Is this the Apple iWatch? Patents say it could be...

Pundits everywhere are speculating on what, why and when will be the Apple [AAPL] iWatch. What follows are some great patent-based ideas -- along with the best rendered images I've seen yet -- that tell us the iWatch won't be some ghastly gadget only geeks would wear, but something everyone might want.

This is the Apple iWatch

[ABOVE: This Apple iWatch product visualization comes from the desk of Nickolay Lamm.]

Do we need it?

Watches are big business, and while there's certainly a perception that people don't wear them any more that's not the case: the year 2011 broke all records for the Swiss watch industry. Worldwide, in excess of a billion watches were manufactured (more details here, PDF). 

Stainless steel and silver watches are in vogue. Certainly that's what Apple's chief designer, Jony Ive, likes to wear. Take a look at him in this picture here. You'll see he's wearing an Ikepod Geneve Horizon watch (video below). The man to the left of Ive in the picture is Marc Newson, the highly honoured and award-winning designer behind the Ikepod brand.

[ABOVE: This is an Ikepod watch. This is a promotional video -- but look at its elements: minituarization, precision engineering, care and quality -- all the hallmarks of Ive's design manifesto. Would Apple deliver less than this in its battle for action with your wrist?

Timeless design

An iPhone user, Newson is also one of Ive's friends. Time once called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, he's a CBE and has been appointed The Royal Designer for Industry in the UK.

With this in mind, ask yourself, if you were attempting to design a watch and one of your best buddies had a business in award-winning watch designs, who would you speak with to help design something great?  This makes it reasonable to expect that whatever design Apple does come up with will be a watch, rather than some ghastly futuristic gadget that might look great on a Tuesday but looks passé the following week.

In this set of renders, the iWatch design is based on Newson's Ikepod.

Somewhat ironically, watch design is timeless. The watch is a classic item that retains a certain form and function and sits on the wrist. So, within the limitations of that category, what can Apple achieve to add connected intelligence?

The answer is quite a lot, actually.

I spoke with Nikolay Lamm to discuss a few of these ideas. Lamm has a reputation of coming up with remarkably accurate product design concepts for future Apple devices. His work's appeared on Gizmodo and ZDNet. His iPad mini concept was almost completely accurate. These iWatch designs were sponsored by and made by Lamm with the help of designers, Yelena Lamm and Matteo Gianni.

This is Apples iWatch

[ABOVE: Thanks to Patently Apple, here's an iWatch UI idea -- from Apple.]

Spiral tribe

Look at this published Apple patent which described a new user interface feature called Spiral. This was described as being for use with iTunes.  It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine it becoming the user interface for any object which happened to possess a circular display -- such as a watch.

Look at the way this user interface works. If you look at the patent image above you'll see that functions (in this case, albums or artists) are nested in 3D space. You get to them simply by twisting your way through the Spiral interface. In this way you can imagine Apple could create a slick, touch-based UI with which to navigate apps, functions and media files held on the device.

This would feel a little like using a ClickWheel, without the wheel. Given that an iWatch will probably be round and not some horrific Salvador-Dali-like melted iPod mini wrapped around your arm, the Spiral UI would be simple to use, would make sense in terms of how you're already used to touching a watch, and would enable swift and easy access to the functions you need.

If you use Spiral with an iWatch you end up with one of those sublime combinations of form and function that are infinitely difficult to put into place but which seem simple and intuitive to use. The sort of living product design innovations Ive's built his reputation on.

Linked in

The iWatch is a connected device. This makes it reasonable to expect it to work in conjunction with your iPhone. So, with your iPhone in your pocket and your iWatch on your wrist, you'd be able to:

  • Check and send SMS and email messages
  • Check who is calling and accept or reject these calls
  • Diary and event reminders
  • Control and navigate music and movie playback
  • Access maps and travel instructions
  • Find your friends
  • Check the time
  • Engage in a Facetime call using the camera inside the watch
  • Take snaps at the flick of a wrist

Lamm believes the watch would interact and be controlled by the iPhone. He's come across this patent, which describes a way in which to arrange iOS apps on your desktop. "Because everyone has smartphones, I feel this can be taken to mean that the smartphone will control the iWatch in a similar manner," he told me.

In the below image you can see that using your iPhone you could manage which apps were available on your iWatch. Lamm has some pretty interesting ideas as to how Siri will work with an Apple television you might want to take a look at too, now you've read this.


And there's more

All these notions sit well beside Bruce Tognazzini's predictions regarding the device from earlier this month. He sees this as a connected device that works in conjunction with an iPhone. The intention is to maximize battery life from the wrist-based companion without making too many sacrifices in terms of functionality. You should read his thoughts on what the watch can do, they're very extensive and suggest the many possibilities Apple has by which it can jump into the watch category and pretty much reinvent it.

You don't have to reinvent everything, of course. Apple's way is all about smoothly articulated simplicity in product design, and with Ive now in command of user interface design at the company it is reasonable to expect the UI in this device will be something that truly reflects his passion for good design.

With that in mind, you have to ask: Apps support, intelligence and connected functions are all well and good, but what's a watch for?

  • The most essential watch function -- the one with which everyone on the planet is already familiar -- is to tell the time.
  • This suggests the iWatch will default to its primary function of being a watch when a user isn't using one of its other features.
  • This means the primary visual connection people will build with the device when using it will be its function as a time piece.
  • When you look at your iWatch, you want to be able to tell the time...

Simply put...

This is the iWatch

Telling the time

As we all know, Switzerland is the home for watch design. Circumstantial evidence supports an opinion that Apple's design team (already numbering 100 some claim) is looking to Switzerland for the iWatch time display, specifically to the simple clockface designed by Mondaine (as illustrated above). Apple chose to use this face within the Clock app of iOS 6. Later the company paid $21 million to license use of the design.

It's not exactly stretching credulity to imagine that the default setting for an iWatch will be a clock face.

With that in mind, it makes sense that Apple would pop out and license a classic design for the watchface of its purported future product. Indeed, you can imagine the company offering a range of clockface designs iWatch users can choose to enable as the default screen.

So what do we have?

  • We have a low-powered device that connects to an iPhone over Bluetooth and sources most of its intelligence from the smartphone.
  • We have a user interface which lends itself well to a small, round display.
  • We have a product which walks right into a billion-unit industry.
  • We have a classic watch design with a classic face.

Is this the iWatch? That we can't predict -- merely because every Apple watcher anywhere has managed to convince themselves that the company may be working on such a product doesn't make it a reality. However, if Apple does ship something like this, then I think these latest product design drawings are rather closer to what we'll see than some of the truly dreadful drawings that have emerged in the last few days.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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