The inside story of how Apple cracked its wheelchair mode in watchOS 3

              Apple’s challenge was ensuring the chairs were like the ones used by consumers, and the environment for data collection too had to be closer to real life..

Most modern businesses are chasing volume. Anything niche commands a premium. It is rare for companies to do things just because they had to. But then Apple is not any company.

At WWDC, the Cupertino based tech giant announced that watchOS 3 will be available for Apple Watch users this Fall. There were many improvements on offer, also a whole new wheelchair mode. In that footnote of an announcement Apple kickstarted a whole new segment, for motion or calorie trackers aimed at wheelchair users, which has never been done before.

“Apple has always led on the accessibility features. Even when we were finishing watchOS 1.0, we knew we wanted to do something for wheelchair users. We get a lot of feedback how they love getting messages and notifications on their wrist and we wanted to ensure they also got a first class experience when it came to health and fitness,” Ron Huang, Director of Software Engineering for Location and Motion Technologies, told IndianExpress.com.

At WWDC, the Cupertino based tech giant announced that watchOS 3 will be available for Apple Watch users this Fall.

But it was not an easy journey. “When we started looking at this, we tried to go and see if there were some studies out there or literature on the topic. There were a few studies, but most had really small number of subjects and done inside labs in wheelchairs provided by those conducting the study,” Huang added.

In real life wheelchairs are very different when it comes to wheel width, seat height and the like. Apple’s challenge was ensuring the chairs were like the ones used by consumers, and the environment for data collection too had to be closer to real life and not treadmills where movements don’t correspond to actual pushes.

“We also found that some of the basic principles used to calculate calories don’t convert well for wheelchair users. We had to pretty much start from scratch.”

This is when Apple reached out to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) in San Diego to run studies with help of their members. Established in 1997, CAF supports athletic endeavours of people with physical challenges by providing unparalleled sports opportunities. The partnership gave them the opportunity to correct all the issues with the earlier studies.

So, the volunteers got survey grade GPS on the chairs, rotational sensor on the wheels and accelerometers on their wrists. Plus, they wore masks to measure oxygen intake and calorie burn. No data point could be ignored. While they were already using a variety of wheelchairs, the study was conducted on different surfaces from asphalt to carpet, flat grounds and ramps.

In real life wheelchairs are very different when it comes to wheel width, seat height and the like.

Also, the volunteers were pushing themselves and at times accompanied by walkers, a scenario that slows them down and thus resulting in a different set of data points. The attempt was to capture a complete day in the life of someone who was on a wheelchair.

By the end of the study, Apple had 3,500 hours of data across over 300 subjects and 720 sessions. This was the kind of exhaustive data needed to create a dependable algorithm for the Apple Watch to track wheelchair users well. However, this was just the beginning when it came to creating the Wheelchair Mode for WatchOS 3.

How the Apple Watch measures steps and thus calories burnt was not going to work in this scenario. So they had to figure out how to measure pushes, which like steps is the fundamental element to track energy for wheelchair users. This was tougher as users had different styles and encountered different obstacles as well as generated more false positives.

The team mapped three different styles of pushes — the very efficient semi-circular push, the quicker arc push for uphill or downhill and single loop over which is used for racing — to map energy usage. Then there was the issue of hand gestures that seemed like pushes. So they banked on real life data which showed that while pushing the wrist it would be going towards the ground, while when talking or gesturing it is parallel to the ground or going upward. This helped filter out the false positives.

As the watch uses new algorithm to count calories, it also tells users to move around a bit or spin their chair back and forth from time to time to achieve their activity goals. Instead of the regular Apple Watch “Time to Stand” alerts, there would be a “Time to Roll” alert if users haven’t been moving for a while.

As the watch uses new algorithm to count calories, it also tells users to move around a bit or spin their chair back and forth from time to time to achieve their activity goals.

At this point, Apple roped in Alabama-based Lakeshore Foundation to understand how their large community of diverse wheelchair users went about their daily life. In fact, much before WWDC in June, members of the foundation where secretly testing the new software and its new features. In three weeks, this community also gave insight into fitness levels of users and their injury types, making a crucial difference to the final product.

When the new watchOS version becomes available for users this Fall, they will be able to get the software upgrade on existing Apple Watches too. Users will be able to switch on Wheelchair Mode at the end of the initial set up itself, after which everything else will set up automatically. Also, the new data from the mode will also be added to the Apple HealthKit.

Apple believes this had to be done right because there is no other tracker for people on wheelchairs, who are often prone to diseases brought in by a lack of movement. Jeff Underwood, President & CEO, Lakeshore Foundation says encouraging people with physical disability to exercise is vital to addressing the issue of health disparity.

“Helping to ensure that the Apple Watch is accessible to as many people as possible could have a profound impact for the health and wellbeing of persons who are wheelchair users,” he said.

Dawna Callahan, Director of Programs at CAF is a lifelong wheelchair user. She anticipates this innovation will be incredibly helpful to wheelchair users. “Since we don’t activate our lower limbs, this app will allow us to be more in tune with how our body burns calories and what we need to do to reach particular fitness levels,” she explained.

This feature on the Apple Watch will not have a huge business impact, but it could sure help people on wheelchairs lead a healthier life.

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