The bomb has gone off, and the impossible wait for summer to bring two incredible looking smartwatches to market has begun. Android Wear, Google’s platform for wearable technology, has arrived. From what we know so far, there are a lot of reasons to be excited.
There are dozens of smartwatches on the market right now, but even the popular ones are ultimately lacking in one critical way or another. Users demand a seemingly impossible combination of terrific, multi-day battery life with a full colour screen and the ability to speak and be spoken to when your hands are busy. Nothing out there right now comes even close to that mark.
The closest is the Samsung Galaxy Gear and Gear 2, but both of those currently require a Samsung phone in order to truly use them. Even then, the devices aren’t all the way there yet. Google has announced partnerships with LG and Motorola to launch two different smartwatches running Android Wear, a Google-centric OS that claims to offer way more than any other smartwatch is offering today.
Every image of the Moto 360 shows the screen on all the time, either showing you a classy looking watch face or drifting into the Google Now-esque UI that we’ll dig into later. We know from the Moto X that the company is no stranger to playing with battery sipping hardware that is ready at a moment’s notice to spring to life, but if the Moto 360 is indeed an always-on device, the battery will be a big question that even they will need to address.
We currently don’t have cost or availability outside of “summer” for these two devices, but there’s more than a small chance that Google will offer developers some serious hands-on time with the SDK and the hardware during Google IO in order to make sure there’s no shortage of apps that support the platform by the time these hit the shelves.
Renders in videos are fun to look at and all, but where’s the actual software? As it turns out, this is in fact the actual software. Matias Duarte, Google’s Director of User Experience for Android, confirmed after the initial wave of news that the visuals they were showing off were of the actual UI for the devices being built right now. This was confirmed once developers were able to poke around in the Android Wear SDK and see that all the tools are there to easily modify existing apps to deliver notifications in the same fashion shown in the Wear videos. Whether the retail products are as smooth or as bright as we’re seeing in these videos remains to be seen – and it’s likely they aren’t really as amazing as we see here – but the UI is clean and beautiful.
The core of the interface seems to be Google Now. Android has been made infinitely better with the existence of Now, which is now entering its second year of life and has moved from an opt-in tool that raised privacy concerns to occupying the leftmost screen on Nexus phones. A major facet of Android UI design over the last year has been a shift to cards, where chunks of data live in tiny but easy to consume packages. This interface is perfect for smartwatches, since you can swipe along from card to card and interact as necessary. More than just being Google Now, the watch demos seem to do a great job of floating the most relevant card to the top. This is something Google Now currently struggles with, so it will be interesting to see whether or not the company can deliver.
More than just Google Now, the Android Wear platform is supposedly capable of issuing commands through your phone. In one demo video, Google showed a young woman opening a garage door with a spoken command. In their introductory blog post, they describe using the watch to issue commands to a Chromecast and starting a music playlist that’s currently on your phone. Connectivity through your phone to other Google products is impressive, but the real power will come from the ability to open that up to other devices and APIs. The Philips Hue system is one of many that immediately come to mind.
As developers explore the Android Wear SDK, we’ll learn more about how Google plans to deal with this new sandbox. Like we’ve seen with Chromecast and Glass, Android Wear is an environment where a sloppy developer could completely ruin the user experience. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Google using a heavy hand to make sure developers understand the best practices, and to oversee the launch of a bunch of quality apps before opening the floodgates to allow everyone in to do what they want.
What about Google Glass?
You might have heard about this other wearable computer that Google has been working on for a little while now as a part of their X Lab. You might have also noticed that no one on the Android Wear team mentions it in any way, shape, or form. Google Glass has gained a lot of attention for being a Google Moonshot, but is it a part of Android Wear?
It’s not clear whether or not Android Wear and Glass will merge together at some point in the future, but for right now they appear to be separate. You’ll remember that the Glass team is currently in the process of updating that platform to Android 4.4, which will bring it in line with the rest of the Android platform.
On top of this, much of the Google Now UI elements already exist within the Glass platform. Given time and cooperation, it’s not hard to imagine that the Android Wear platform and Glass will at the very least share some of the same tools.
This is something that will undoubtedly become clearer over the next few days, and will continue to take shape as we get closer to Google’s annual developers conference. So far Android Wear and the watches that have been announced for it seem like incredible products, and if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to get your hands on them.
For more on this topic, see our article which asks whether Google's Android Wear is the best chance for smartwatch success yet.