Last week Apple applied for yet another patent in the area of cameras and watches, suggesting the company is spending a lot of effort on putting a camera in – or near – the Apple Watch. A camera could bring selfies, FaceTime, and Face ID to the popular smartwatch.
The application (US2030/0091991 A1, since you ask) doesn't specifically mention the Apple Watch, but notes that a problem with integrating cameras into wearables like it is that "due to the large amount of space utilized by the display... cameras or other optical systems incorporated into a wearable electronic device may interfere with the user's range of motion." In other words, they're saying putting a camera in – well, let's just say it – the Apple Watch might spoil it.
• The best iPhones for photography are still Apple's best camera products
Apple is also very clear about quality expectations. "Low-quality components may not meet a user's quality expectations," and, in different places, it mentions a camera of up to 7MP, and image quality of 12MP and 4K video.
This hasn't been a worry for other companies. The existing Verizon GizmoWatch includes a selfie camera, but it also has a much bigger bezel than Apple's designers would tolerate.
In any case, the new patent refers to a "second circuit assembly" seemingly within a watch housing, so the camera unit (and any extra components for FaceID and the like) would be positioned above the screen. The patent has diagrams that depict a floating camera element inside the case to connect to the main body. Could this mean the watch housing itself is about to be bendy?
We don't think so; we'd say Apple is examining the idea of using flex cable inside a potentially more interestingly-shaped housing, so that the camera doesn't have to be mounted on the main board next to the screen. This seems a very practical solution, especially compared to the last patent we reported on, so perhaps Apple is getting closer to the final design. It would also allow for optical stabilization.
This seems more likely than another of Apple's watch-related patents, which suggested a camera inside the crown and the watch on a raised, rotating platform. Surely Apple wouldn't put a camera where fingers would repeatedly touch the glass… except on the best MacBooks where the lens is exactly where the screen opens up.
Before you reach for your wallet, it's worth remembering that patents give a clue as to what is going on behind closed doors, but not all become products. I remember a lot of talk about the prospect of an Apple Watch 2 with a camera, yet 2016 came and went without one.
That interest, though, clearly has cut through and is growing. So much so, in fact, that another company – WristCam – has beaten Apple to the punch. Its solution is an Apple Watch-compatible band with two cameras (selfie and outward-looking). It is compatible with Apple Watch 3 and later, and definitely proves the concept.
• See our WristCam review
All this smacks of inevitability, but there are reasons why a company might decide not to put a camera in a watch. It's not hard to imagine such tech being used surreptitiously, and Apple might still be smarting from the AirTag backlash. The Bluetooth tracking device is a popular security tool, but has also seen Apple fending off a class-action case about stalking protections. An association with upskirting and stalking will not suit Apple's image, even without a course case ongoing.
My reckoning is that, worries aside, there is an inevitability here. Not only is there a flow of patents, but since the Apple Watch Ultra launched it is clear there is the possibility of more diversity in the Apple Watch range. It'd be great to take pictures without your phone. It's possible the camera could also gather motion data. Whatever the case, we're sure it'll be a higher-cost option (and I can't wait to try it).