Android Wear walkthrough: an early peek into Google's new smartwatch software


The key takeaways from the last six to ten months we spent covering the nascent wearables industry are two: that very same industry will have us believe both that the proverbial future is finally here, and that it deserves a permanent spot (primarily) on our wrists. 

But are we really there already? If we have to be completely honest, we've been mostly pessimistic about this whole ordeal. Sure, there is no way that smart wearables won't catch up now that such a wide array of manufacturers got behind the idea, and we never really doubted that. However, the crux of the problem has long been the rather neutral stance of the software bigwigs -- Apple, Google, Microsoft -- who have, until now, mostly steered away from the niche. With Google's launch of the Android Wear platform, however, all of this is about to change, and while the future is still as hard to tell as ever, it does seem almost certain that wearables are here to stay. For now.

"So, what's Android Wear all about, then?", a question that many of you will, at one point or another, ask. And rightfully so, seeing as the highly moldable Android OS has already been miniaturized and tweaked heavily in order to fit on a watch face as small as 1.5-inches. In a big way, Android Wear is exactly that -- a shrunken down OS stripped down to the fundamentals that make sense on a wearable device -- contextual awareness, voice commands, and convenient access to notifications. The walkthrough we have prepared for you is based on an early, preview version of Wear, mind you, but it still should give you a good idea of the foundations on which the software will evolve, at least design wise. 

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Right now, it seems pretty certain that Google intends for Android Wear to be an extension of the full-fledged OS that powers your smartphone, instead of a heap of code that operates independently, and that is increasingly looking like the wiser choice after you give it some thought. Future gazing aside, let's take a look at what we have right now.

A peek into Android Wear

In its current, preview form, Android Wear is something of a glorified notifications listener. This makes it exceedingly simple to operate and understand from the very onset, but right now there's really not much depth to it, and it needs to be paired up to your smartphone to really do anything.

An almost entirely gesture-based system, Wear is heavily dependent on swipes, with the occasional button making an appearance here and there. The home 'screen' only houses the time and a Google button that activates voice commands (which currently do not work). There's no watch face (or background, if you will) to talk of for the time being, but we're sure this will change soon. While still on the subject of the home screen, you can navigate back to it from anywhere in the software by tapping on the very top of the watch face, and you can also swipe down from the same spot in order to get a quick preview of the status bar, which in turn reveals the date and remaining battery charge.

In other words, Android Wear does little more than feed you a list of incoming notifications from your smartphone, at least in the early preview version of the software. Missed a call? Wear will know. Got a text? Wear has it. Listening to music? Wear is aware of it and even lets you quickly change the tune to the next in turn. Not at all groundbreaking, obviously, but that's only because we're so early into the process and we're looking at a very early piece of software. In fact, several pretty substantial features have been confirmed to be on their way already, and Google has even demoed them. These include voice commands and context and cue cards, the latter two of which are right below.

Context cards are really just an extension of Google Now cards, and even though they're not available in the preview just yet, a Google demo does exemplify a few use cases -- you can check your bookings and departures, for example, and it's probably safe to say that stuff like scores from the latest game of your favorite team and the stocks you care about will also quickly find their way into your context stream. Cue cards, on the other hand, fill the void that is left by the inherent imperfection of Google Now -- after all, it can't predict everything. When that is the case, cue cards will let you carry out actions such setting alarms, timers and reminders, taking notes, and it will even recognize the tune currently playing on the radio.

It should also be specifically pointed out that Android Wear will work with both circular and square watch face designs (and thus, screens), and that's exactly what makes smartwatches like the beautiful Moto 360 a possibility. That said, it remains to be seen just how much of a hassle designing for a circular frame would prove to be for developers.

Is Android Wear the push the wearables industry needs?

Android Wear is still awfully new -- the preview of the platform was nothing more than a fancy notifications feed -- but it's a crucial step moving forward if wearables are to become as big a part of our everyday lives as the industry wants them to. Admittedly, opposition to wearables has mounted in the past few months, as companies continue to fall short of the mark, but we wouldn't be so quick to dismiss smart wearables as a fad destined for extinction. It took the mobile phone industry decades until a company like Apple came along and disrupted the status quo, and though the wearables niche is still in its infancy, all clues point towards a future where its products will be as an embedded part of our lives as smartphones have become. With Google finally taking a firm stand, this notion echos more definitively than even two months ago.

But we're not quite there just yet. We simply can't stress enough just how early on the curve we are right now. But with countless companies struggling to make a buck in the merciless smartphone space, it likely won't be long until we have defectors willing to risk it into the next 'big' thing. Just how big of a thing are wearables going to be, though? Now that is a good question, and one that likely no one has a definitive answer of.

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