Google's Android Wear watch OS: What you need to know on the eve of Google I/O

moto 360

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Google’s Android Wear smartwatch operating system has captured the world’s imagination ever since it was first announced on March 18, and all signs point to a huge Android Wear coming-out party at this year’s Google I/O.

At this Wednesday’s keynote, we expect Google to announce the full Android Wear SDK; share more details on Android Wear hardware pricing and availability; and even seed developers with free Android Wear watches, so that they can get started on building custom apps.

But what does Android Wear mean to you? Here’s a FAQ on perhaps the most exciting wearable product of 2014. It pulls the best information available prior to Google I/O, and we’ll update this resource as more details emerge. If you have FAQ requests, tweet them to @JonPhillipsSF.

What is Android Wear on a fundamental level?

Android Wear is most notable for sending Google Now alerts and other Android notifications directly to your wrist. The system is aware of your location and the time of day, and uses these signals to push “useful, glanceable information when you need it.” In Google parlance, it’s called a “context stream.”

android wear stream 2

For example: You may get an invitation to join a walking tour if you wander into an historical district when on vacation. Accept the prompt, and points of interest will begin appearing directly on the watch face, along with directions to the next landmark. 

The experience is designed to be serendipitous, pushing you helpful data even before you think you need it. Android Wear can also automatically push weather alerts, sports scores, travel itinerary updates, and all the other card-based data points that already appear on Android phones via Google Now.

The system also relays a full suite of smartphone notifications, so if you receive a phone call or text message, you can take action directly from your Android Wear watch. It looks like every Android Wear watch will include a microphone, so if you receive a text, you can use voice recognition to dictate a reply directly into the watch’s Hangouts app.

Google describes the concept as “information that moves with you,” and illustrates it to great effect in the video below.

How is Android Wear different from other smartwatch operating systems?

Google is intent on making Android Wear navigation as painless as possible, relieving the user of excessive UI manipulation. Android Wear watches will run apps, but unlike other smartwatch systems, it doesn’t expose a home screen with a typical grid of app icons. Instead, all Android Wear apps, notifications and Google Now alerts appear as cards that sweep on and off the home screen—either in reaction to an external signal (e.g., a location trigger) or by a user voice command (e.g., “OK Google, where’s the nearest sushi restaurant?”). 

android wear sports score

When you’re giving your kid a bath, you can’t grab your smartphone—but you can still summon a sports score on your Android Wear watch with a simple “OK Google” voice command.

In the video below, developer advocate Timothy Jordan explains that Android Wear is designed to be “simple, glanceable and built on micro-interactions.” This would stand in contrast to Samsung’s smartwatch platform, which includes relatively complex, oftentimes fussy features like photo-capture, voice calling, and heart-rate monitoring. 

In essence, Android Wear emphasizes brief, fleeting information snippets. The idea is to keep you out of the Android Wear interface until you really need contextual information. It’s a philosophy, Jordan says, that’s designed to help users be “more present in the real world yet more connected to the virtual world.” 

How do you navigate an OS without a home screen?

There doesn’t appear to be much to navigate. You can expect a default watch face that reveals the current time and weather. Beyond that, it looks like Android Wear surfaces contextual information and app notifications on an ad-hoc basis. You can swipe through these cards with basic touch gestures, and also get information on demand with voice commands.

To keep the user interface as simple as possible, Google employs two rudimentary navigation schemes—“stacks” and “pages”—for both native and third-party apps. Multiple notifications from an individual app are grouped together in a single “stack” of cards, and when you receive a particularly lengthy notification, it can be broken up into a series of “pages.” Both navigation principles help mitigate the screen real estate constraints of small smartwatch displays. 

moto 360 hangouts

With voice commands, you can use Hangouts messaging directly from your wrist.

Will you need third-party apps?

Not necessarily. Google is promising developers that their existing smartphone apps will still send simple notifications to Android Wear, even if they don’t change a single line of code. However, developers will be encouraged to take a few extra steps to improve user experience.

According to Google, adding “just a few lines of code” will allow developers to leverage stacks, pages and simple notification replies. And by using the full SDK—which still hasn’t been released—developers will be able to customize their services for a more robust Android Wear experience. Among other tricks, the SDK will facilitate the creation of custom app UIs; the ability to gather sensor data from other wearables and expose it on the watch; and the registration of entirely new “OK Google” voice actions.

Which companies have announced Android Wear hardware?

Motorola has announced the Moto 360, while LG has announced the G Watch. Beyond those two highly anticipated smartwatches, we know that HTC, Samsung, Asus and the fashion brand Fossil have been announced as Android Wear partners. It’s just currently unclear whether this second group of manufacturers will be making watches, or merely supporting Android Wear hardware from other companies.

That said, the rumor mill is rife with murmurs about other watches. One report says Samsung will reveal an Android Wear device at Google I/O on Wednesday. Another rumor says HTC will launch a watch called called the One Wear in late August or early September. 

What are the specs and release date for the Moto 360?

This watch is most noteworthy for its circular display and wireless charging. We don’t know its exact dimensions, but a photograph of a prototype in a Google blog post suggests it will be a relatively large device—at least compared to a traditional wristwatch.

moto1 Image: Google

It’s just a prototype, but the Moto 360 in this image appears as large as some espresso cup saucers.

The Moto 360 has no USB port (reinforcing its wireless charging method), and just a single physical button that mimics the crown of a traditional watch. It has a water-resistant stainless steel case, and will launch “in a selection of styles.” We expect both steel and leather band options, and Motorola says the band can be swapped out by the user. Because the display is fully digital, its orientation can be flipped, allowing the Moto 360 to be worn on either hand with the “crown” button still pointing away from your elbow.

It will not come with any camera. Phone support will be limited to handsets running Android 4.3 and later Android OSes. Motorola says the Moto 360 will launch this summer. There’s no word yet on pricing (let alone processor, storage or battery specs), but the Moto 360 is expected to be one of the more expensive Android Wear devices available.

What are the specs and release date for the G Watch?

When it comes to the G Watch, we have the official word from LG (which doesn’t share much) and an unsubstantiated leak from @UpLeaks (which shares a whole lot, but may not be true).

This is what’s been confirmed: The G Watch will have an always-on, square display that never sleeps. The device features a metal body that’s scratch- and water-resistant, and the watch comes in two color themes: white and black. There doesn’t appear to be a traditional USB port on the watch, but there is some type of five-contact dock connector, suggesting a proprietary (and traditional wired) charging method. The G Watch clearly has a microphone for voice commands, but beyond that we don’t know any verified hardware specs.

g watch white black Image: LG

The tweet from @UpLeaks tells a much more detailed (if unverified) story. According to the purported leak, the G Watch will weigh 61 grams; measure 37.9 x 46.5 x 9.95 millimeters; and boast a 1.65-inch, 280x280 LCD display. A 400 mAh battery is rated for 36 hours of use, and the leak suggests the G Watch includes 4GB of storage.

Obviously, all of this tweeted information is hearsay, but we should know details in short order, as LG maintains the watch will be released in Q2 2014, which is almost over. Most pundits expect the hardware to be given away free as a development tool to all Google I/O attendees.

Onward and upward

We’ll update this FAQ as more information becomes available—and there’s sure to be an avalanche of new details at Google I/O 2014. In the meantime, please tweet your FAQ requests to @JonPhillipsSF. We want to answer all your questions.

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