The Apple Watch may have struggled to take any radical leaps forward in its past few generations, but a potentially significant upgrade could soon be on the cards – smart straps that can talk to the Watch and trigger new modes.
Right now, Apple Watch straps are dumb and simply slide into the smartwatch for new looks. But as spotted by Patently Apple, Apple has just been granted a new patent that would see NFC-connected bands that are able to connect to a new NFC module in the Apple Watch's body.
But why? One of the main use cases hinted at by the patent is a useful, if relatively minor, new feature. The new connectivity between the Apple Watch and these smart straps could see it automatically change modes when you switch bands – for example, changing the watch face or opening a particular app.
This could be handy if you have a few different straps for different activities. For example, connect a fitness band and the Apple Watch could switch to fitness mode, while a waterproof band would trigger swimming-friendly features like turning on the Water Lock mode.
While that sounds like a potentially neat trick, it also wouldn't be ground-breaking. But the patent doesn't stop there – it also discusses extra features for these next-gen bands, including the integration of health-focused sensors. And it's here where the concept of smart Apple Watch bands could help boost its standing among the best smartwatches.
The sensors that the patent discusses also include ones related to biometric, gesture, and environmental sensing, so there would certainly be potential for smart straps to go beyond simply triggering new Apple Watch states and into areas like security and health.
Of course, this is just a granted patent at this stage, and plenty of those don't see the light of day in Apple products. But it is part of a growing number of Apple Watch strap-related patents that we've seen lately, including one relating to smart fabrics that show exactly how health sensors could be integrated, while others have detailed Apple's plans for separate blood pressure monitoring devices.
Analysis: A gateway to more exciting features
We don't yet know if or when Apple might introduce smart straps to its smartwatch – and the concept is likely a little too far off to make it into the Apple Watch 9, which is expected to land in September.
But these patents and Apple's increasing moves into the health space suggest it is a likely candidate for the next big Apple Watch feature. The holy grail of blood glucose monitoring, which Apple has reportedly made big breakthroughs towards lately, is still many years away. The development of NFC connectivity between the Watch and new straps could be a step towards other health features, though.
This could initially arrive in the form of bands that simply change your Apple Watch's UI, depending on the type of strap you've connected. While that sounds like a neat trick, it'd only really be useful for those who regularly change their Watch bands – and that certainly doesn't include all Apple Watch owners. The new smart straps would also likely be pricier than the best Apple Watch bands of today (Hermès ones aside).
That means the prospect of NFC-connected straps that include sensors like the ones described in Apple's smart fabrics patent, which include heart-rate sensors, blood oxygen sensors, displays, and even speakers, is a more exciting one. We may only get the NFC connectivity to start with, but these patents show there's still plenty of potential for Apple Watch innovation – even if our Apple Watch 8 review called it the "most iterative update yet".
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Mark is TechRadar's Senior news editor. Having worked in tech journalism for a ludicrous 17 years, Mark is now attempting to break the world record for the number of camera bags hoarded by one person. He was previously Cameras Editor at both TechRadar and Trusted Reviews, Acting editor on Stuff.tv, as well as Features editor and Reviews editor on Stuff magazine. As a freelancer, he's contributed to titles including The Sunday Times, FourFourTwo and Arena. And in a former life, he also won The Daily Telegraph's Young Sportswriter of the Year. But that was before he discovered the strange joys of getting up at 4am for a photo shoot in London's Square Mile.