Android Wear photo © Google
Android Wear, in case you don’t already know, is Google’s smartwatch platform and is closely linked to the popular Android smartphone operating system. Based on Linux it was announced in March 2014.
Like Android, Wear is open architecture, but unlike Android, Google has been much more restrictive about which elements OEMs can tweak. As a result many of the smartwatches running Wear function in exactly the same way as each other. This may change with future updates.
The fact that Google is behind the OS, and given Google’s unique handle on the ‘Big Data’ that it collects on a global yet intimately local basis, Wear has a unique position amongst the smartwatch platforms in being able to serve incredibly timely, accurate and pertinent information for its users.
From weather to traffic alerts, public transportation ETAs, live sports results and notifications ‘intelligently’ gleaned from your inbox (such as when your parcel from Amazon was dispatched) – you will always be kept informed.
This is Wear’s huge advantage over other wearable platforms – its ability, more than any other, to keep you a step ahead.
The other advantage Wear has, again like Android before it, is the sheer number of apps being developed for the platform, in part due to it’s popularity, and in part due to the open nature of the architecture. Recent history has shown that app-support for a platform is probably the single most critical factor to its and survival and growth. Those watches which come with the most useful and relevant OS will end up being the ones which will sell the most. The smartphone story has shown us that.
The default home screen is, as is the case with most smartwatches, a customisable watchface. There’s a choice of stylised faces which, as well as the time, integrate a range of live data such as weather, fitness activity information, etc. This is one aspect of the appearance where manufacturers have been given a free reign to stamp their mark on the design. The number of watchfaces available will depend on the manufacturer and whether the watch has a round or square/rectangular face. Currently, as there are a lot less round watches there are less round watchfaces available (however this looks to be changing with some very interesting unofficial – and some copyright-infringing – ones appearing on the Internet).
To change the watchface, you simply hold down on the screen and then swipe left or right to select your choice.
The screen itself remains in dimmed mode until ‘woken’ by tapping or raising to the face to view.
The primay interface method of Android Wear is through the use of Google Now ‘cards’. This is the same feature that is available on Android smartphones. Whenever you receive a notification via Google Now on your phone, you will simultaneously receive it on your watch.
Google’s access to the data it holds on us is what drives its systems, and Wear is no exception. From crowd-sourced traffic data to pulling out information in emails buried deep in your inbox such as those reminding you of a flight booking made months back (and all in a neat and ‘glancable’ format) Wear is able to use predictive analysis in a way other platforms aspire to.
Once in, the notification cards sit at the botton of the screen. Cards can take a number of forms, from notifying you of messages waiting to be read to pertinent information at appropriate times, such as how long your journey home should take. All notifications about messages from your contacts carry the profile picture of the person contacting you, where available.
Navigation around the interface is done primarily through swipes. Swipe up to see the full card for the notification, and further upward swipes will scroll through the other notifications. Tapping on the notification will give more details, or bring up the entire text in the case of messages.
Once a notification is up on screen, swipe to the left to perform actions or to see further information, so on a weather card, a left swipe will bring up the week’s weather, and with a text message, swiping left once will show the full meassage and swiping left once more will give the option to reply by voice dictation.
Swiping to the right on any notification will dismiss it (and will also dismiss the notification on the phone too) and move on to the next notification.
Navigation dots along the bottom of the display will indicate how many screens of information or options there are that you can scroll through for that particular notification.
Dragging down from the home screen gives you the option to mute notifications and also gives you the remaining battery level. The screen conveniently dims after a period of inactivity, and you can also manually set the brightness level of the screen should you wish.
The downside of Wear is that you will still need to refer to your phone to read longer messages with certain apps, and there are still some apps which do not give certain options (such as replying to message), referring you instead to the phone to do this, but this is being continuously addressed by app-developers with updates.
When you have an incoming phonecall the watch will vibrate and the screen will show who is calling. You can then swipe right or left to accept or reject the call. You cannot use the watch, however, to actually make calls (yet).
The voice-interaction is provided by Google, in the same manner as in Android phones and tablets. Saying “OK Google” prompts it to start listening out for your command. From this point you can request a number of things, such as searching for the nearest Italian restaurant, pictures of cute Macaques, or directions to the nearest cinema showing the latest blockbuster. And you can also perform various tasks, such as dictating a note, or message, or setting a reminder, all by using the appropriate command.
Voice recognition is very good and largely seamless right out of the box, although there will be times when it misunderstands you, or just doesn’t get it.
As with many hardware and software manufacturers, Google has also released its own version of a fitness and activity-tracking app called Google Fit. It collects a range of activity data and displays it in a variety of graphical formats. It also can connect to third party apps so that you can view your data in a format which is more familiar to you. Google Fit has had a major update (in Dec 2014) which now allows it to track up to 100 different activities. It can now automatically differentiate between, say, walking, running and cycling, so you won’t have to tell it each time.
In addition to this, you have the standard Google maps and navigation apps which have ported quite neatly to the wristwatch format. And there is the obligatory music player, which can play tracks independently of the phone.
Key 3rd party Apps:
There are currently around 200 apps for Wear (compared to over 1000 for Samsung’s Tizen OS), however the list grows daily.
While we wait for the inevitable Uber app (and for all those who aren’t so keen on using Uber anymore after the incidents of the past few weeks) there is an alternative in the form of Lyft which does come as a Wear app. Through a touch of your watchface, Lyft will send you a vetted local driver, let you know how much the journey will be, and let you pay through the app itself, so no fiddling around with cash.
Evernote have ported their popular note-taking app onto the Wear platform, and Glympse usefully lets you share your location with a friend when out-and-about.
Looking towards future homes and the potential wearable tech holds on that front, we have Hue, an app which allows you to control your home’s lighting from your wrist.