Apple’s Watch is the Next Big Geek Icebreaker

Starting April 24th, Silicon Valley’s social scene will get a boost, thanks to Apple

3 min read
Apple’s Watch is the Next Big Geek Icebreaker
Photo: Apple

Remember when you first saw an iPhone? Unless you’re an Apple fanboy, it was probably not at an Apple store, but instead was during a business or social event. Someone pulled an iPhone out of his pocket to “check a message,” and quickly drew a crowd as he demonstrated a few fun features. And then we all tried swiping through his family photos—swipe was new then, and it was pretty amazing. And, for a while anyway, the guy with the iPhone was the most popular person in the room.

It’s been a while since tech has given the early adopter access to that kind of conversation starter. Yes, there was a time when fitness bands had a cool factor, before everyone had one, but you couldn’t easily demonstrate a fitness band, and talking about your step count just wasn’t that engaging.

But today Apple announced that on 24 April its latest crowd-magnet, the Apple Watch, will hit retail stores and the doorsteps of those who preorder the gadget. So this spring and summer, it’s going to be much easier to start a conversation in Silicon Valley, expediting the formation of partnerships of all kinds. In the same way you can predict a bump in the birth rate nine months after a major power outage, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bump in the birth of new companies and technologies after the introduction of this kind of geek magnet. It brings people together who otherwise might think they don’t have anything to talk about, and out of such synergies new ventures are often made.

The Apple watch isn’t that revolutionary; essentially, it brings many of alerts and apps from a smart phone to the wrist and includes the features of a fitness band.

Apple did add a new type of alert—the tap—to the phone’s repertoire of auditory signals; you can program your watch to tap you in a variety of ways when it gets certain messages, and you can combine the heartrate monitor with the tap to send your heartbeat from your watch to another watch. The tap doesn’t really increase the functionality of the gadget: for alerts, it’s not that much different than the current vibration on today’s phones, and does anybody really need to send someone their heartbeat? But in terms of the icebreaker factor, it’s brilliant: Hey, is that an Apple Watch? Can I feel it tap? And two watchwearers in a group can really wow observers by sending animated sketches back and forth, drawing on the touchscreen surface of the watch.

Also compelling, though again, not revolutionary, is the Dick Tracy aspect of lifting your watch and speaking into it to make a phone call—or talk to Siri. Apple CEO Tim Cook, speaking at the launch event, said “I’ve been wanting to do this since I was 5 years old.” He’s probably not alone.

The Apple Watch w  ill cost   $349, at the low end, for the average early adopter to live out this tech fantasy, and up to $10,000 to take it to the 18-karat gold, James Bond, level. However, flashing a gold Apple Watch isn’t likely to generate much more buzz than the standard version; at least initially the technology will be more attention-getting than the bling.

The useful features—the heartrate monitoring for fitness apps, the reminders to get up out of your chair and move, the ApplePay, the calendar and email alerts, the basic timetelling, and “call a car” (Uber today, perhaps an Apple Autonomous Car in the future)—aren’t going to be the reasons people buy the Apple watch. It’s the tapping, and the sketching, and the Dick Tracy’ing that’ll make it fly off the shelves, at least in Silicon Valley.

(For more on the sensors inside the Apple Watch, see “Apple Watch’s Wristful of Sensors and MEMS”.)

The Conversation (0)

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.