Since its launch back in 2015, Apple has been steadily adding new sensors and features to the Apple Watch. The first model had a built-in heart rate sensor, the Apple Watch Series 2 tacked on GPS, while the Series 3 was the first version to feature true cellular connectivity. Most recently, Apple added an ECG monitor to the Apple Watch Series 4, and based on a new patent granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple ain’t done yet.
In the filing (discovered by 9to5Mac), it seems Apple has thought up a way to add a camera to the Apple Watch, but not exactly in the way you might imagine. Instead of taking the easy route and simply shoehorning a camera sensor and lens onto the Apple Watch’s squircle-shaped case, Apple has drawn up plans for a camera that sits on the end of an Apple Watch band, and uses a hidden optical cable buried inside the band to send image data back to the watch.
When it’s not in use, the camera could be wrapped up so that it lies flat against the watch’s band.
As Apple describes in its patent application, the reasoning behind this design is that “A potential barrier to smartwatch adoption is their minimal image-capturing ability.” So by putting a camera on the end of a watch band that can be freely positioned and adjusted unlike a camera that’s attached to the side of the watch case, a watch like the one shown in the filing “can replace or at least meaningfully augment a user’s existing camera or camera-enabled device (e.g., smartphone, tablet).”
By adding a camera to the Apple Watch, Apple could get one step closer to creating a true standalone wearable that would allow users to leave their phone at home, but without losing any major features.
The camera is also quite unique in that it appears to use a two-sided camera that could allow users to capture traditional pictures and selfies with very little effort, or possibly even full 360-degree videos. And when you’re not out taking pictures with your watch, the camera could simply be wrapped up against your wrist along with the rest of the watch band. It’s a rather elegant solution for adding a camera to a watch, which otherwise tends to be a pretty bulky proposition.
That said, before we get all giddy about a patent filing, I have to ask: Is having a camera on a smartwatch something people really want? Sure, it’s a nice idea in theory, but a camera built into a watch band will almost certainly have significantly worse image quality than what you’d get on a phone. Also, while the band on Apple’s camera watch looks pretty thin in the patent illustration, it will inevitably be much thicker in real life.
Then there’s the cost to consider, because by integrating sensors and optical wires into the band, not only are Apple Watch bands going to get a lot more expensive, it could require Apple to design an all-new band attachment system to accommodate a connection for the camera. Neither of those things will be cheap to create.
Finally, there’s just the whole awkwardness of trying to take pictures with a watch. You’ll have to use one hand to raise the camera into position, while you use your other hand to adjust the view, all while holding both arms out in the air. Just thinking about that scenario makes my arms tired. Multiple smartwatch makers including Samsung and LG have tried building cameras into smartwatches before but ended up ditching the tech because it’s annoying and ungainly.
The only way I really see this working is if Apple’s camera tech is relegated to being an optional feature on a high-end Apple Watch, while the normal model does without it. And even then, I still find it hard to imagine that a lot of people would be willing to pay an extra $100 or $200 (or more) to get a camera that’s attached to their Apple Watch.
Kudos to Apple for thinking up something bold and innovative. But the real hard part is still ahead of them. Because while the patent seems neat, executing on that design won’t be easy.
All images: Apple (via the USPTO)