How to control your Apple Watch hands-free

Starting with watchOS 8, Apple introduced a new accessibility feature called Assistive Touch. The great thing about this feature is that it allows you to control the watch with your wrist movements and arm movements. So you don’t even need to touch the Apple Watch screen to use it anymore.

The technology behind it is pretty neat. Using on-device machine learning, this feature uses the watch’s accelerometer, gyroscope, and optical heart rate sensor to read how your muscles and tendons are moving. As a result, the watch can detect when you are clenching your fingers or fists. You can also activate a gesture-based cursor that works like a mini mouse when you bend your arm.

To be clear, Apple developed Assistive Touch to make the Apple Watch easier to use if you have limited mobility or limb differences. However, it can also be a suitable tool when you don’t fully use one or both hands. Maybe you’re preparing something messy in the kitchen. Maybe it’s freezing and you don’t really want to peel off your gloves to use the touchscreen. Whatever the scenario, Assistive Touch can help you answer calls, start workouts, access settings, use Apple Pay, activate Siri, and navigate various menus and apps.

A gif of a person shaking their wrist and the Assistive Touch outline appear.

You can shake your wrist to activate Assistive Touch.

How to enable Assistive Touch

First of all—which Apple Watch do you have? Assistive Touch is a new feature and unfortunately only works if you have an Apple Watch SE, Series 6 or Series 7. If you have a compatible watch, here’s how to get started.

You can choose to set up (and then manage) on your iPhone or the Watch itself. The phone has a small advantage, as it is easier to navigate.

on iPhone:

  • On the My Watch tab, go to the Accessibility menu.
  • Select Assistive Touch.
  • Turn on Assistive Touch and enable Gestures.

On Apple Watch:

  • Launch the Settings app.
  • Scroll down for accessibility.
  • Select Assistive Touch and enable Gestures.

If you choose to install it on your phone, you will be prompted to perform pinch and pinch gestures directly on the watch. You should take your time doing this, but if you’re in a hurry, you can always hit the Learn More link below the Gestures button.

A cursor moves around the clock screen and selects an app when the user clenches his fist twice.

You can also use a combination of gesture pointer and gestures.

How to use gestures and gesture marker?

When Assistive Touch is enabled, double-squeeze to activate. The default gesture settings are as follows: pinch once to move forward, double pinch to move backward, once for tapping, and twice for Action Menu. The Action Menu is where you select options like controlling the digital crown, swiping, Apple Pay, and Siri. As for navigation, you’ll see a highlighted outline showing which complication, app, or button you’re currently on.

Double-squeeze twice to bring up the Action Menu to bring up the gesture pointer. From there, squeeze to find the Interaction button. Squeeze to open the menu, go to the motion pointer button and squeeze again. From there you should see the cursor, and then you’ll be able to tilt your arm in various directions to navigate through menus, scroll through screens, and tap buttons. You can also avoid tapping altogether by hovering the cursor over the complication or app you want to select.

The user demonstrates using pinch gestures to navigate a menu.

The default gestures are pinch to go forward and double pinch to go backward.

How to customize Assistive Touch settings

I’m not going to lie: there is a learning curve to using Assistive Touch. I don’t have the best memory when it comes to gesture controls, so I needed to practice before I could remember which gesture did what while doing my daily chores. There were many times when I accidentally made the wrong gesture and had to start over. Likewise, I really needed to practice using the motion marker effectively. In general, depending on which method you use – motion controls or motion marker – you will need some patience as you get started.

This is where personalization comes into play. If you think the default settings aren’t working for you, you can reprogram them in the Watch app or directly from your wrist.

For example, let’s say you want a faster way to access the motion marker. You can assign double pinch to bring it automatically. Speaking of which, you can customize the motion pointer’s sensitivity, activation time, motion tolerance, and hot edges to better suit your needs.

To reprogram gestures, return to the Gestures menu and tap the one you want to reprogram. From there, you’ll see a list of available actions, menus, or controls.

If at any point you feel like you’re overdoing it, you can always go back to frame one by tapping “Reset to Default”.

The user demonstrates the double-clamping gesture.

Squeezing both twice activates Assistive Touch and brings up the Action Menu.

Some extra tips

  • Open Quick Actions in the Gestures menu. For certain apps, this allows you to double-pinch to confirm when prompted. For example, if you receive a call, you’ll see a message telling you to squeeze twice to answer.
  • Enable Standby Control in the Motion Marker menu and select “Shake to start”. This lets you wave your wrist to bring up the cursor. No menu navigation required.
  • Try Auto Scan. The default is set to manual, but constantly turning this setting on will cycle through the available buttons, apps, and complications. This reduces the number of gestures required to navigate between menus and screens.
  • Turn on High Contrast in the View menu for better visibility. In the Customization Menu, you can also select the Large Menu to enlarge the icon sizes.
  • Enable Side Button Confirmation. This lets you use Assistive Touch for things like Apple Pay instead of double-clicking the side button.

Photograph Victoria Song / Moyens I/O

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