Apple Watch: Silent Awareness

The Ring/Silent switch on my iPhone is perpetually set to Silent. Mine might be a minority opinion, but I detest the noise of an unmuted phone—the blaring ringtones, the bleeps, bloops and chirps announcing texts, emails and tweets. I opt for silence—or at least as much silence as can be had when the motor-driven vibration unit inside my phone is noisy enough to summon a crowd of Living Dead zombies.

Before Apple Watch arrived, my semi-silent iPhone setup had the Ring/Silent switch set to Silent, vibration on for incoming calls and alerts, and manually-enabled Do Not Disturb for times when loud vibration was unacceptable. Although it delivered a limited degree of quiet, this setup had a serious drawback: tons of missed calls and notifications. I regularly missed my phone's alerts altogether, and even more often, sensed an alert but was unwilling or unable to do more than twitch irritably as I was vibra-poked. If success entails noticing an incoming alert and then taking informed, appropriate action, I'd estimate my pre-Watch success rate at about 20%.

What's behind this abysmal success rate? Location, location, location. Where's my phone? Jammed in a vibration-damping pocket, locked, screen hidden, inaccessible without an awkward, multi-step effort. Where are my eyes, my senses? Otherwise engaged. Where's my mind? Elsewhere.

It's no wonder that I so often fail to register my phone's vibratory cries for attention. Even when a vibration does break through and tickle my consciousness, my reptillian brain is the first responder. The lizard-brain delivers lightweight situational advice, and does it quickly. Lizard-brain's good advice, though, often leads directly to the failure scenario.

Not a good place to drop your phone.

Not a good place to drop your phone.

Let's say I'm crossing the Franklin Street Bridge over the Chicago River and get a call. Here's how lizard-brain is likely to see things:

WALKING. HIGH, WATER DOWN THERE. WINDY. BRIDGE SHAKING.
HMMM IS THAT A BUZZ?? YES ... POCKET BUZZ. MAYBE PHONE CALL.
REACH FOR POCKET ...
NO!! DANGER!! DO NOT ATTEMPT TO UNPOCKET PHONE!! NO!! 

Failure: even though I felt the alert, I make an uninformed decision to not take a call. (It's successful from lizard-brain's perspective, however: neither my body nor my phone ended up in the river.)

Or let's say I'm sitting on the couch next to my napping daughter and a call comes in:. Here's the lizard mindstream:

SHE'S SLEEPING. GOOD. DON'T WAKE.
BUZZ!! BUZZ LOUD ANGRY WASP. LOUD. OH NO SHE'S STIRRING!!
EMERGENCY!! MUTE THAT BUZZ!! EMERGENCY!!
GROPE FOR PHONE IN POCKET FIND THAT LOCK BUTTON 
GROPE PUSH ALL BUTTONS STOP THE BUZZING

Failure: another uninformed decision to not take a call, spastic phone groping, and a significant noise intrusion.

The in-pocket phone is invisible and, blind groping aside, unactionable. To see and act, I must unpocket and unlock, a stop-everything, step-aside, devote-all-attention effort. To unpocket, I must swap out the lightweight lizard-brain daemon and load in heavyweight Higher Consciousness. In so many situations, as in the above examples, unpocketing is at best unattractive and at worst infeasible. This was my world, pre-Watch.

Apple Watch delivers the silence I've been seeking (details below), but more critically catapults my aware-responsive rate from 20% to 80%.  Behind this improvement is again location, location, location. Where's my Watch? On my wrist, unsheathed, unlocked, a subsecond gesture away from screenlit, direct-connected to my nervous system through that most basic and powerful sensory input, tactile touch. Where are my eyes, my senses, my mind? That's no longer a concern, because Apple Watch cooperates with the reptilian mind, asking only a tiny slice of mental processing power and speaking the direct language of touch through its Taptic Engine. 

New call and alert settings with Apple Watch in the mix.

New call and alert settings with Apple Watch in the mix.

In my Watch + iPhone alerting setup, my iPhone is set to Silent/No Vibrate, and thus completely cedes all alerting to Apple Watch. My Watch is configured to be sound-effect-free, using only Taptic and visible alerting. In contrast to the phone's snarling vibratory alerts, Taptic alerts are inaudible, and in practice I've found them to be so good at getting my attention that added sound effects are unnecessary. Taptic's silent operation also eliminates my need for manually-set Do Not Disturb: Taptic is safely discrete in all situations. 

Let's rejoin lizard-brain and reexamine the two scenarios. Crossing the Franklin Street Bridge over the Chicago River:

WALKING. HIGH, WATER DOWN THERE. WINDY. BRIDGE SHAKING.
TAP!! WRIST TAP! WATCH.
OK, QUICK GLANCE SAFE, RAISE, GLANCE.
AHA CALL FROM JOHN YES I SHOULD TAKE IT
OK, SAFE TO WATCH-ANSWER. RIGHT HAND ACROSS TAP ANSWER.
SLOW DOWN, INVOKE FULL ATTENTION.
LIZARD TO BACKGROUND.
I step to one side. 
I carefully unpocket my phone. 
I touch the green bar to pick up call on phone.
I continue my call with John.

Success: I'm aware, responsive, safe.

 
Incoming call on Apple Watch: send to voicemail or answer.

Incoming call on Apple Watch: send to voicemail or answer.

 

Sleeping daughter:

SHE'S SLEEPING. GOOD. DON'T WAKE.
TAP!! WRIST TAP! WATCH.
RAISE, GLANCE. STEVE!
STEVE CAN WAIT.
RIGHT HAND ACROSS TAP IGNORE.
STILL SLEEPING. GOOD. DON'T WAKE.

Success: I'm aware, informed, appropriate.

Watch on wrist, my days are a continuous stream of scenarios like these. Case in point: as I've been revising this paragraph, I've quickly and discetely dealt with two incoming calls (one step-away-and-call-back, one send-to-voicemail), several texts, and one new voicemail notification. All successfully.

My wife doesn't yet realize how badly she wants an Apple Watch, but I'm pretty sure that she'd benefit even more than I have. Beth is also a fan of quiet and discrete, so like me, she keeps her phone switched to Silent. But in her case, that setting is largely irrelevant, because she rarely carries her phone—or even a purse with her phone. As a result, Beth's reachability rate is maybe 5%—when our older kids need to reach her, they often call or text me instead. 

Recently it dawned on me that Apple Watch had a Wi-Fi radio in addition to Bluetooth, and that Apple had to be doing something useful with that extra radio, or else it wouldn't be in there. I dug into the question online, did some experiments of my own, and made a very interesting discovery. Regardless of physical proximity, if Apple Watch and iPhone are on the same Wi-Fi network, they stay connected. And being connected, Watch can do all its usual connected tricks, including all of the aware-and-responsive scenarios we've examined in this post.

 
Apple Watch connected to iPhone. Over Wi-Fi, that can span an entire house.

Apple Watch connected to iPhone. Over Wi-Fi, that can span an entire house.

 

I realized that I'd been thinking of the Watch as fully functional only within fairly close proximity to my phone. But Wi-Fi range is basically our entire house! Beth could leave her iPhone charging upstairs, and with an Apple Watch on her wrist, remain fully connected, aware, and responsive throughout the house. Another location challenge, gracefully handled by Apple Watch.

Way back in May 2013, Tim Cook said in a Wall Street Journal AllThingsD interview, "I think the wrist is interesting. The wrist is natural." Yep. Location, location, location.


Just a note of appreciation for a number of deeply-reasoned Apple Watch articles recently, which provided inspiration for mine.