Workaround Enables Some Accessibility Features on Apple Watch Demo Units with Just One Command


Last week, I wrote an article detailing how the Apple Store table-top demo Apple Watches would not allow customers to enable accessibility features. While Apple is still working on implementing an official solution to this problem, a new workaround allows for many accessibility features to be enabled right now.

Yesterday, Darcy Burnard tweeted that VoiceOver could be enabled on demo units at the Apple Store by asking Siri to "Turn on VoiceOver". I have since confirmed that other accessibility features, such as zoom, can be enabled in a similar manner, though I will focus on VoiceOver for the remainder of this post.

When VoiceOver is enabled on the Apple Watch demo units, hereafter referred to solely as the Apple Watch(es), one can try out the screen access technology, with some caveats that I will discuss in later sections.

Updates to This Article

I will continue to work with the Apple Watch throughout the coming weeks and will update this article as more information becomes available about enabling accessibility features on the demonstration units.

Overview of Physical Controls

Besides the touchscreen, Apple Watch features two physical controls, the "Digital Crown" and the "Communication Button". The "Digital Crown" is a round button found on the top left corner of the Apple Watch when the buttons face away from you. It can be either turned or pressed, performing different actions accordingly. To the right of the "Digital Crown" is the "Communication Button", a long, rectangular button similar to the sleep/wake button found on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Enabling Accessibility Features

To enable accessibility features on the Apple Watch, follow the below instructions:

  1. Press and hold the "Digital Crown" for about 3 seconds. This will enable Siri.
  2. Say "Turn on VoiceOver", substituting the name of other accessibility features as desired.
  3. Upon initiating VoiceOver, you may find that you cannot leave the settings app by quickly pressing the "Digital Crown". If this happens, follow the steps in the "Getting Unstuck" section to resolve the issue.

Don't Forget, Be Courteous

Remember to be courteous and disable any accessibility features before walking away from the Apple Watch. This will ensure that customers and store employees will not have to figure out how to turn them off before enjoying or demonstrating the device. I have seen far too many people enable accessibility features on demo Apple products and leave without turning them off. As someone who has worked in Apple resale and seen this first-hand, it is frustrating when this simple action is not observed. Accessibility features are there for us to use, so that we can have a great customer experience. We should remember to do our part to leave the device in a state that can provide a great experience for those who come after us.

How the Watch Works

VoiceOver on the Apple Watch works with a subset of the gestures found on the Mac and iOS, but it also adds some new ones. I'll list the ones I was able to discover here:

  • One finger double tap: Activate an item
  • One finger triple tap: Describes the item in the VoiceOver cursor
  • One finger flick left: Moves the VoiceOver cursor to the previous item
  • One finger flick right: Moves the VoiceOver cursor to the next item
  • One finger flick up: Increases the value of a slider or cycles through an item's actions
  • One finger flick down: Decreases the value of a slider or cycles through an item's actions
  • Two finger triple tap: Enable or disable "Crown Navigation" (Discussed later)
  • One finger flick up: Scrolls the screen down by one screen's worth
  • One finger flick down: Scrolls the screen up by one screen's worth
  • Force Touch: Brings up a list of actions relevant to an item, similar to the contextual menu on Mac OS X

The buttons on the Apple Watch behave as follows:

  • Single press of the "Digital Crown": Takes one to the home screen
  • Single press and hold of the "Digital Crown": Enables Siri
  • Single press of the "Communication Button": Brings up a list of contacts, enabling quick interactions
  • Turning the crown: If on a slider with "Crown Navigation" disabled, this action increases or decreases the value. Fore example, in the Music app, this can be used to lower and raise the volume of music. If "Crown Navigation" is enabled, turning the crown moves forwards or backwards through the items on-screen, similar to the click-wheel navigation on older iPod nanos.

Getting Unstuck

As I tested the Apple Watch, I noticed that occasionally buttons would not work as expected. Among other issues, I noticed that entering apps, such as the Camera app, would cause the watch to stop responding to single presses of the "Digital Crown", resulting in an inability to leave the app and return to the home screen.

I discovered that the fix to most problems with the Apple Watches seems to be to reset them. If you find that the Apple Watch is not working as expected, follow these steps:

  1. Press and hold the "Digital Crown" and the "Communication Button" down for about 30 seconds. This will power down the Apple Watch.
  2. Release both buttons and wait for 1 minute.
  3. Press the "Communication Button" once and wait for the watch to restart.

Important note: During testing the above actions caused the Apple Watch to disconnect itself from the store's Wi-Fi network, rendering Siri unusable. Siri is the only way to currently disable VoiceOver on the Apple Watch's demo units. I am exploring a workaround for this issue and will update this post if I find that it works.

The Background Noise Problem

When testing out the Apple Watch, I noticed that the background noise in the store made it very difficult to hear VoiceOver. The staff at my local Apple Store (Guildford Town Centre) were quite understanding of this and turned down the music in the store while I played with the device.

I advise going into the Apple Store in the morning, when the stores are at their quietest. Many stores offer workshops or 1 on 1 sessions during the hour or two before the times listed on their official store hours. Check in with your local Apple Store team to request permission to come in and play with a watch during this time.. 

If requesting entry to an Apple Store before sales hours have begun, you may need to demonstrate that accessibility features can indeed be enabled via this workaround, as many employees have already been notified that it is not yet officially possible to enable them.

In Conclusion

As exciting as it is to be able to try out an Apple Watch, remember that the above steps are just a workaround and that bugs are to be expected. Apple is still working on implementing its official solution to address the inaccessibility of the Apple Watch demo units and this should be available at most Apple Stores within the week.

"The Apple Watch is coming", as Apple says on its website (4). This new device is going to be huge for accessibility, and I look forward to covering it as it rolls out to customers worldwide.

As always, questions and comments can be submitted below or on Twitter.

Happy Apple Watching!