iPhone 5s preview: Apple M7 coprocessor does all the fitness, health, and motion heavy-lifting
Everything you need to know about the Apple M7 accelerometer, magnometer, and gyroscope empowered motion coprocessor!
The Apple M7 motion coprocessor is Robin to the Apple A7's Batman. Watson to its Sherlock. Chewbacca to its Han Solo. You get the idea. It's something that helps take some of the busy work off the hero's back. In other words, it's the sidekick. In this case, it's also a very specific one. On the iPhone 5s it does exactly what its branding implies - it collects and keeps all motion data on the device. Here's how Apple describes it:
The new M7 coprocessor is like a sidekick to the A7 chip. It’s designed specifically to measure motion data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass — a task that would normally fall to the A7 chip. But M7 is much more efficient at it. Now fitness apps that track physical activity can access that data from the M7 coprocessor without constantly engaging the A7 chip. So they require less battery power.
M7 knows when you’re walking, running, or even driving. For example, Maps switches from driving to walking turn-by-turn navigation if, say, you park and continue on foot. Since M7 can tell when you’re in a moving vehicle, iPhone 5s won’t ask you to join Wi-Fi networks you pass by. And if your phone hasn’t moved for a while, like when you’re asleep, M7 reduces network pinging to spare your battery.
Coprocessors are becoming more common in mobile. Google's Moto X has two coprocessors, a natural language core and a contextual awareness core. That lets it, for example, listen for you to say "Okay Google Now". I'd love it if Apple added a dedicated Siri coprocessor to handle on-device voice parsing and predictive analytics, but Apple zigged instead of zagged. They went with a motion coprocessor.
The idea is that, regardless of the task assigned, the dedicated coprocessor can subsist at minimal power levels to handle it, so that the main processor doesn't have to remain on, or wake up, which would consume far more power. In the M7's case, it continuously monitors motion data, including the built-in accelerometer, magnometer (digital compass), and gyroscope.
That means, at any given point in time, the M7 coprocessor knows how your iPhone is moving (or not moving), which direction it's facing, and what its orientation is in 3D space. By extension, it can extrapolate some motion data about you as well. For example, whether you're driving or walking, moving or static (or, when static for long periods of time, asleep).
Previously, the A-series chip would have had to stay on to do all this, destroying battery life, or it would simply record it all only when it woke up, leaving huge gaps in the motion timeline.
Essentially, it'll let an iPhone 5S do everything a Nike Fuelband or Fitbit does, and much, much more. Because, apps.
Walk these ways
To access all of this data, Apple is providing a new CoreMotion API to developers. It contextually identifies different activity states, such as stationary, walking, running, and driving. So, instead of a plethora of motion-oriented apps all wanting to stay active in the background to record their own data, each one can simply wake when you want them, pull the data from the M7 coprocessor, and present it to you just-in-time.
That's a far, far more efficient way of handling health, fitness, utility, and novelty apps on both the hardware and software level.
Here's what the Apple Developer Center says about working with the M7:
Leveraging the new M7 motion coprocessor, the Core Motion framework is updated to support step counting and motion tracking. With step counting, the framework detects movements that correspond to user motion and uses that information to report the number of steps to your app. Because the system detects the motion, the system can continue to gather step data even when your app is not running. The framework can also distinguish different types of motions reflective of travel by walking, running, or automobile. Health and fitness apps can take advantage of that data to give users performance and workout results, and navigation apps can use it to change the type of directions they provide.
Developers can also, if needed, tie into aGPS/GLONASS to add location data to the mix. It's not as power friendly as pure M7 motion data, but it can help create full-blown athletic fitness apps.
Given we are where we are it's inevitable that some people might take issue with the idea of their motion being continuously recorded. To be clear, the M7 isn't storing location (though the iPhone certainly can), it's only storing that your iPhone is moving and how vigorously, in which direction, and its orientation. If someone were to gain access to that information, they might be able to tell your iPhone had been left still for a long period of time, or had been jostled about at certain time, or moved along a specific path for whatever duration. It's no more or less information than anyone could have gotten before the M7, its just continuous rather than periodic.
If it never bothered you before then it shouldn't now. If it's always been an issue of concern, then it's something to keep in mind. Once data exists, it exists.
I've been asked several times this week whether Apple could or should use the M7 to lockout features like texting if it detects you're driving. It's an interesting idea but not a particularly workable one, at least not yet.
First, texting is only one kind of distraction. You can be distracted by tweeting, searching for music, using turn-by-turn navigation, or any number of things. You can also be distracted by the newspaper or map you've laid out across the steering wheel, the sandwich you're eating, or the makeup you're putting on.
Second, even if we take the view that M7 could mitigate the problem by locking out purely digital distractions, how would it know you're actually driving the car rather than sitting in the passenger or back seat, or sitting on a train or a bus? And if it can be disabled under those circumstances, the same type of people foolish enough to drive while distracted would likely be foolish enough to disable it under the worst of circumstances too.
Distracted driving of all kinds is a lethal problem. M7-based lockout, by itself and as presently implemented, however, doesn't seem like a realistic solution. We'll have to see if things like iOS in the Car offer any better alternatives.
Just like it's tempting to the think of Apple A7 products beyond the iPhone 5s, of 64-bit ARM-based iPads and Apple TVs and Macs of the future, it's tempting to think of potential Apple M7 products as well. Small. Power efficient. Health focused. Motion-centric. If the iWatch project comes immediately to mind, you wouldn't be the first, nor the last. Sensors are going to be incredibly important to the future of mobile, and the M7 could well be setting part of its foundation.
More to come
The Apple M7 processor is shipping alongside the iPhone 5s on September 20, and we may just see it in more products come October. Until then, keep up with all the latest news, and get involved in all the best conversations:
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