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What’s the word on Android Wear?

By Evan Wade / July 9, 2014


What’s the word on Android Wear?

Sometimes a giveaway is more than a giveaway. Although Google certainly “went Oprah” with attendees of I/O 2014, they also opened several products to general sale through the Play Store. The speed with which they announced and released Wear—especially as compared to the longer, slower path Google Glass has taken thus far—showed that Mountain View has no problem abruptly switching courses.

While we don’t know exactly where Glass will end up in the pantheon of early wearables, the fact is that Wear is on the market now. That makes it worth paying attention to as a consumer or app developer. After all, Google tends to treat people who invest in their ecosystem well on both sides of the counter.

The (early) reviews are in

Android Wear’s brief life on the consumer market has not been free of problems. A DRM/encryption error has made it hard for early adopters to install their paid apps across devices—a major problem for a product that makes a huge deal over cross-device compatibility. Reputable sites like Ars Technica have taken a two-pronged opinion, praising the software while calling the current available hardware “frustrating”.

That’s not to say the software itself is perfect. The Ars article says some features (spoken-word media controls, for instance) are “instantly useful,” but is also quick to say other key utilities (i.e. Maps) are pretty bad out of the box. The reviewer even suggests the issues may be bad enough to warrant a slew of returns like we saw with the Samsung Galaxy Gear.

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The good news? These are all issues that can be fixed. New hardware—including the rounded Moto 360 devs oohed and aahed over at I/O—will be hitting the market soon, and Google is far from the first mobile industry giant to have serious issues with its GPS software. Assuming those issues are fixed and Google keeps building the platform, smartwatches have a serious shot at becoming the next must-have device for connected professionals and others.

Intermediary aspirations

While Wear isn’t super useful by itself, it can make the smartphones that revolutionized telecommunications even more convenient in a number of ways. Wear’s authentication abilities are a good example. Properly configured, Wear-enabled smartwatches will be able to unlock Android devices of all sorts (phones, tablets, cars…) and Chromebook devices, removing the need for passcodes or patterns. It’s not ideal for super-secure environments, but it’s a welcomed replacement for those dorky-looking, SIM-chipped ID cards many professionals have to wear around their necks or clipped to their belts nowadays.

The Access Notifications API—another feature we’ve spent some time nerding out about—further cements Wear’s usefulness as a complementary platform. In our opinion, this is Wear’s secret weapon, at least on the development side. By lowering the barrier to taking an app cross-platform, Google ensures all sorts of third-party devs will latch into their suite of form factors. If nothing else, you’ve gotta hope this particular bit of philosophy catches on among competitors like Apple and Microsoft, allowing and encouraging developers to take advantage of the smartwatch ecosystem.

Keep it in context

Android Wear comes designed for touch devices, but a relatively small screen calls for non-physical interaction, too. That’s where Google Now comes in. Called Wear’s “Killer App” by TechCrunch, the software takes a contextually aware approach to providing information, relying on spoken commands as well as data like planner dates and GPS locations.

In some cases, that “context” relies largely on which form factor you’re using. A recipe app like Allthecooks could, for instance, show you the whole recipe on your smartphone, while displaying step-by-step “cards” (accessed by spoken command) and timer info on the waterproof Wear device. Asking about a theme park in an Android-connected car might prompt different results than those pulled up on a tablet. In either case, Wear is the lynchpin of the experience, taking and disseminating commands to the appropriate larger device as it sees fit.

We were also intrigued by some of the travel-related use cases presented during I/O: especially the example where users could load a boarding pass on their tablet, then have GPS-enabled reminders guide them around their destination via Wear watch. As translation services improve and evolve, it’s cool to consider the idea of having your Wear watch translate spoken English to, say, Mandarin or Spanish. a Now-enabled translator could even decide which dialect to use based on your regional location.

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Wear in and out of the living room

Android Wear and the newly announced Android TV are a match made in heaven. As an early Xbox One adopter, I can say with some authority that I love my Kinect and the ability to give Netflix and other apps spoken commands—even if the distance between my couch and television diminishes the accuracy a bit.

By working as a relay between user and unit, Wear can use the cloud to transmit information to far-off devices without relying on their far-off microphones. For Android TV, a service designed to answer questions like “Who’s that actress?” and “What other movies has this director made?” that’s huge. Better yet, the card system utilized by Wear/Android L means your smartwatch and phone can deliver more contextually appropriate information without taking up real estate on the largest screen.

Just imagine seeing a commercial for a restaurant you’d like to try while watching your Android TV. You ask your watch to dig up some info on the place via Google Now. Soon, their Yelp page has loaded on your tablet, hours have appeared on a card on your Wear watch, and coordinates have been loaded into your Android-connected car. Google Now also alerts the restaurant of your impending arrival, allowing them to prepare your table in advance and track their commercial’s effectiveness in real-time through connected services. You could even choose a drink and appetizer on your way through your smartwatch.

It sounds pretty crazy, but it’s absolutely all within the realm of probability—and soon. Throw in scaling and automated backend services like those offered on Google’s Cloud Platform and you have a system built to empower business customers and regular users. And Google, of course.

Wear, ecommerce, and the IoT

Google’s dual benefits apply for more than multi-screen interactions. Combine your hardware with devices like iBeacons (which have full support libraries for Android devices already), and you have a platform that could do wonders for the Internet of Things.

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The possibilities are about as close to endless as it gets. Malls and individual stores could scan smartwatch-wearing users to see which areas of their properties get the most foot traffic—an ever-valuable bit of data that will only increase in relevance as more people adopt wearable technologies. Warehouses could monitor and gear employee rotations for max efficiency. Smart home devices like the popular Philips Hue could register various users’ preferences for lighting by monitoring their individual devices.

Smartwatches can also serve as a great buffer between e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. That’s especially true for forward-thinking companies like Wal-Mart, which already allow customers to scan their purchases via smartphone with their Scan & Go program. Price-checking apps, instant checkout services (especially with connected services like Google Wallet), and speedy mobile payments are just three major changes we can expect to see from retailers in the very near future.

The more objects Android Wear can interact with, the smarter and more independently useful it can become. As always, public adoption will play a huge hand in how quickly IoT connectivity springs up around Wear, but we’re sure companies like Wal-Mart will also help push things forward in these early days.

Where does Wear go?

The more we see of Wear, the more we like it. While the reviews aren’t universally positive, there’s enough promise to keep us excited. Google is trying a whole bunch of new stuff at once, and they have a real shot at revolutionizing the world of smart devices because of it. Growing pains are to be expected.

For now, we’ll wait and see what cool uses come from the hardware and software we have. Devs have already started creating games for the wrist-worn platform, and we’re sure coming days will be fraught with even more great reviews and horror stories as more units ship. Until then, we can only watch—and hope—for Android Wear to reach some of that potential that got it out the gate so fast to begin with.

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