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Android Wear: Google’s Smartwatch Plans Come Into Focus

3 minute read

Google has announced Android Wear, a version of its mobile operating system tailored for smartwatches and other wearable devices.

Instead of just adding phonelike features to your wrist, Android Wear will focus on notifications and quick responses. The idea is to show information as you need it while keeping interaction to a minimum. So while you’d still take out your phone to read through Facebook or write an email, you could use a smartwatch to check on a to-do list, view directions or scan your boarding pass at the airport.

Google Now, the search giant’s virtual-assistant software, will play a big role, serving up information on weather, flight times, incoming packages or upcoming reservations. Users will also be able to use voice search by saying “O.K. Google.”

But third-party apps and notifications will be just as important, which is presumably why Google is announcing Android Wear right now. Google wants Android developers to begin making their apps more wearable-friendly, though many app notifications will apparently work well without any changes. That’s a big advantage Google can wield over Samsung’s Tizen-based Galaxy Gear watches, which need to build up developer support from scratch.

Google isn’t ignoring the fitness angle either, as Android Wear devices will be able to detect speed and distance traveled.

The finer details of Android Wear’s interface are still unclear, but we can get a broad sense from Google’s developer site and design guidelines. Incoming messages will be truncated to fit on the screen, but users can tap on it to see the whole thing. Multiple messages from the same app will resemble a vertical stack of cards, which users can swipe through.

From there, users can swipe to the right to take action on a message or notification. For instance, a messaging app could offer up to five canned responses and a voice-command button for dictating a more detailed response. A calendar reminder could show meeting notes with one swipe and offer directions with another swipe.

As for hardware, Google says it’s working with devicemakers Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung and chipmakers Broadcom, Imagination, Intel, MediaTek and Qualcomm. Fossil, a more traditional watchmaker, is also on board in some capacity. According to Engadget, LG is already teasing a “G Watch” that will be aimed at developers. Motorola has also teased a round smartwatch based on Android Wear called the Moto 360.

The announcement does leave some unanswered questions and concerns. We don’t really know what the first Android Wear devices will look like or whether they’ve gotten over any of the technology hurdles found in earlier smartwatches. We don’t know exactly what screen sizes and dimensions and form factors Android Wear will support, beyond the generally square and round wristwatch screens Google shows on its developer site. And we don’t know how devicemakers will differentiate their hardware or how much leeway they’ll have to modify the software.

But with today’s announcement, we do have a sense of Google’s vision for wearable devices. It’s not a major departure from the company’s efforts with Google Glass — and maybe that was Glass’s bigger goal all along — but it’s altogether less creepy and better thought out than any other wearable software we’ve seen yet.

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