Meet Android Wear, Google's bid to bring serious productivity to smartwatches

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Google announced a “preview SDK” for its new Android wearables effort on Tuesday, and if we take everything that appears in two YouTube videos at face value, Google Now smartwatches will become game-changing additions to a wearables space fraught with fussy, confusing user interfaces. 

The new Google software platform is called Android Wear, and will be employed by a number of manufacturers for retail smartwatches shipping later this year. LG’s wearable is called G Watch. It’s planned for the second quarter, and is described by LG as a “low barrier to entry for developers” that will “offer the best Google experience for users.” Motorola has also announced a Google Now watch called the Moto 360, which will boast a circular display and be available “in a variety of styles” this summer.

But perhaps the most intriguing Android Wear announcement comes from Fossil, a traditional wristwatch megabrand. The company’s chief strategy and marketing officer said Fossil is “still very much in the formative research and development stage” of wearables development. His cautious words notwithstanding, any serious merger of traditional wristwatches and smartwatches would be an industry first.

moto 360 cafe Image: Motorola

The Moto 360 curiously, provocatively, employs a circular LCD, touchscreen display.

But the big news Tuesday is Android Wear, and all the ways it promises to boost personal productivity. In its two videos and throughout its blog post, Google demonstrates how Android Wear delivers Google Now’s contextual information services right to your wrist.

Witness: A man confirms a taxi pickup, directly on his smartwatch. Another man gets a meeting alert—along with a notification that his colleague will be late. A surfer receives a jellyfish warning via her device, and beckons her pals to surf at another beach. And as one of the videos winds down, a man receives that prescient “35 mins to work” notification that so many Android users are familiar with, just as he’s pouring his morning coffee in the kitchen, and all without glancing at his phone.

It’s the “Google Now” smartwatch dream that Google absolutely needs to deliver, and it looks absolutely spectacular. As portrayed in the video, the UI is devoid of labor-intensive menu items. It’s just a simple, clean, Google Now card interface. Information pops up automatically, responding to time and location signals.

Now, I’m not reassured by the fact that watches in the video are portrayed with circular displays. No display manufacturer has yet to deliver a mass-market round display, so the frequent portrayal of these screens in Google’s assets suggests something incredibly rarefied, and perhaps expensive.

Google has confirmed to The Verge that the circular watch in its videos is the upcoming Moto 360, and Motorola does have experience with circular displays. Indeed, the Motorola Aura phone shipped in 2009 with a 480-pixel-diameter circular display. But that handset also cost $2000. Still, even if Android Wear only appeared on rectangular screens, its basic Google Now card interface could make all existing smartwatch UI efforts obsolete.

Alex Faaborg, an Android designer, explains the Android Wear concept in one of the two videos: “We designed an entirely new UI designed specifically for this form factor, and it’s really based around voice and contextual information that’s reactive to your surroundings,” he says. “We put a lot of thought into how simple this has to be. It has to be incredibly fast, incredibly glanceable. There’s really only two components: information that’s most relevant to you, and the ability to speak to it and do a quick command.”

android wear stream 2

A perusal of Google’s blog post, along with a dive into its Android Wear developer’s notes, shows Google is on the doorstep of delivering everything I asked for last month’s faux press release of the Google Now smartwatch. The Android Wear interface is navigated simply by taps, swipes and voice control, and liberally employs the Google Now card conventions that all Android users are familiar with.

Voice control will be directly integrated into apps and services, letting you voice-dictate text messages, and utter “OK Google” to initiate searches for things like walking directions, airplane flight times, sports scores, and basic information tidbits like how many calories are in a typical avocado. Google’s design guidelines also emphasize “glanceability,” encouraging developers to surface very short information snippets that will fit on a small display. And when it’s necessary to surface more information, those details can be revealed by swiping right to follow-up “pages.”

In its blog post, Google also references direct integration with health and fitness apps. For example, Android Wear could provide fitness app summaries as well as “real-time speed, distance and time information on your wrist for your run, cycle or walk.”

The developer preview of the Android Wear SDK is available now.

Updated to include historical background on circular displays and the Motorola Aura.

This story, "Meet Android Wear, Google's bid to bring serious productivity to smartwatches" was originally published by TechHive.

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