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Google debuts lightweight Android Wear OS

Mar 18, 2014  |  Eric Brown
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Google debuted a Google Now-infused Android Wear platform for wearables based on a lightweight version of Android, which will first appear in an LG G Watch.

Google announced a wearable development platform called Android Wear, and released it as a developer preview. Based on a lightweight version of Android, Android Wear will first appear in the second quarter in a watch built by LG. Although it had been rumored that the LG-built watch would be released under a Nexus brand, there’s no mention of this in LG’s brief announcement of the G Watch.



LG G Watch
(click image to enlarge; source: Android Police)

LG produced an image of a typically squarish smartwatch — no groundbreaking bendable here — but had no details except to say that the watch would “present a low barrier to entry for developers.” Current rumors about the watch suggest a basic design not much different from other existing Android smartwatches.

Due in the second quarter, the G Watch will be followed by a Motorola watch running Android Wear. Motorola, which is still owned by Google, but is heading soon to the waiting arms of Lenovo, also publicly announced it is working on an Android Wear based smartwatch. Motorola has previously released an Android-based smartwatch called the MotoACTV, one of the other major Android-based smartwatches along with the original Samsung Galaxy Gear and Sony’s SmartWatch 2.



Android Wear smartwatch concept
(click image to enlarge; source: Google)

According to Google, “We’re also already working with several consumer electronics manufacturers, including Asus, HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung; chip makers Broadcom, Imagination, Intel, Mediatek and Qualcomm; and fashion brands like the Fossil Group to bring you watches powered by Android Wear later this year.”

The mention of Samsung is somewhat unexpected, considering that it’s pushing its own Tizen-based Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo smartwatches, due in April. Samsung released the Tizen SDK for Wearable platform only yesterday (see farther below).

As with Samsung’s Gear 2 watches, Android Wear devices are intended for syncing to Android mobile devices via Bluetooth, but unlike the Samsung-focused Gear 2 devices, they will support any up-to-date Android device. It’s unclear if users of other mobile platforms will enjoy any connectivity with the devices.

Also unclear is how much overlap there is here with the Google Glass eyewear platform, and how much control Google will exert over hardware requirements. Google has used a relatively hands-off approach with Android and phones and tablets, but has had stricter requirements for Chrome OS and Google TV devices.



Android Wear receiving notifications from an Android phone
(click image to enlarge; source: Google)

Android Wear extends Android’s notification system in various ways, offering updates of news, messaging, and social media. Because it works with Android’s existing notification system, it will be easier to adapt existing apps, says Google. Notification extras include stacked notifications of multiple similar updates.

The interface is based on individual “cards” which can include up to three potential response actions, or none at all. Users can view a “context stream” of all “glanceable” update cards by swiping vertically. “Your application can create cards and inject them into the stream when they are most likely to be useful,” says Google. There’s also a multiple page option, letting you swipe horizontally to bring up secondary notification cards to extend a single update card. Such cards can include tappable buttons for taking action. Android Wear also lets users respond to a message with voice input or predefined text replies.



Android “Context Stream” and “Cue Card” demos
(click images to view animation; source: Google)

The major breakthrough in Android Wear is the integration of the Google Now intelligent personal-assistant technology, letting users vocalize natural language queries to a device starting with “Ok Google.” Available on the latest Android phones, as well as Google Glass, Google Now not only responds to voice queries, but provides a cue card — list of tappable options that would likely be required in that situation.

Android Wear adds support for various sensors that vendors might add to their smartwatches and other wearables, although few details were supplied. The video also shows the presence of a version of Google Maps for directions.

One unanswered question is whether Google plans to offer more support for a more standalone wearable that does not require Bluetooth interaction with a phone. Upon first glance, however, the initial version appears to be aimed at relatively low-end devices.

The developer preview is available under a “limited, worldwide, royalty-free, internal-use, non-assignable and non-exclusive license.” No promises were made for open sourcing the platform, although this will likely occur once the first devices ship.



Android Wear in the Android emulator
(click image to enlarge)

The preview lets you run Android Wear in the Android emulator, and connect an Android device to the emulator to “view notifications from the device as cards on Android Wear,” says Google. Although it includes APIs for most of the above basic features, including voice replies and notification pages, Google says that more “developer resources and APIs” are coming soon.

 
Android Wear demo videos

A pair of Android Wear demo videos appear below. The first is basically lightweight marketing fluff, while the second briefly introduces the Android Wear SDK developer preview, and urges developers to get onboard creating innovative apps for Google’s new wearable platform. Also, don’t miss the update on Samsung’s Tizen SDK release for its Gear smartwatches, below the videos.




Android Wear: Information that moves with you

 



Introducing Android Wear Developer Preview

 
Samsung ships Tizen SDK for its Gear smartwatches

Like Android Wear devices, Samsung’s Tizen Linux-based Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo are primarily companion devices to Bluetooth connected smartphones rather than full-fledged wrist computers. The day before Google announced Android Wear, Samsung released “Tizen SDK for Wearable,” which will allow app development on the Gear 2 smartwatches, as well as future Tizen wearables.



Samsung Gear 2; Gear 2 Neo; Gear 2 Neo back
(click images to enlarge)

The SDK appears to be more fully developed than the Android Wear preview, and the first Gear 2 devices are expected to ship in April, at least a month ahead of the LG G Watch. The open source Tizen software development kit includes a Tizen Wearable IDE for Ubuntu, Mac OS X and Windows PCs. An emulator and tool-chain are also provided, along with details on a certification process for testing Gear apps, and a secure code signing process.

Tizen SDK for Wearable provides three app modes: one for basic, standalone Tizen widgets, and two for linking Tizen widget apps with host apps running on the smartphone. For now, “host” means a recent Samsung phone or tablet running Android.

The “Integrated” mode lets developers package the Android app and host-side Tizen app together. The Tizen app then installs an appropriate widget on the smartwatch. A “Master-Follower” mode enables separately packaged Android host apps and host-side Tizen Gear apps. This is likely how you would add Gear connectivity to a pre-existing Android app.

Tizen SDK for Wearable uses Tizen’s lightweight, HTML5-based Web Runtime (WRT). The WRT connects with the mobile device over Bluetooth, Bluetooth Lower Energy (BLE), or WiFi with the assistance of a Wearable Manager Service located on the watch and a Gear Manager on the Android smartphone.

A Samsung Accessory Protocol (SAP) service based on Samsung Mobile SDK 1.5 brokers the communications between the two devices. The beta-stage Samsung Mobile 1.5 adds an Accessory package that supports Gear connectivity for notifications, controlling music playback, and other update tasks.

Samsung also announced 23 available Tizen apps that run on the leather and metal Gear 2 and the similar, plastic-design Gear 2 Neo devices. This assortment of fitness, social networking, music, and productivity apps includes few big names, but covers most of the major tasks one might run on a smartwatch. By the time the watches ship in April, there will be 100 apps, says Samsung.

Like the Android-based Galaxy Gear smartwatch released last year by Samsung, the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo feature a 1.63-inch, 320 x 320-pixel Super AMOLED screen. A 1GHz, dual-core processor is accompanied by 512MB RAM and 4GB flash. Bluetooth 4.0 is available, along with a 2-megapixel camera that can record 720p video.

The Gear 2 watches provide fitness sensors including a heart rate sensor, pedometer, accelerometer, and gyroscope. The smartwatches offer IP67 water and dust protection, and the 300mAh battery is said to last 2-3 days under typical usage.

Sadly, the most stylish of the three smartwatches announced by Samsung last month — the bendable Gear Fit — runs on a real-time operating system instead of Tizen. It will therefore have a much more limited number of apps.

 
Further information

Android Wear is available now as a developer preview, and will ship in the LG G Watch in the second quarter, followed by devices from Motorola and others later in the year. More information may be found in the Android Wear blog announcement and Android Wear preview page.

Samsung’s Tizen SDK for Wearable is available now for open source download. More information may be found at the Tizen SDK for Wearable announcement and the Tizen SDK for Wearable developers page.
 

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