOS has been updated with a new design and renamed; it’s now the Fitness app.

Other announcements to keep an eye on

Other than the handwashing feature, a brief mention of COVID-19 in the CEO Tim Cook’s introduction and an option to add masks to Apple’s memojis, the current pandemic crisis wasn’t discussed much at the event. Apple did not offer an update on its contact-tracing project with Google.

A few upgrades not directly related to health could have implications for the field.

Siri is moving the processing of its dictation to the device rather than the cloud, which could make it a more attractive tool for healthcare providers concerned about security.  And speaking of security, Apple is moving to add simpler, more understandable privacy policies to its apps, forcing developers to be more transparent in how they’re using users’ data.

The Apple Watch is also broadening its available Watch faces and allowing users to do more with complications, which allows apps like Glow Baby and Nike Run Club to create customized Watch faces with tools specifically useful to their users.

 

 

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