How the Apple Watch Is Like a Car

Multiple, interacting input methods work well to control complex machines.

Now that the world has seen the new Apple Watch, we can say one thing for sure: This little device incorporates many, many different inputs. It's shocking, actually. There is a little dial ("the crown"), a button, standard touch gestures, "force" touch gestures, voice, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and algorithmic inputs that allow it to anticipate what you are trying to do in context.

That's pretty remarkable.

This is not really a watch but a wrist-borne, multimodal input machine.

On the other hand, it's easy to start wondering: Is it too much? Does it offer too many affordances to provide for ease of use? Maybe.

But it's worth considering something Intel's Genevieve Bell pointed out to me a couple years ago. She said, why do we think our phones need one single interface—our cars have a crazy mix of inputs, and that seems to work great. Here's how I wrote it up then:

What's fascinating to me is that I think we'll see an "all of the above" approach to user input. It'll be touch screens and gestures and voice and software knowing what we want before we do, and a whole bunch of other stuff. When I interviewed anthropologist and Intel researcher Genevieve Bell, she asked me to think about what it's like to sit in a car. They're 120 years old and yet there are still maybe half a dozen ways of interacting with the machine! There's the steering wheel to direct the wheels, pedals for the gas and break, some kind of gear shifting, a panel for changing interior conditions, and levers for the windshield wipers and turn signals. Much work is even done automatically, so it doesn't need a system like, say, automatic gear shifting. The car is a living testament to the durability of multiple input methods for complex machines.

The machine that the Watch controls, of course, is not the Watch itself, but the information flows and feeds that move through one's computing devices and increasingly "smart" things. Another way to put it: The machine it controls is a human's digital representation.