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An Apple Watch feature that really fired me up is the recently added ability to set multiple timers at once. I know that sounds silly — but I rely on timers for cooking, chores, and just to make me quit procrastinating. Multiple timers! Life-changing!

But there’s another new Watch feature that might someday prove even more useful: fall detection during workouts. Say I’m out cycling with my Apple Watch tracking the workout. My front wheel slams into a branch I haven’t noticed. I fly over the handlebars and thump onto the trail. My Watch buzzes: it’s detected a hard fall. I can tap the Watch to confirm I’m OK. But if I’m not OK, the Watch waits a minute then automatically alerts emergency services and my emergency contacts.

Anyone with a compatible Apple Watch running the latest operating system can now set it to detect hard falls during workouts.

The Apple Watch has been capable of detecting hard falls in everyday life since 2018. Now, anyone with a compatible Watch running the latest operating system can also set it to detect hard falls during workouts. (Samsung has also recently updated the fall detection abilities of its Galaxy Watch.)

These aren’t trivial additions — a 2020 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that one in three sports injuries serious enough to warrant a stay in hospital are caused by falls, while crashes are to blame for one in five.

Like any sufficiently advanced technology, workout fall detection seems indistinguishable from magic — so it’s easy to overlook the work that goes into developing features like this. The big challenge is that many forms of exercise and sport are, per Apple’s vice president of sensing and connectivity, Ron Huang, topamax side afffects “literally designed for you to fall.” So how do you teach the Watch to distinguish between a genuine tumble and, say, a standard mountain bike jump, or rugby tackle, or gruelling burpee?

Huang says his team knew they couldn’t strap a Watch to a mannequin or stuntman then push them over — they’d have to leverage real-world fall data. Conveniently, such data had been collected in the Apple Heart and Movement Study: a 20-month investigation of 150,000 US adults of various ages, genders, locations and fitness levels, who opted to share their data to improve Apple’s products.

“Customers gave us data on over 1.3 million workouts … that total up to 880,000 hours,” Huang told me from the US via video call.

Researchers sifted through all these reams of data, conducting follow-up questionnaires and phone interviews with thousands of study participants to better understand their workout falls. Huang says this work eventually uncovered “the needle in a haystack’” — that is, how to craft algorithms that can differentiate between “routine” workout falls and bad ones. These algorithms are now delivered to your Watch, without you even noticing, thanks to the labours of Apple’s army of engineers, software developers and designers.

“It’s hard to keep track of the different functions [within Apple] that it takes to bring something like this to life,” says director of product marketing for Apple Watch Deidre Caldbeck. “It’s a very, very large cross-functional effort.”

Effort for a feature that Calbeck says Apple never actually wants you to use, but which Huang believes fulfils the Watch’s role as a sort of “guardian angel” for your health.

“It is just always there monitoring, watching out for you,” he says, citing praise from real-world Watch users who’ve told Apple how fall detection has literally saved their lives. “These are the things that get us excited every morning to keep on adding these kinds of features to Apple Watch.”

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