During the Google I/O 2016 keynote address today, Google revealed a major update for the Android Wear platform taking it up to version 2.0. The operating system for smartwatches gets some updates to the user interface, new input methods to join voice commands, and maybe most importantly, enhances and continues moves to free Android Wear devices from reliance on a connection to a smartphone.
Once the initial phase of smartwatches passed and manufacturers started working on the second generation, one of the first changes was to add support for Wi-Fi so that users could access network connectivity outside of whatever they could achieve with their smartphone. Over time, we have even seen some devices get support for cellular data connections as well.
To take advantage of this additional hardware and to help users escape the need to keep their phones handy all the time, Android Wear 2.0 provides greater abilities for apps to communicate directly with the Internet using whatever connection is available. This will be especially useful for users who have Apple devices since iOS did not support an appropriate API for connecting Wear devices. This should open up the full capabilities of apps to all users regardless of what platform their smartphone is running. Hopefully app developers will take advantage of this new capability as well in producing more titles that can operate independently of a connected smartphone.
When it comes to the user interface, Google is making some changes to make things more consistent with their Material Design framework. Cards for notifications will now be light text on a dark background, making them less intrusive in low light situations and helping to conserve battery life. Smaller icons for notifications will be displayed and Google is adding an indicator bar that will help users determine how far through their notifications they are.
The Android Wear team is adding a new API for “complications” that can be used by developers to pass data to watch faces. Complications are bits of information that can be displayed on a watch face, like the current date or moon phases for example. The new API means developers can pass just raw data to the watch face and then watch face designers can customize the appearance to be more consistent with the rest of the watch face.
When in comes to input with Android Wear smartwatches, users have been limited to voice commands and canned responses. Google is adding a small, swipe-style keyboard to Android Wear 2.0 and an input method that will let users draw letters to spell out a message. These may not be the greatest solutions to the problem of using a smartwatch for two-way communication, but it is progress. The good news for developers is they will not need to do anything to enable these input methods in their apps if they have already added the code to support voice commands.
Finally, Android Wear 2.0 gets some auto activity detection features. When a user starts walking, running or biking, the device will automatically detect that activity and launch an appropriate app to start tracking. Google also changed the method that Google Fit communicates data changes so that apps do not have to constantly poll for updates.
Google indicated they are releasing a developer preview for Android Wear 2.0 today, but it will only work on the LG Watch Urbane Second Edition LTE and the Huawei Watch. Once finalized, Android Wear 2.0 should rollout to most devices, especially since Google severely limits OEM customizations.
Be sure to keep an eye on TalkAndroid for more coverage from Google I/O 2016.