Category: Software

Auto Added by WPeMatico

The tech industry’s accessibility report card for 2021

In spite of all the advancements we’ve seen in tech, the industry as a whole has consistently neglected people with disabilities. There have been some improvements, including video call apps like FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and more adding better support for sign language interpreters and closed captioning. And, this year, Instagram and TikTok finally added stickers that enable automated captioning for speech in videos, too. But major organizations continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities. The organizer of E3 2021, for example, failed its deaf and hard of hearing viewers during its live streamed show.

There are too many individual transgressions and improvements to exhaustively detail here. Due to their sheer size, though, tech’s largest companies wield the greatest influence over what the rest of the industry does. By holding them accountable, we have a better chance of seeing widespread change in the way tech thinks about inclusive design. Here’s how Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook) and more did to improve the accessibility of their products and services in 2021.

A blue iPhone 13 Pro Max and a starlight gold iPhone 13 Pro standing with their backs facing the camera.


Apple has led the way in inclusive design for years, and in 2021 the company continued to launch new features that made its products easier for those with disabilities to use. In addition to updating its screen reader, VoiceOver, to enable better descriptions of images for the visually impaired, Apple also launched several new products. In May, it rolled out a service called SignTime, which allowed customers to engage sign language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer service representatives (via their browsers at least). The feature is available in the US, UK and France and supports American, British or French sign languages in their respective countries.

Apple also introduced Assistive Touch for the Watch this year, allowing for touch-free interaction with its wearable. The idea is that users can clench their fists or pinch their fingers together to navigate the smartwatch. In practice, Assistive Touch took some learning, and it still may not be feasible for those who don’t have the dexterity or strength to clench their fists to trigger the “double clench” action. But it’s a start, and one that few other smartwatches offer.

For those with very limited range of motion, this year also saw the launch of the first medically certified eye-controlled iPad by Tobii Dynavox. Called the TD Pilot, it’s a case for iPads as large as the 12.9-inch Pro model and comes with Tobii’s powerful eye-tracking sensor, large speakers, additional batteries and a wheelchair mount. Together with iPadOS 15, this will allow those with cerebral palsy, for example, to interact not only with the tablet, but also communicate with others more easily. A window on the other side of the case can display words to show what the user is saying.

Apple also added improvements for hearing aid users with iPhones this year, allowing for bi-directional communication. This means that those who connect compatible hearing aids to their iPhones no longer have to use their handset’s mic to be heard by their callers — the hearing aid can pick up the speaker’s voice, too. So far, Starkey and ReSound have released compatible “made for iPhone” devices.

On macOS, Apple also made it possible to customize the outline and fill color of the cursor so those with visual impairments can more easily tell when the mouse moves or changes shape. The company also expanded its keyboard shortcuts to allow users to control everything on a Mac with a keyboard (no need for a mouse or trackpad).

Finally, Apple added tools for developers using SwiftUI to make their apps more accessible. With this simplified workflow, there are now fewer obstacles in the way when trying to make more inclusive products.

Unfortunately, when Apple released iOS 15, it removed some features from Siri that were “used by many individuals for accessibility purposes,” according to Clark Rachfal. He’s the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind. Rachfal told Engadget that users “could no longer access their calling history, voicemails, emails and messages through Siri” when the OS was updated. The council and its members alerted Apple of these issues, he said, adding that the company said it’s working on “restoring this functionality to Siri.”

Google Pixel 6 and 6 Pro.


Google continued to add tools for people with disabilities across its broad portfolio of products and services in 2021. One highlight was the launch of Project Relate, an Android app that would generate custom voice recognition models for people with severe speech impairments. Then, the app can transcribe, display and read out what the user said. Project Relate is currently in beta, with Google inviting those with atypical speech to sign up as testers.

The company did plenty to improve its existing products, too. In February, it revamped its Talkback screen reader to offer new gestures and voice commands. In March, it announced that the Chrome browser could transcribe audio from the web for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. That transcription would be performed on-device, meaning you could get your captions without worrying about connecting to the cloud.

Later in the year, Google also added 10 languages to its auto-generated image descriptions tool, brought more natural-sounding voices to the “Select to speak” feature in Chromebooks and made it easier to interact with Android devices using facial expressions.

In addition to improving its existing products, Google also explored accessible experiences that could produce learnings for the industry at large. It teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and The Guardian on Auditorial, which it describes as an experiment in storytelling that “adapts to suit the reader.” It’s a fully customizable experience that Google said will “offer those with visual disabilities an experience that is as comfortable, rich and creative as any other reader.”

According to the company, Auditorial “is intended to pose a question about how much more accessible the world’s information could be, if you could simply tailor every website to suit your personal sensory needs and preferences.” The hope is that this triggers a discussion on how the web could become more inclusive instead of “a one-size-fits-all approach.” Google published its findings in an “Auditorial Accessibility Notebook,” in order to help other publishers learn tips on how to “open up online storytelling to millions of blind and low vision users.”

Google also launched a browser-based game this year called SignTown, which uses your camera to teach you sign language and assess your progress. The game is just “one component of a broader effort to push the boundaries of technology for sign language and Deaf culture.” The company said it’s also exploring building “a more comprehensive dictionary across more sign and written languages, as well as collaborating with the Google Search team on surfacing these results to improve search quality for sign languages.”

Microsoft Surface Adaptive Kit packaging and label.


In 2021, Microsoft surprised us by releasing Windows 11, which it called the “most inclusively designed version of Windows yet.” The new OS brings nicer-looking dark and high contrast themes, plus updated sounds that are more soothing and can be heard by more users. The company also renamed its “Ease of Access” section to “Accessibility” to make assistive tools easier to find. Windows Voice Typing also makes it easier to dictate your messages.

Prior to launching Windows 11, though, Microsoft announced a five-year commitment to “help bridge the ‘Disability Divide’.” It focuses on hiring and educating people with disabilities, as well as building more accessible products. That includes using AI in Word to detect and convert heading styles for blind and low-vision readers, a new navigation pane in Excel for screen readers and expanding Immersive Reader to better convey what’s on PowerPoint slides and notes. It added a new accessibility checker that works in the background and prompts users to fix issues across Microsoft Office apps and Outlook.

The company not only expanded live captioning and transcription capabilities in Teams, but also rolled out support for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) captions, as well as the ability to pin and spotlight multiple presenters. Auto-captioning is also available for LinkedIn Live broadcasts.

To make its hardware easier to use, the company launched a new Surface Adaptive Kit in September. The bundle includes tags, labels, keycaps and more to make PC parts and important buttons more identifiable. Like Apple, Microsoft also added sign language support (specifically ASL) to its Stores to assist deaf shoppers. Unlike Apple, however, Microsoft doesn’t appear to offer this for after-sales support yet.

Microsoft is one of few companies in tech that’s transparent about its efforts to improve training and hiring processes for people with disabilities. It made investments via its Urban Airband initiative “to provide affordable broadband, hardware and software to people with disabilities starting in Los Angeles and New York.” Following a pilot at the University of Illinois, Microsoft said it’s expanding to additional tertiary education institutes to “increase graduation rates of students with disabilities in STEM education.” It’s also working to “create best-in-class Universal Design Learning (UDL) environments in STEM education.”

To connect people with disabilities to employers, Microsoft announced that it’s adding new accessibility resources and features to LinkedIn, including a LinkedIn Learning course focusing on “accessibility in the modern workplace.” There were also LinkedIn Coaches events specifically aiming to help job seekers with disabilities find employment opportunities. The company also partnered with Be My Eyes, an app that connects blind and low vision users with sighted volunteers, to make LinkedIn staff available for visual assistance on video calls.

Microsoft also launched an AI for AccessibilityLow-Cost Assistive Technology Fund to make assistive technology reachable to those who can’t afford it. Considering how expensive assistive technology currently is, this is a promising step towards getting people the gear they need. Though it’s still limited in its reach, the Fund is at least an acknowledgement of the high price that people with disabilities continue to have to pay to be part of the world able-bodied people take for granted.

UNSPECIFIED - SEPTEMBER 28: In this screengrab, Amazon Astro is introduced during Amazon Devices and Services Announcement on September 28, 2021. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)


Amazon’s accessibility efforts aren’t just aimed at people with disabilities. The company says it pays attention to aging individuals and helping them feel more confident living independently. This year, it introduced two programs as part of its Alexa Smart Properties service that enable administrators to offer voice-assisted experiences in places like senior living facilities and hospitals. The company also launched Alexa Together to keep caregivers and elderly individuals connected via an Alexa-enabled device. It would offer features like fall detection and remote assist to give loved ones peace of mind.

Amazon also updated the Alexa app to offer light and dark modes, as well as text scaling. It rolled out a new option to give people more time to finish speaking before Alexa gives a response, which it said is designed to help people with certain speech impediments. The company also included cards with braille text in the boxes for the Echo Frames 2nd gen, guiding users to a website with screen-reader-friendly setup instructions. On the Kindle app for iOS, Amazon launched a dictionary audio feature to read out individual selected words and help those with learning disabilities or foreign language speakers better understand pronunciations.

This year, the company introduced a new home robot called Astro that follows you around your home and provides easy access to helpful info via its display. It works with Alexa Together to help caregivers look out for loved ones remotely and keeps an eye on your home while you’re away. The robot features similar accessibility features to the Echo Show smart displays and has been trained “to work for customers who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes.” It will also play specialized driving sounds to stop it becoming a tripping hazard.

A Cognixion headset on a white mannequin head.

Amazon also invests in several accessibility-minded projects through its Alexa Fund, including Labrador Systems, which makes home robots to help people with limited mobility live more independently. The company has also worked with neural interface startup Cognixion to add Alexa support to its brain-computer interface headsets for easier smart home device control. Amazon and Voiceitt also released a new speech recognition app this year to help users with atypical speech converse with Alexa and other people.

Though its Alexa-focused products have received many updates to improve accessibility, Amazon’s Prime content appears to have been neglected. According to Rachfal, though Prime TV offers audio descriptions on a large amount of content, many titles use text to speech with synthetic voices. Rachfal added that these “lack the quality of human narrated audio description and the overall quality of the content suffers, making it less enjoyable for blind and low vision consumers.”

To Rachfal, this is an example of something that’s done for people with disabilities “without input, feedback and collaboration with the disability community.”

A sign of Meta, the new name for the company formerly known as Facebook, is seen at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S. October 28, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Meta / Facebook

Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook, its whistleblower and its rebrand this year, it’s easy to overlook the company’s accessibility-related updates. At the start of 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize over 1,200 objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this represented a 10x increase since AAT’s debut in 2016. It also rolled out additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions like positions of objects in a picture and their relative sizes.

Unfortunately, as it pushed out these updates, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features along the way. Rachfal said that when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it led to less-informative descriptions for users who are blind or have low-vision. Rachfal said this change “was done due to privacy concerns,” and he believes these decisions were made without considering accessibility and the disability community. “Nor were they given the same weight and consideration as privacy concerns,” Rachfal added.

Facebook published a post addressing this issue in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”

A banner showing an example of Automatic Alternative Text on Instagram, with a green box around a picture and words saying

In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role face recognition plays in AAT to help blind and low-vision users identify their friends in pictures. But while some facial recognition tools, like identity verification, will remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically labeling their friends are going away. That’s for both sighted and visually impaired users.

“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”

Elsewhere in Meta’s family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make assistive features easier to find. It also brought Color Correction and Raise View tools to offer more legible palettes and enable a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when ready.

Meta also collaborated with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to bring sign language interpreters into video calls on Portal devices. As of December, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also apply on ZP’s website to get free Portals which will come with the ZP apps.

New models of Facebook's Portal video-calling devices are pictured in this undated handout image obtained by Reuters. Facebook/Handout via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT
Handout . / reuters

Facebook launched Clubhouse-like audio rooms in the US this year and, notably, did so with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who’s speaking, and offers captions for other audio products like Soundbites and Podcasts on iOS and Android.

Let’s not forget the company’s renaming to Meta this year and its new focus on the metaverse. According to head of accessibility Mike Shebanek, “we're already working to bring the metaverse to life and are excited to explore the breakthrough possibilities it presents to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”

We’ll have to wait and see if and how that comes true, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to engage with the accessibility community to make sure that its expansion of the metaverse is inclusive from the start.


Twitter only set up its two accessibility teams last year, after an embarrassing launch of Voice Tweets that excluded its deaf and hard of hearing users due to a lack of captions. Since then, though, the company has shown noteworthy improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for voice tweets, added captions and accessibility labels in Spaces and brought automatic video captions. That last one is “available globally in most languages,” according to the company and supported on Android, iOS and the web.

Though this may seem like a small set of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller portfolio of products. Still, it has managed to make significant changes. Rachfal praised Twitter as being “the first social media platform to conspicuously prompt users to include alt text with images,” though he did note that filling out the field is still optional.

Other noteworthy developments in tech this year

Alt text and captioning continue to be tricky accessibility features for the industry. They’re labor-intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can result in garbled, inaccurate results. This was especially evident at this year’s virtual E3 gaming convention, where illegible closed captions sometimes made the show incomprehensible for those who relied on subtitles to understand the announcements.

There are also large parts of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility-related upgrades. According to a February 2021 study by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), for example, a whopping 97.4 percent of websites had mistakes that failed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2). The most common errors included missing alt text, low contrast text, missing form input labels and more.

It’s not just websites that need work: Other media formats also need to be more inclusively designed. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, filed a lawsuit with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) this year against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher and Pandora.

A banner showing three Spotify screenshots with an example of a transcript on the left.

According to the NAD, because the three defendants “do not make transcripts or captions available for any of the podcasts offered on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans are denied full and equal enjoyment of the content they offer their hearing users.” Meanwhile, Spotify announced this year that it will start offering automatically generated transcripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music launched synchronized transcripts in November.

Then there are entire industries that could use accessibility improvements. Rachfal notes that healthcare is a continually problematic area for people who are blind or have visual impairments. “This is still an entire sector that we hear about far too often from our members,” he said. Given that we are currently in the mires of the third wave of COVID-19, it’s inexcusable to continue excluding people with disabilities when it comes to things like scheduling vaccination or testing appointments.

In November this year, the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination websites accessible. Rite Aid’s vaccine registration portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not accessible to “those who have a hard time using a mouse.” The calendar on its website, for example, “did not show screen reader users any available appointment times,” while people relying on keyboard-based navigation instead of a mouse could not use the tab key to complete a consent form required to schedule an appointment.

The ACB also worked with CVS to offer accessible prescription information in all locations in the country. This includes a Spoken RX feature that would read out prescription labels via the CVS Pharmacy app.

Though there have been many transgressions in the past year, we also saw many promising developments in ensuring technology is inclusive. The FCC, for example, proposed rules in December to make emergency alerts more useful and informative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A TV monitor showing the new Emergency Alert System(EAS) test is seen on November 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. The FCC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, conducted the first-ever nationwide test of the national Emergency Alert System. EAS participants broadcast alerts and warnings regarding severe weather alerts, child abductions and other types of emergencies. The EAS alerts are transmitted over radio and television broadcast stations, cable television and other media services.   AFP PHOTO / KAREN BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP via Getty Images)
KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images

Meanwhile, HBO Max launched 1,500 hours of audio-described content starting in March 2021 and committed to including the descriptions to all newly produced original content as well as adding more to its back catalog. Also, in collaboration with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, Planet Fitness said it will buy and install accessible exercise equipment in its stores across the country.

I’ve only scratched the surface in this roundup of updates. What’s most encouraging, though, is the increasing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates at the earliest stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for the NAD, said it’s “seeing more and more companies reach out to us in the beginning phases for input rather than late in the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” that’s “born out of the advocacy work of ACB and the Audio description Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”

Read more

Quest headset owners can capture VR gameplay using their phones

Meta’s Reality Labs unit is rolling out one last major software update for the Quest and Quest 2 before the end of the year. And it’s one you’ll want to download as soon as you can because it adds some handy features.

One of them allows you to record yourself while inside a game or app. If you own a VR headset, you’ve probably seen videos like the one above where you can see how a game physically plays. Before today, you needed special equipment to capture footage from that mixed reality perspective. With the new update, you can use your phone instead.

Mobile mixed reality camera
Reality Labs

Naturally, the final result isn’t as polished as the above video, but you can still get an idea of how games like Beat Saber play out in the real world. You’ll need an iPhone XS or above with iOS 11 or higher to use the new mobile mixed reality camera. With today’s release, about a dozen games support the feature, including Superhot VR, Pistol Whip and Synth Riders.

The update also includes a number of features Meta said were coming “soon” at its Connect conference in late October. To start, you can now make voice calls through the Messenger app on Quest and Quest 2 headsets. The feature allows you to not only call other Quest users, but you can also dial up your Facebook friends.

Reality Labs app sharing
Reality Labs

Starting today, some games will also allow you to back up your save data to the cloud. The feature may not be immediately available on your headset after downloading the update. That’s because Reality Labs says it’s rolling it out at a slower pace to make sure it works correctly. Additionally, it’s an opt-in feature for developers, so not every game may support it even after it’s broadly available. While not new to the Quest platform, today’s update also removes the experimental tag that had been applied to the multi-user and app sharing features that were introduced at the start of the year.

Lastly, while not directly related to today’s update, in the “coming weeks” Reality Labs plans to introduce new customization options to Horizon Workrooms. To start, you’ll have the option to choose from multiple virtual office environments and the ability to decorate the space with custom posters and your company's logo.

Read more

Samsung adds Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Flip 3 features to older foldable phones

You won't have to buy a Galaxy Z Fold 3 or Flip 3 to get their software upgrades. Samsung is rolling out a One UI 3.1.1 update that brings many of those phones' multitasking and app resizing features to the original Fold, Fold 2, Flip and Flip 5G.

The Fold line unsurprisingly benefits the most thanks to its larger, tablet-like screen. Features like Multi-Active Window (up to three apps at once) and App Split View (seeing extra content for an app) make that folding display much more useful. You can also force apps to resize and rotate on your Fold, pin your favorites with the Taskbar and mirror your internal display on the cover screen.

Not that Flip owners are out of luck. Drag & Split lets all Samsung foldable owners create a new window for an already-open app, and you can invoke Flex Mode to bring up media controls when the phone is partially folded.

Most of these features are deploying now, although you'll have to wait an extra week if you're using the first Galaxy Fold. Not that you'll likely mind. This could significantly improve the usefulness of your older foldable, and suggests Samsung is eager to earn the loyalty of early adopters — if just to increase the chances that you'll buy another Fold or Flip when you're due for an upgrade.

Read more

Apple pulls anti-vax social app over misinformation (updated)

Mobile app shops are cracking down on one of the higher-profile communities spreading anti-vax misnformation. Bloombergreports that Apple has removed Unjected, a hybrid social and dating app for the unvaccinated, for "inappropriately" referencing the COVID-19 pandemic's concept and themes. While Unjected bills itself as a place to find others who support "medical autonomy and free speech," social posts on the site have included false claims that vaccines modify genes, connect to 5G and serve as "bioweapons."

The app founders are also embroiled in a fight over their Android app. Google told Unjected on July 16th that it had two weeks to remove the misleading posts from its app to avoid a Play Store ban. The developers responded by pulling the social feed. However, co-creator Shelby Thompson said Unjected planned to defy the request by restoring both the feed and the offending posts.

We've asked Apple and Google for comment. Unjected still has a presence on Instagram despite that social network's anti-misinformation stance, although that account mostly promotes its views on "freedom" and only occasionally mentions falsehoods, such as incorrect claims that mRNA vaccines alter DNA. We've asked Facebook for a response as well.

Unjected is small compared to mainstream social networks, with roughly 18,000 app downloads (according to Apptopia). However, the crackdown clearly serves as a warning — Apple and Google won't tolerate apps that knowingly accept and encourage the creation anti-vax content, even if they aren't directly producing that material.

Update 7/31 6:18PM ET: Apple told Engadget that Unjected violated rules demanding reliable COVID-19 information from trustworthy sources, like health agencies and medical institutions. The tech firm further accused Unjected of less-than-honest tactics. The app producer reversed changes made to comply with App Store rules, and encouraged users to help it dodge those rules by avoiding the use of telltale words. Trying to cheat the system is itself grounds for a ban, according to Apple. Don't expect Unjected to come back.

Read more

watchOS 8 beta hands-on: Subtle but useful changes

With the iOS 15 and watchOS 8 public betas now available for testing, it’s time for us to get an early look at some of the features coming to Apple’s biggest platforms. While the next watchOS might not represent as significant a change as iOS 15, it does bring new health and fitness tools, along with tighter iPhone integration.

If you’re thinking of checking out the public beta for yourself, make sure you’ve considered the risk of running preview software. Those who simply can't wait for a stable public version of the upcoming platform can sign up for Apple's beta program and install the builds now, provided you have an Apple Watch Series 3 or newer, along with an iPhone running the iOS 15 beta.

Mindfulness, health and fitness

Apple's new health-centric features could interest those looking for a more wholistic approach to wellbeing. The company has renamed its Breathe app to Mindfulness, adding "Reflect" to the existing breathing exercises. You can set each Reflect session's duration from one to five minutes. A prompt appears before each session to help you focus your thoughts, along with a button to begin. 

So far, I've seen prompts similar to other meditation guides that tell you to be aware of your thoughts and let them pass without judgement. Some other examples include "Think of someone you care about. Imagine you can feel your connection with them" and "Consider the values that matter to you in something you’re focused on."

Then, a colorful swirling animation takes up the screen. I usually just lean back and close my eyes at this point, but if you continue to stare at your watch, the animation is a nice distraction that's almost hypnotizing. When your time is up, the watch vibrates and shows a closing thought tied to the opening prompt, like "Bring this sense of open awareness with you." You'll also see your heart rate and your total Mindful minutes for the day (which includes time spent doing Breathe exercises). After two Mindfulness sessions, my Apple Watch SE said my pulse plummeted from 64 to 47bpm, which is great, I guess.

A composite of three pictures showing the Mindfulness app in the watchOS 8 beta.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

It does at times feel like a glorified timer, meets fortune cookie, meets Magic 8 Ball, all set to Windows Media Player visualizations. But combined with reminders throughout the day that you can customize, Mindfulness can be a valuable tool for checking in with yourself and your state of mind.

A few other health-centric additions to watchOS include two new Workout categories: Tai Chi and Pilates. I've yet to do a session of either exercise so I can't say how accurately Apple tracks these yet. There are also a couple more features I need more time to get a better sense for, like respiratory rate tracking overnight and walking steadiness. To be clear, the latter isn't specifically a watchOS feature — it uses your iPhone stashed somewhere on your body, but I thought to include it as part of Apple's health updates here. Walking steadiness requires at least two weeks of testing before delivering an assessment, so it'll take some time before I get results. 

Messaging, new apps and integration with iPhone

A big part of the watchOS 8 update is improved communications tools and integration with your iPhone. Notably, the Messages app now allows you to compose via Scribble, Dictate and Emojis all within the same screen. I scrawled out part of a message, dictated longer parts of it, and added emoji from one page easily. Editing is also less of a hassle than before, thanks in large part to the ability to use the Digital Crown to control the cursor. Hallelujah! Scrolling back to insert a space or fix a stray "v" got so much easier. 

Additionally, there's a new option now to send GIFs in Messages, from the same place you'd send a Digital Touch (just hit the search glass button and type in your keyword). 

Communicating with people is also easier now thanks to the new Contacts app, which lets you find specific friends more quickly. If you've set one of iOS 15's new Focus modes on your iPhone, the same settings will apply to your watch. People and apps that have been blocked will remain muted on your wrist, and a symbol at the top of the screen indicates which Focus mode is active.

Contacts isn't the only new app for watchOS 8. Apple is also redesigning Home to make interacting with your connected appliances easier, and bringing Find Items, Find Devices, and Tips to your wrist. The new OS will also add support for ultra wideband to enable more precise car key functions like spatial awareness. Plus, the update lets you use your Watch as a key for hotels and offices in addition to your home and car, though naturally it only works with compatible buildings and locks. I haven't had a chance to test those features yet.

Five Apple Watches showcasing various new watchOS 8 features. From left to right, the features displayed are: Messaging, Photos app, Portrait watch face, Photos app and composing a message.

Like its counterpart on iOS, the watchOS Wallet app will also support adding your driver's License, which you can use in participating states and agencies in the US when that's more broadly rolled out. In addition to privacy and security concerns around Apple storing your ID on your device, there are also questions here about how likely law enforcers or various authorities are to welcome these digital cards. But that's not something I was able to test with this preview build, given this feature is not accepted in most places at the moment.

Portrait watch faces, multiple timers and Fitness+

In addition, I tried out a few other new features on the watchOS 8 beta: portrait watch faces and multiple timers. Similar to how you could create a Photos face for Apple Watch before, hit Share on a picture on your iPhone, then tap Create Watch Face. If you want the faux depth-of-field effect on your wrist, you'll need to pick an image shot using your phone's Portrait mode. The effect will animate when you rotate the watch dial. Currently, there are only three clock styles available for these, and I found "Modern" the least offensive. You can also add a single complication to Portrait faces.

As for multiple timers: It works. I set a countdown for three minutes, then hit back and set another for a minute. They both went off without a hitch. It's funny that something as simple as this took eight whole updates to get, but at least it's here. Those who use their Apple Watch for cooking timers will appreciate this one.

Finally, this isn't quite a watchOS update but since you need an Apple Watch to use Fitness+, the two are intertwined. When you use Fitness+ on your iPhone or iPad, you'll now be able to watch the exercise videos in Picture-in-Picture mode. I was also able to resize the panel that was overlaid atop my other apps simply by pinching to zoom. 


This isn't the biggest update to watchOS, but Apple has made some subtle improvements to its communication apps and it's also tightened its iPhone integration. I also appreciate the attention paid to different takes on health and wellbeing. There are still more features to test, like walking steadiness and ID support, but for now the watchOS 8 beta feels like a thoughtful, if small, update.

Update (at 7:45pm ET): This article was edited to clarify that Walking Steadiness is an iOS 15 feature, not a watchOS 8 feature.

Read more