Apple Watch’s ambient app

Apple announced two significant ambient apps for the Apple Watch this past week, the Fall Detector and Heart Rate monitor. In keeping with the amorphous nature of ambient apps, the word “ambient” never appeared but ambient they are and worth analyzing through that lens. For this post, I’ll focus on on the Fall Detector, though the commentary could apply equally to the Heart Rate Monitor.

This is a next big thing?

In a presentation the Fall Detector was underwhelming– it’s difficult to get excited about people who have fallen and can’t get up. Yet there’s massive value there, which will be clear when an ad one day appears recollecting how the fall detector saved a life. Hidden value is characteristic of many ambient apps because when an ambient app is any good you won’t even be aware of it at all.

As an ambient app

The Fall Detector can be analyzed as a wearable app, a healthcare app. It’s also worth examining the Fall Detector several common elements shared by ambient apps.

  1. Executes an ambient decision cycle
  2. Requires no user awareness or interaction
  3. Transforms a Product → Service → Experience

Executes an ambient decision cycle

The Fall Detector uses advanced sensors to detect a hard fall, determines if you are ok, and if not, sends an emergency call and notifications to people who can help. So it’s definitely an ambient app: it recognizes a need for help, anticipates how to provide that help, and takes action to contact people who can help– all without user awareness or intervention.

Collaboration: an opportunity

In the current app, there’s collaboration with established contacts but none with other devices. It’s possible that in the event of a fall people nearby might notified to serve as good samaritans. They might be other people with the app, the watch, or even other devices in the Apple ecosystem such as the iPhone.

This offers an interesting dynamic. If you wear the watch and engage the app, you automatically become part of a mutual support system. Taking it a step further, the app could also coordinate a response between nearby actors– it could determine who’s best qualified, who’s capable, who’s available, and what further instructions you need to provide real help. This could be a great way for advanced ambient tech to coordinate and foster humanity’s better instincts and take smart wearable tech beyond the narcissistic selfie or FB post. For Apple, it would be another terrific reason to join its ecosystem.

Requires no user awareness

As with other ambient apps, the user interface is not involved in the Fall Detector’s operation– it’s only there for setup and settings. The user is completely unaware of the app’s function until it brings help.

Product → Service → Experience

The Fall Detector app also transforms how a need (help after a fall) is fulfilled (in many instances, help is not provided at all). It shifts the form of need fulfillment from a product or service (e.g. a Life Alert device) to an experience that requires no conscious effort. In the case of a serious fall, a service is engaged on your behalf, yet all you’d know about is the experience of receiving help.

What to watch

With the Fall Detector Apple adds value and revenue streams to the watch in the near-term while continuing its careful steps towards building health care related revenues. From an ambient app perspective, it’s evidence that ambient apps could find early traction in health care applications, where the delivered value is very high and user awareness and intervention may not exist in any current form. It’s also indicative that for decentralized ambient apps, wearables will be a significant platform.  And the Fall Detector hints at a corollary: ambient apps may deliver the consumer value required for wearables to fulfill an early promise and emerge as the next mass consumer device.

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