Android Wear adds Wi-Fi, emoji and always-on support as iPhone app chatter persists

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Android Wear, perhaps the least fussy and fiddly of all smartwatch platforms, is about to get even easier to use. Google will soon roll out a system update that adds improved support for Android Wear’s always-on mode; gestures that make scrolling through notifications easier; and even the ability to scribble emojis directly on your watch screen.

There’s also new Wi-Fi support, letting you use all of Android Wear’s functions even when your phone is beyond Bluetooth range. It’s an ambitious collection of tricks—arguably Google’s biggest Android Wear update ever—and it’s being revealed just days before Apple begins shipping its Apple Watch, the most anticipated smartwatch of all.

The timing is thick with intrigue, especially in light of renewed chatter that Google is aiming to pair Android Wear watches with iPhones. A source with knowledge of Google’s plans has told Greenbot that Google’s Android Wear iOS app is essentially done.

More about the iPhone angle at the bottom of this article. For now, let’s jump into the Android Wear update that Google announced Monday in a blog post, and will first appear in the LG Watch Urbane when that smartwatch is released in the coming weeks. 

Always-on support for apps

One of Android Wear’s best features is its always-on watchface: a black-and-white dial persists in “ambient” mode, allowing you to glance at the time even when you haven’t raised the watch to your face. With the new Android Wear update, app developers will be able to use that same battery-saving ambient mode, adding more utility to apps we use for extended periods.

As you can see in the animation below, the ambient mode is useful for navigation and note-taking apps that you want to keep on-screen and check periodically. 

Android Wear Always On apps

This feature is available to all app developers, but will roll out first in Google’s Keep and Maps apps. There won’t be any settings in the Android Wear app to toggle always-on mode for individual apps that support the feature. Instead, developers who take advantage of ambient mode will need to provide that switch in their own software.

“It’s up to the developer on how they want to implement that, but we expect them to do the right thing,” said Jeff Chang, lead project manager for Android Wear. “But of course if you have a shopping list, and it’s in this ambient mode, and you decide ‘I don’t want that,’ you just exit the app. That doesn’t change.”

In person, the ambient-mode apps look great. Now Google just needs to go one step further, and make it possible for all operation to be black-and-white (at the user’s discretion) to save battery life.

Scroll gesture and contacts launcher

Android Wear users already know the hassle of scrolling through notifications when their hands are full. Google is addressing this problem with two new wrist-flick gestures that scroll back and forth through notifications. It’s as intuitive as what you see in the animation below:

Android Wear Always On apps

The new gestures should come in handy when you’re carrying packages, cradling infants, or Segwaying through your utopian corporate campus. 

Google is also adding an apps and contacts launcher directly to Wear’s main UI—a long-awaited feature that obviates the need for third-party apps like Wear Mini Launcher. Swipe left once to access a list of your most frequently used apps. Swipe left again for a list of frequently used contacts. Tap on a contact, and you get all of Wear’s communication options: send a text, call, etc.

Android Wear apps and people launcher

Once you use an app or contact, Android elevates it to the top of your lists, making sure your most frequently used items are front and center.

Wi-Fi support and emoji draw

Some Android Wear watches already have built-in Wi-Fi that’s sitting dormant. But Wi-Fi is a top-line feature of the upcoming LG Watch Urbane, and this will be the first model to take advantage of the system update’s Wi-Fi support. The new feature lets you get notifications, use apps, and send Hangout messages even when your phone is out of Bluetooth range. 

For me, this means I can leave my phone upstairs, but still use my Wear watch in the backyard. Wi-Fi will drain your watch battery faster than Bluetooth, but data transfers between your phone and watch will be faster. Stay tuned for watch manufacturers other than LG to announce the Wi-Fi feature on their own.

The final update feature puts emoji messaging right on the tip of your finger. Using the same core technology employed in Google’s handwriting keyboard, the system update lets you draw emoji characters directly on the watch screen. Android Wear recognizes what you’ve drawn, and then shoots back a set of the closest matching emoji. From there, you can message the fully rendered emoji icons to your contact—a nice convenience for those times when you just shouldn’t voice-dictate an intimate message into your watchface.

android wear emoji Florence Ion

Chang said Google collected “a hundred-something thousand” emoji samples from dog-fooding Googlers, and fed them into a training model to arrive at the accuracy of the emoji recognition engine. I only saw it in action briefly, but was impressed by the engine’s ability to render very fine finger strokes, and recognize bus and cat emojis from the simplest of scribbles. Seriously: That doodle in the image above is a thumbs-up?

The system’s emoji picker elevates your most recent choices to the top, and you can string emoji together for fully-formed sentences—or literary synopses. The new emoji draw feature is implemented on the system level, so it will automatically be available to all messaging apps, not just Hangouts, whenever you see Android Wear’s voice prompt.

Android Wear emoji animation

iPhone support imminent?

If you’ve been following the smartwatch scene, you can’t help but draw comparisons between Google’s new emoji feature and Apple’s approach to the same problem of sharing discreet personal messages without using voice dictation. Well, if the stars align just so, iPhone users may eventually be able to try Google’s emoji approach for themselves.

A source with knowledge of Google’s plans told me Google’s development of an Android Wear app for iPhone is essentially complete, and he’s “fairly sure” Google has submitted the app to Apple. Because app approval remains up in the air, Google decided to announce its latest version of Android Wear—code-named “Diamond”—on Monday without any mention of iOS support, the source said.

Of the possibility of an iOS app, a Google spokesperson told me, “We don’t have anything to announce right now.” 

My source’s information basically matches up to what was reported by The Verge two weeks ago. It’s also worth noting that Google’s Chang expressed interest in cross-platform compatibility when he spoke to The Huffington Post last October. 

The prospect of pairing a G Watch Urbane or Huawei Watch to iPhones could be enticing for iOS users who’ve vested themselves in the Google apps and services universe—or simply want an elegant-looking smartwatch with a round display.

Apple’s developer’s guidelines specifically reject apps that mention competing platforms, but perhaps Google has worked out a deal to get around it. That’s certainly a possibility considering the development resources we can surmise Google has dedicated to the iOS effort.

For now, the latest Android Wear update is only for Android phone users. We’ll post information on the US availability of LG Watch Urbane, the first watch to receive the system update, as soon as it’s available.

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