The Apple Watch 8 has its own hidden version of Double Tap, but there are differences

 Apple Watch Series 9 Double Tap.
Apple Watch Series 9 Double Tap.

One of the Apple Watch 9's most intriguing new features is Double Tap, which enables you to interact with the smartwatch without touching (or speaking to it). I tried Double Tap, and I liked it. However, some have pointed out that Apple Watch gesture controls are not new.

They're not wrong, but they're also not entirely correct.

As a reminder, Double Tap capabilities are powered by the Apple Watch Series 9's (and Apple Watch Ultra 2's) new S9 SiP (system in a package), or, more specifically, the Neural Engine on that chip. The Cupertino tech giant unveiled the new smartwatches, and Double Tap, during its 'Wonderlust' Event on September 12, and says the gesture control "requires" S9-specific improvements that include power efficiency, latency, accuracy, and the ability to process machine learning tasks faster.

In practice, all I had to do was raise my hand and double-tap my thumb and index finger to enable things like answering and ending calls and tapping through tasks. What impressed me the most was how it just worked, without any other intervention.

While the S9 chip is new, though, this concept is clearly not. In 2021, Apple unveiled a new collection of accessibility technologies including 'AssistiveTouch for Apple Watch.' Here's how Apple described it (I've added boldface for emphasis):

AssistiveTouch for watchOS allows users with upper body limb differences to enjoy the benefits of Apple Watch without ever having to touch the display or controls. Using built-in motion sensors like the gyroscope and accelerometer, along with the optical heart rate sensor and on-device machine learning, Apple Watch can detect subtle differences in muscle movement and tendon activity, which lets users navigate a cursor on the display through a series of hand gestures, like a pinch or a clench. AssistiveTouch on Apple Watch enables customers who have limb differences to more easily answer incoming calls, control an onscreen motion pointer, and access Notification Center, Control Center, and more.

Based on when Apple announced these features, we can assume that Apple started supporting these capabilities on the Apple Watch 6, which was released in 2020. This means that every Apple Watch through the Apple Watch 8 probably supports AssistiveTouch.

When I checked my Watch app on an iPhone still running iOS 16 (and an Apple Watch running watchOS 9), I found AssistiveTouch buried under Accessibility. It has a relatively extensive set of Hand Gesture controls, including Pinch, Double Pinch, Clench, and Double Clench. Double Tap, though, is noticeably absent. You can configure each control, and even set up an Activation Gesture, which would launch the AssistiveTouch capabilities.

Even though I enabled AssistiveTouch, I struggled to get it to work. I tried a variety of gestures, and also turned off an Activation Gesture for the features, meaning I would not have to perform one specific gesture to turn on AssistiveTouch capabilities. At one point, a message popped up on my iPhone 14 Pro asking if I wanted to enable AssistiveTouch, but the Watch app crashed before I could tap it.

Apple Watch AssistiveTouch settings
Apple Watch AssistiveTouch settings

In the end, I never got AssistiveTouch to work on Apple Watch 8. This is in stark contrast to Double Tap, which simply works.

AssistiveTouch controls remain in iOS 17 and, for all I know, they now work better with the Apple Watch 9 and its new S9 chip. Apple is not commenting on this, but what we do know is that AssistiveTouch is still different from Double Tap in that it's designed to be a comprehensive Apple Watch navigation system. This makes sense, since the differently-abled might need to use more than just the casual and occasional gesture when their other hand is occupied. For them, this may be the only way they can interact with the best Apple Watch.

Apple has a long and laudable history of effective assistive features across its product lines. I'm not entirely sure why Apple didn't mention or remind us that it had assistive Apple Watch features in the past when it unveiled the Watch 9 and Double Tap.

To set the record straight. Double Tap and AssistiveTouch share some similarities, but while AssistiveTouch runs on all Apple Watches since the Watch 6, DoubleTap only runs on the Apple Watch 9 (and Ultra 2), courtesy of the new S9 SiP.

Hope this clears things up.

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