Apple wants to fit a camera into the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown

Apple may have found the percent place to fit a camera lens into a future Apple Watch model as a new patent filing reveals that the company did toy with the idea of embedding a dedicated camera inside the device’s Digital Crown button.

A black Apple Watch Series 7 is shown resting on its side next to the trackpad on Apple's MacBook Pro notebook in this lifestyle product photo
Image credit: Raagesh C / Unsplash
  • The Digital Crown on all models is on the device’s right side. Putting a camera inside the button itself may have some potentially unpleasant privacy implications. How would you feel being able to take spy images of other people with your watch, without anyone realizing what you’re up to? Thought so.
  • That said, Apple is not in the stalking business so the company would theoretically provide privacy controls for a future Apple Watch camera.
  • Apple files many patents as a defensive strategy, but this doesn’t seem to be one of those cases. That said, there are no guarantees it’ll see the light of day.

An Apple Watch camera within the Digital Crown

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has granted Apple a new patent titled “Watch having a camera.” The move indicates Apple at some point was researching how a tiny camera could be embedded into a future model of the Apple Watch. Among the several proposed solutions is fitting a camera lens within the body of the Digital Crown button, which is located on the device’s right side.

A watch can include a rotatable dial, such as a rotatable crown used for digital inputs. A camera can be included in the assembly to allow for images to be captured through an aperture extending through the dial.

To accomplish that, Apple could use touch-sensitive glass for the Digital Crown’s top. In turn, the camera’s flash would need to be multi-purposed for optical heart rate monitoring. But how precisely would this camera focus on subjects?

A lens can be integrated within the aperture and/or behind the aperture of the dial to focus an image of a scene. An image sensor disposed behind the aperture can further be configured to detect movement of a marking on the dial to allow the image sensor to function both as a camera for capturing pictures of a scene, and as a sensor that detects rotation of the dial for sensing rotational inputs.

Sounds to us like a feasible solution.

But how would you take pictures?

The patent explains how the user would take a picture with such a setup. It proposes turning the watch face into a viewfinder and having a dedicated shutter button. We’re speculating here, but there’d surely be a dedicated camera app that might even let you snap a photo by performing a quick hand gesture, like clenching.

And this, from Apple’s patents description:

Additionally or alternatively, a camera can be implemented as a back-facing camera configured capture pictures through a back side of a watch housing. Although the wrist may occlude the camera from taking pictures of a scene when the watch housing is worn on the wrist, the housing may be removable from the wrist via a release mechanism in the attachment interface, or by removing the housing together with the watch band, to capture pictures with the back-facing camera.

This isn’t the first patent promising an Apple Watch camera.

Back in June of 2019, for example, the Cupertino technology giant was granted a patent that outlines a future Apple Watch band featuring an embedded rotatable camera (actually, a third-party company came up with that before Apple, it’s called Wristcam). And in one of its earlier patents Apple even proposes putting a camera under the Apple Watch display. That one would depend on Apple’s ability to create a sub-panel camera with good picture quality (conveniently, some of next year’s iPhones could also utilize a sub-display selfie camera, rumor has it).

Hmm, what about privacy?

Apple’s proposal seems like one of those design solutions that just feels inevitable. You instantly know that’s the way the thing has always been supposed to work, like seeing the iPhone’s multi-touch in action for the first time in your life. But with great power comes great responsibility, so what about privacy? Having a tiny camera embedded within a smartwatch button would theoretically let bad actors secretly snap up photos of yo (on the other hand, you could say the same thing about smartphone cameras.) Read: How to use theater mode on your Apple Watch

Phone manufacturers such as Apple have solved this by having the device play a shutter sound every time you take a photo (the shutter sound can be silenced with the iPhone’s ring switch, with the exception of some countries due to legal requirements). That’s how Apple could address privacy concerns regarding a camera-enabled watch: Every time you took a photo, the familiar shutter sound would alert folks nearby you might be taking a photograph without them knowing.