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August 13, 2020
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Apple Watch’s planned handwashing reminder feature? I don’t trust it

When Apple rolled out its planned changes for iOS 14 and its companion WatchOS 7– both are expected to be available for download in mid-September – it included a variety of interesting tweaks. Two stood out as especially interesting: a COVID-friendly Watch handwashing app and an enterprise-IT-friendly facial recognition app for video cameras and doorbells.

The more straight-forward effort is positioned as a consumer feature, where video camera and doorbell apps within iOS will be able to identify visitors by name if they happen to appear within a user’s photo library. It sounds rather cool for a consumer app, but I’m not sure how valuable it is. My doorbell app, for example, instantly shows me live video of the person at the door, so I can have a realtime conversation with whoever is there.

If it’s someone I know, I will recognize the face and won’t likely be helped by the phone saying “Your wife is at the door.” (If I can’t recognize my wife but my phone can, I’m likely to be in serious trouble.)

That said, from an enterprise perspective, this looks more compelling. What if building security places a photo of every employee into a centralized image database, and makes it available to selected partners and contractors and customers? Then, when someone tries to buzz into the building, the security guard on duty (who might easily be a third-party employee) could see “Employee Smith is at the door” or “Customer Jones” or “Contractor Agarwal.” It might be a low-cost way of adding facial recognition to authenticating people trying to get into the building. This might be especially helpful for brand-new employees.

As with any other authentication database, it would need top-level security since it would also be a great way for attackers to gain unauthorized access.

While that one has definite potential, one that has me more worried is Apple’s new handwashing helper. Here is how Apple describes it:

“Using its motion sensors and microphone, Apple Watch automatically detects handwashing and starts a 20‑second timer. If your watch detects that you’ve stopped washing your hands early, it will encourage you to continue for the full 20 seconds. Apple Watch can remind you to wash your hands when you get home.”

I’ve tracked Apple for many years and I would be more encouraged by this handwash effort – which seems like an excellent idea – if Apple’s history wasn’t littered with similarly clever efforts that didn’t translate well to the real world. Consider the much-publicized Apple Watch effort to deliver fall detection.

I loved the idea, until I started regularly using the watch during workouts. The watch would repeatedly “detect” a fall when something I did suggested a fall. It was typically in the middle of an exercise. And when I heard it, I wasn’t allowed to ignore it. Why? Because the app would start a few-second countdown and if I didn’t click “I didn’t fall” quickly enough, it threatened to call emergency authorities. This would happen four or five days during a workout. (By the way, when I tripped and fell down the stairs? You guessed it. It detected nothing.)

Then there’s stair detection. The Health app counts how many times the user goes up and down stairs. Or at least it claims to do so. Great, I thought. I happen to work in an office in the basement and given that everything else in the house is upstairs, I am repeatedly going up and down the stairs. One day I chose to count and I went up or down the stairs 38 times. The Apple Watch’s count? Four.

Given the slowly rising altitude and multi-inch moving forward with every step, it should be easy to count. Not for Apple, apparently.

What could possibly go wrong with a hand-washing app? Nothing serious, but it could certainly prove annoying. It uses motion sensors and microphone. In theory, it listens for running water and a specific hand motion. What if it hears someone else running water and the user happens to do something similar, such as reaching out for a coffee cup? How does it conclude the hand-washing has ended? What if a user (as is my habit) turns on the water to wet hands and then turns it off before adding soap and washing, only turning it on again at the end to rinse off the soap?

Heck, if the watch struggles with counting stair steps, it seems that wash-detection may prove challenging. The last capability flagged (“Apple Watch can remind you to wash your hands when you get home.”) seems more promising as it should be able to detect returning home. That’s a simple location detection.

I’m hopeful that Apple beats my expectations, not optimistic, but hopeful.

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