Rumored Apple Watch Accessibility Features

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Update, 4/5/2015: Apple has recently updated its Apple Watch Technology page, indicating that the Apple Watch will have VoiceOver, Zoom, and Dynamic Type support built-in.

Update, 3/15/2015: Following the release of the Watch Companion app in iOS 8.2, 9to5Mac has published a series of screenshots showing pages of that app which become visible only after an Apple Watch has been paired. One of these shows a Settings page titled General, on which is an item labeled Accessibility. Unfortunately, a screenshot is not available for the Accessibility page itself.

Original Post: Today, Apple announced the release of its highly-anticipated wearable, the Apple Watch.

While today’s Apple event answered many questions about the Apple Watch's final feature set, pricing and availability, one of the issues yet to receive much attention - and yet one which is vitally important to users of assistive technology - is what, if any, accessibility features the watch will have.

Before getting into the details we are aware of thus far, we must stress that much of the information in this post is purely speculation. Apple has not as of yet provided us with any details as to what, if any, accessibility features Apple Watch will have. However, given that a plethora of information about Apple Watch is now freely and widely available, and given that the presence or lack of accessibility features will most certainly influence the purchasing decisions of blind and low vision users, we thought it both timely and appropriate to report on the information that other sources are providing. As with all rumors, however, we cannot emphasize enough that the details are yet to be announced by Apple and thus should not be taken as fact.

With this disclaimer out of the way, here is what the rumor sites are reporting:

Apple Watch May Include Accessibility Features for Blind and Low Vision Users

According to a 9to5Mac article detailing the leaked Apple Watch companion app, Apple Watch is rumored to include a certain level of VoiceOver support, as well as a number of other accessibility features:

  • Like Apple’s other products, Apple Watch will have a series of key accessibility features.
  • The Apple Watch will have a VoiceOver feature that can speak text that is displayed on the screen. Users will be able to scroll through text to be spoken using two fingers. VoiceOver can be enabled either by merely raising a wrist or by double tapping the display.
  • Users will also be able to zoom on the Apple Watch’s screen: double tap with two fingers to zoom, use two fingers to pan around, and double tap while dragging to adjust the zoom.
  • There will also be accessibility settings to reduce motion, control stereo audio balance, reduce transparency, switch to grayscale mode, disable system animations, and enable bold text.

While 9to5Mac’s information is most definitely leaked and thus should be taken as unofficial at best, 9to5Mac published a more recent article in which Tim Cook is said to have indicated that the Apple Watch would contain accessibility features:

Yes is the short answer. In every product we do, we want it to be accessible for everyone. This is not something that we sit around and figure out what the ROI is. I can give a rats what the ROI is. It’s one of those things that goes in the just and right column. So we want all of our products to be accessible.

Here again, one should regard this statement with some level of skepticism -especially since it was allegedly made at a private meeting at the Berlin Apple Store during a recent visit by Cook.

Further corroborating the assertion that Apple Watch will include at least some level of accessibility support, iMore’s Steven Aquino noted that there is an accessibility framework built into Apple’s publicly-available WatchKit SDK:

I spent some time looking through the Apple Watch SDK, but I hadn't found any references to Accessibility. After asking around on Twitter, I was alerted to a WKInterfaceObject string of code that allows for Accessibility and localized text. I'm no computer programmer so I'm unable to fully understand what that means, but my low-level take is that, yes, Apple has baked in some Accessibility features into the Watch's operating system. What those features actually are remain to be seen, but it's comforting nonetheless to know that the Watch will be accessible, more or less.

While we had initially hoped that the iOS 8.2 Apple Watch companion app would provide some details as to what accessibility features the device will have, our testing has found that many of the settings (including where one would presumably find accessibility features) are not available without an Apple Watch being paired to the phone. We did note, however, that in the screen to pair the watch with an iPhone, the accessibility hint for the viewfinder image in the pairing screen directs VoiceOver users to "double tap the 'Pair Apple Watch Manually' button for an accessible alternative" to pairing the watch using the iPhone camera's viewfinder.

At this point, this is all we know about possible accessibility features of Apple Watch. As more information emerges in the coming weeks, we will update this post accordingly.



Submitted by Toonhead on Monday, March 9, 2015

I'm not one of these guys who gets all butt hurt if Apple doesn't mention accessibility in its products, but I do think it would be nice if they did mention it, at least in passing. All Tim Cook would have to say is something along the lines of, "and this new Apple product contains the same accessibility features that our blind and low vision users have come to expect. I don't think that'd be too bad.

Submitted by Cristobalm on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

All the bells and whistles sound nice, but if there isn't a tactile means of telling the time, then it's going to be a talking watch. We all know how much of a buzz kill that can quickly become. Especially if you prize or need discretion. Something so simple and yet essential to an accessible watch. I don't see myself walking around with two time pieces either. I.E. an Apple Watch and a separate Braille watch just for telling the time.

Submitted by Tree on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

First I want to say that I think the Apple vis team has done the right thing by finally talking about the above leaks. I understand why they felt it necessary to avoid the topic up to this point, but I'm very glad that we can talk about it in the open now.

I have been hopeful that the watch would include voice over, based primarily on the first nine to five mac article listed, and I am inclined to still believe that it will. But the above mentioned, tim cook article actually gives me pause, even though I do think it could be read as a positive clue. The reason for this worry is actually not in the part of the quote that the apple vis team posted, so I shall include the entire quote hear, just for the sake of thoroughness, and because its a pretty rambling statement from cook, in which context helps.

Yes is the short answer. In every product we do, we want it to be accessible for everyone. This is not something that we sit around and figure out what the ROI is. I can give a rats what the ROI is. It’s one of those things that goes in the just and right column. So we want all of our products to be accessible. In the point that you we are on, I think we need to raise the awareness of accessibility, and I’ve asked Lisa Jackson to work on this. She’s done a great job on the environmental impact, and I tend to think we can do the same thing with accessibility and create an even better environment than what other companies do. The Watch will start with doing some things, but it will become better at more things over time. You can make a call from the Watch… You can interface with Siri. Siri with this point comes back in a textual mode, but we’d like to do something different with that over time. But it’s cool for all of us, but I think it is going to be profound for some people. More on this.

As I said, I think that this is mostly a positive clue that the watch will have voice over, but I worry about the line,

"You can interface with Siri. Siri with this point comes back in a textual mode, but we’d like to do something different with that"

The main reason that I worry a bit about this is that cook seems to be referring to the fact that siri does not talk on the apple watch. Siri's silence has been seen by many as an indicator that the watch might not have voice over, and they might have a point.

The key question for me is, why would cook have brought up siri's silence when talking about accessibility? I believe that there are two possible reasons for this. The first is that the watch will not have voice over for the same reason that siri does not speak. The other possible reason, in my mind, is that the watch will have voice over and the experience of using it with siri will be like it was on the phone before iOS seven. If you remember, before iOS seven siri did not talk if you had voice over turned on. Instead voice over would simply read back the responses of siri. however, if this latter option is, in fact, what cook meant, then I am not as sure why talking about siri was applicable to the question of accessibility on the watch.

Of course it seems to me that there is a good chance that siri's silence and the possibility that the watch has voice over, are totally unrelated. I believe that siri does not talk, because most sited people would not want there watches to talk back. After all, we know that you can make phone calls on the watch, so it seems as though the speaker must be passable. Also we believe that the processor is as powerful as an iPod touche's processer, so that would be powerful enough to run voice over. So, on the surface, it seems as though there is no reason the watch couldn't run voice over, but once again, we are left with the question, why did cook seem to think that siri's silence is applicable to the accessibility of the watch?

I do hope that the watch will have voice over, and I believe that with the info that the apple vis team mentioned we have more reason to think it will, then it won't. What is more, I think it would actually be a better experience if siri's responses are simply read back by voice over, since in my opinion that worked better on the phone; all of the issues that we have with siri did not really happen when voice over did the reading. Any way I would appreciate hearing other people's take on the clues we have, and perhaps, this long winded ramble. I do very much hope we find out something before april tenth.

Submitted by Ekaj on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

While I don't see myself getting a second watch in the foreseeable future, I thought today's event was enlightening. I was honestly rather taken aback when Siri didn't speak during the demonstration of the Apple Watch. Granted I have never used Siri and I only got a brief look at it a few years back at my volunteer job. But I guess I didn't realize Siri and the iOs version of VoiceOver were separate. Having said that though, all this talk of accessibility on this watch is a good sign even if it is only marginal accessibility to start with.

Submitted by Ernesto melendez on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

As i said in the subject, siri does talk, inn the event, when he asked siri about the wether for the rest of the week, you could barily hear siri talking on really low volume

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I think another thing to consider is the longevity of the battery with VO enabled. From my understanding, and talking to other sighted users of the iPhone the battery is reduced with VO on by comparison. Would you want a device that lasts only 12 hours? Maybe it has the power saving mode for telling the time but I very much doubt that voiceover would work for that feature.

Personally, I'd like to wait for the second iteration, presumably next year where, again an assumption, a video camera will be added for FaceTime, how cool? Better battery but there are also the accessibility possibilities of a wrist proximity sensor that can vibrate similar to a device which is currently available.

I'd love to have a cool watch like my friends but, to be honest, I don't think we'd really be getting much from a watch as it still takes a lot of interaction compared with a sighted user. May as well get our phone out.

That's my take anyway.

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Standard response from apple just now saying that all listed features are on their site and they cannot comment on accessibility features... Sneaks.

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When he does his first example with 'hey siri' you can hear the siri ping where she stops listening, but that's all I can hear. It's not near the mic anyway I'm guessing. But, if it could talk, don't you think they would have shown that as a feature?

Submitted by sockhopsinger on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Perhaps they did and the mic that was covering the show wasn't close to the watchface. Being totally blind, I can neither confirm nor deny this; however, I am offering it as a possibility.

Submitted by Tree on Tuesday, March 10, 2015

As far as Siri we don't have to strain our ears to try and hear her. Simply find any apple documentation, or person who has experienced the watch first hand, that says Siri talks and I will believe it. I have read countless people that says she does not talk; Tim Cook himself said,

"Siri comes back in a textual manner."

Textual manner does not sound like an audio reply. I have listened to many hands on demos of the watch that include the use of Siri, and she does not talk on any of them. Since, in my opinion, there is strong reason to believe that Siri does not talk I am going to believe that until someone els proves otherwise.

It really doesn't matter either way; I believe that sited people don't want Siri to talk back on their watches, and voice over users will just have voice over read Siri's responses.

As far as battery life, I agree that the use of voice over decreases battery life, however, this will not be a problem if the watch has a screen curtain, or if the brightness can be turned all the way down. I have been doing test on my iPhone and the difference in battery life with the screen on is amazing. If we can use voice over with the screen off I believe we will get better battery life on the watch then anyone els.

Submitted by Oliver Kennett on Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Fair point, however the voice is going to take the same power while the screen, being that much smaller will require a great deal less anyway, so even screen curtain probably won't make that much of a difference, but eh, who knows until it comes out.

I was laughing at the fact that someone in the UK can buy the highest price apple watch here, or fly over to the states, business class, buy the watch there and still have change. What a joke. Even the lower end watches we're being charged about a $100 premium. Sorry, to have an off topic rant.

Submitted by Justin on Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Also, one thing that nobody mentioned is this is not the latest production of the watch. We still have a month or so until they start shipping the watch. Changes can happen in that time, so I'm waiting to hear about access solutions to the watch when it comes out in april. VO might be implemented yet, or it might not. These are leaks only, so I'm not holdin' my breath yet!
TC all.

Submitted by Tree on Thursday, March 12, 2015

I think that is a very good point Justin; I would not be surprised if they still had some finishing touches to work out on the watch. Accessibility might very well be one of those final things they are working on, and in that case it would make since that they can't talk about it yet.

I Just want to make it clear that I do think the watch will be accessible and I was not trying to be negative with my previous posts. I just wanted to express some of my thoughts on the matter and point out that nothing is for sure yet.

I received a very nice and thoughtful email from Apple accessibility that did not answer any questions about the watch's accessibility, which is not surprising.

At the very least I will be in my local Apple store the day that the watch is available to play with. ,

Submitted by Tree on Friday, March 13, 2015

hey everyone, it looks like we have very good news.

Nine to five mac just posted an article about the settings in the official 8.2 iPhone watch companion app.

These settings are hidden by default until you connect an apple watch to the phone, but some developers have been able to gain access to them. It looks like all of the features that Nine to five mac leaked are still in this official version of the app.

The only thing is, the article is mainly a bunch of screen shots of the app, so I am not yet certain that accessibility features are still included. I replied to Mark Gurman on twitter asking about voice over, and I also pasted a question in the comments for the article so I will update everyone as soon as I hear something.

Submitted by Bingo Little on Sunday, March 15, 2015

The post above that made the point about tactile ways to tell the time was right on the money. I've always found talking watches in a professional setting, or an exam or something of that sort, to be rather antisocial. In fact in many public examinations these days such as degrees and professional qualifications they are banned, and hurrah for that. Having read all they can do with the taps and what have you, I would have thought some sort of tactile feedback as to the time would not be impossible. Tissot did this of course with their Silen-T watch a few years ago, and the tactile feedback meant for a while that it was more popular with sighted people than with blind people, as sighted people had a means of telling the time in the dark! I am very keen on the features of this watch, contrary to how I initially thought I would feel about it, but I can't see myself being a two watches person. I would feel rather daft.

Submitted by KE7ZUM on Monday, March 16, 2015

Maybe we could suggest a vibration or something. Or an app that if you know it will vibrate the time in CW (Morse code) for you, or both. Regular numbers and cw. Since I can't ware watches I don't think I'll be buying one unless they can have me test it to see if the electrical imbalance can be shielded against and watches on my wrist can last more then 3 months without going glitchy and dying.

Well, as I say a silent way of knowing what the time is would sell this watch for me. I'm no computer scientist and what creative skill I have lies somewhere other than this field, but I'm sure something could be thought of to make telling the time in a tactile way on these watches possible. In fact I am going to write to Apple Accessibility in case they have not already thought of this as important, and to save poor unfortunates who have exams to take this June and July from the bane of talking watches.

The other features really do look good. I particularly like the idea of Passbook on there. I have used it on the iPhone before with boarding passes but they're not always straightforward to scan without help. My instinct is that doing this with an Apple watch will be easier.

Submitted by Justin on Monday, March 16, 2015

Truly the thing I like about the watch is the nfc chip for apple pay. I won't be getting a new phone till the new one comes out in the fall, so I currently haven't taken advantage of the payment system yet, but if I do purchase a the apple watch, then using this would be very beneficial and secure.

Submitted by Eric Davis on Thursday, April 2, 2015

Yes I have to agree. Apple pay is probably the most important feature for me. Passbook is a close second. I am sure that if I get one that statement may change, but you know how that goes.