Apple Watch at the Movies

Since the Apple Watch release is getting near, and since I’ve never used one or seen one in person, let’s speculate what it will be like to use one in everyday life, as is tradition.

I wonder what it will be like to wear an Apple Watch at the movies. This is, I realize, a controversial subject. Especially here in Austin:

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The accepted rule is: no talking or texting at the movies. In 2015 that’s not likely to change. My phone remains pretty much in my pocket for the duration of any film I see in the theater.1 I say “pretty much” because there are exceptions to keeping the phone out of sight, out of mind.

I don’t turn my phone completely off. I recognize that I could, but the fact is that there are things in this world that might be more important than the movie I’m in. I don’t think any notification that has gone off on my phone during a movie has ever more important than the movie itself, but when that day comes, do I really want to miss it? I’m talking about the big deal stuff: life and, more likely, death. I ignore the tiny buzzing in my pocket just fine.

Now, the exception to keeping my phone in my pocket is simple: if I ever get the dreaded double call, the phone will come partway, though never above the waist, out of my pocket to see who’s calling. If it’s nothing, it slips away out of sight. If it’s something then I spring into action out in the hallway. My loved ones know (as all loved ones really should) that the double call is reserved for emergencies only.2 I suppose I’d make a similar exception for something like ten texts in a row.

So how does this all play out if you have an Apple Watch?

An open question (for me, at least) is how the watch’s screen works in tandem with the “Taptic Engine,” the little actuator inside that “taps you on the wrist.” Up until now, notifications have come in through vibrations in our phones. These vibrations are often audible, as when a phone on silent vibrates on a table. Anyone nearby will notice it is vibrating. The taps on the Apple Watch, by all accounts, can only be felt by the wearer. Those nearby will not hear or feel anything. My question is what does the screen do when a notification comes in. Here’s how Apple describes getting text messages on their “New Ways to Connect” page:

You’ll know right away when someone sends you a message, because a notification appears front and center on Apple Watch. Hold up your wrist to read the message, or lower your arm to dismiss it.

If I had to guess, I would say that, just like with iPhone, a notification will light up the screen, but it’s unclear. Here’s how I’d like it to happen:

  • A message comes in
  • Your Apple Watch taps your wrist but the screen doesn’t turn on
  • Raise your wrist and the screen comes on to show you who sent you the text
  • Lower your wrist and it’s gone and silent

That would be ideal for movie theater use so long as the screen is automatically dimmed to the lowest setting. Even at its brightest, I have trouble believing a 312 x 390 (for the 42mm model) screen will be that annoying in a movie. Will it be any more annoying than an Indiglo® or similar watch?

I just really hope that the screen doesn’t light up for every notification. Even if it does, though, Apple does seem to have made it very simple to get rid of them. If lifting the wrist and lowering it seems like too much work (in a movie, I think it is) then the way Apple describes dismissing a phone call is even easier:

To mute an incoming call, just cover Apple Watch with your hand.

Maybe all notifications could be silenced this way.

Now, to move into controversial movie theater etiquette: what about responding? If you raise your wrist and see a message that requires some kind of response, you’re two taps away from sending your location. As in: “I’m at the movies, don’t bother me.” You’re also two taps away from a pre-filled response. We’ll see what it’s like, but I’m betting these quick interactions won’t be noticeable to other movie-goers.

And then there’s the “Digital Touch” functionality Apple is touting. If a friend or loved one has an Apple Watch, they could send you some taps, a sketch or their heartbeat. You, in turn, could send a few taps back and be on your way. I see the following becoming very commonplace:

  • My girlfriend sends me two taps, indicating “Where are you?”3
  • I send three back, indicating “Can’t talk now,” which, if you know me, means “I’m in a movie.”

Conversation over.

Again this seems like it will be almost unnoticeable to other moviegoers. Better yet, this seems like it will be fast enough to barely be noticeable to the wearer. Here’s an animation of Digital Touch taps in action.4

The Digital Touch

Now, keep that image in mind, and then consider this explanation from Craig Hockenberry of how the watch’s AMOLED display works:

And from what we’ve seen so far of the watch, that black is really really black. We’ve become accustomed to blacks on LCD displays that aren’t really dark: that’s because the crystals that are blocking light let a small amount pass through. Total darkness lets the edgeless illusion work.

I suspect that any time black is displayed on Apple Watch, it will be as if the screen isn’t illuminated at all. With Digital Touch, there is so little that will actually emanate light. So in a setting like a darkened room where everyone expects silence, Digital Touch interactions may fly well below the radar.

So in a movie theater I would think of Apple Watch as, well, a watch. If, for example, someone actuates a light up screen on an analog watch and leaves it on for more than a few seconds, that will become annoying fast. The same goes for Apple Watch. Quick interactions will likely go unnoticed by engrossed moviegoers. Anything more is rude.

I don’t see theaters instituting a serious “no Apple Watching” policy. I’m guessing that as they first come out reactions will visceral and negative. For whatever reason (probably the price, probably because it’s Apple), there is a presumption of douchebaggery for people wearing Apple Watches. I think that will quickly fade. As someone who owned the original iPhone which came into the world with the same “Who would spend $600 on a phone” incredulousness, I predict that that noise will move to the background right quick.

The (supposed, remember I’ve never seen or used one) intimacy and simplicity of using Apple Watch at the movies removes most of the problems smartphones have introduced at the theater. I think going to the movies in our hyperconnected world will become easier, not harder, with Apple Watch. But that’s me.

  1. Since I frequent the Alamo Drafthouse (see above video) I of course live in fear they make take my ass out otherwise. ↩︎

  2. I learned this the hard way in college when I double called a roommate at work to ask something dumb, like where’s the detergent. ↩︎

  3. Both parties would have to come to an agreement on what different taps mean, which I think would happen organically over time. ↩︎

  4. Note that these are pulled from the video featured at the September 2014 event. The interface has since been updated, as seen on Apple’s “New Ways to Connect” page, but for my purposes here, this inital design is close enough to what is shipping later this month. ↩︎