Complications Lead to Time Travel

Jan 9, 2016 · 4 min read

You can customize your Apple Watch to fit the way you want to use it. For example, here’s my watch face in a layout I created:

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In traditional watch parlance, anything displayed on the watch face other than the time is a “complication.” Along with the time, at a glance I can see five complications:

  • Today’s day and date
  • My current or next scheduled activity or appointment
  • The temperature in Fahrenheit (current location outdoors)
  • An alarm I had set (for 11:30 am)
  • The current price of a stock (Apple)

That’s a lot of information! And the best part is that it’s all current, and will continually update as I go through my day. I can check all of these tasks and topics simply by lifting my hand and “glancing” at my Watch.

To provide all this information at a glance requires a lot of data queries and transfers between the Watch and iPhone. Doing so in real time is simply not possible, at least with the current hardware and software. It’s too much information to keep absolutely synchronized, so Apple had to devise a way to update whatever you are showing in your complications.

How did they do that?

The answer is: Timelines. In the Watch OS 2.0 release, Apple included a technology for developers that lets apps look ahead in the user’s data, then store that upcoming information in a timeline. The timeline is updated in the background as quickly as resources allow; but it doesn’t have to be in real time. And then it’s stored for use whenever the user wants to know what is coming up.

So when you lift your Watch to glance at your complications, voilà! Your events, news and weather information are all current because they have been updated already. It provides the assurance that what you are seeing is in fact current information.

But there’s more to Timelines.

Apple Watch also provides a feature called Time Travel. By turning the Digital Crown, you can advance into the future to see upcoming events:

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With Time Travel, you can quickly see upcoming events and activities, without having to open an individual app. It’s a quick look at the future, without the details.

Notice that when Time Travel is on, some complications are blanked out: for example, no stock price, since those things are not yet known. Alarms are also blanked out since the time is not current. But the weather is shown since that is likely provided by the online service behind the app.

When you are ready to return to the present, click the Digital Crown and you are back to Now.

And Time Travel also works in reverse: you can look back in time to see where you were, or perhaps where you “should” have been, or what you have done:

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Notice that the stock price information also works backwards; I assume because the app developer chose to store that information in a Timeline. This can be just as handy as looking into the future. Each hour, the data is updated as you progress forwards or backwards in time.

It appears that Time Travel is made possible by Timelines, since that is the information that Time Travel displays. It seems that Apple engineers realized that the timeline offers useful information, not simply for quickly displaying the *current* data in complications, but for events and activities that are upcoming in your day or week.

What this reveals to me is that technology advances in fits and starts. When creating an entirely new category of technology, Apple encountered problems that needed to be solved so users could easily take advantage of the new device. In the process, they also discovered — stumbled upon, realized, or otherwise intended — a feature that perhaps no one had previously considered. It’s one of many small but meaningful wonders that comes from invention and discovery.

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