Are You Prepared for Android Wear Development? What You Need to Know

Written by: on April 16, 2014

A preview for Android Wear, Google’s new version of Android for smart watches, was released recently, but there isn’t much to it unless you read between the lines.

Looking at a large variety of resources, including blog posts, Dev Bytes, and the launch video (which you can find here), we can tell that Android Wear is all about information that’s fast, glance-able, and easily actionable with a quick touch or voice command. Although there are several simple examples that could easily take advantage of this new form factor, there is still room for extreme growth and innovation.

What to expect from the Android Wear Preview

What’s important to note is that this preview is not currently a complete package.

The only group of features developers are able to play with are variations of showing notifications on the wearable device. This is a great place to start, as it covers an important part of Android Wear’s UI, the Context Stream. The user can scroll the Context Stream up and down to explore all the notifications currently active, as well as scroll horizontally to explore additional actions relevant to each notification.

The way that Android Wear handles notifications will provide most Android apps basic functionality. Notifications will appear on the wearable, and, if the notification has an action on the device, a default “Open” action will be shown next to that notification. Wear also will add additional buttons on the wearable for each action in the device notification (like pause/next buttons in media players). On top of the “out of the box” showing of notifications, there are three new Wear specific functionalities: Voice Input, Pages, and Stacks.

The ability to receive Voice Input in response to a specific notification is simple on the surface, but deceptively powerful. For developers, setting up voice input if fairly straightforward, and the data returned is simple text that can be analyzed or parsed. The developer may also provide default responses to the user. These are typically easily identifiable neutral responses, like “Yes” and “No.”

Pages and Stacks are important to organizing information on wearable devices. Additional pages let users swipe to new pieces of related information. For instance, if a notification reminds the user of his or her flight information, there may be some additional information, such as traffic or weather information, on another page. Stacks are used to organize multiple notifications from the same application. Clicking the “More” button expands the stack into a vertically scrolling list. Applications may also place a summary notification on the handset, while the full list appears only on the wearable.

What should we expect from Android Wear

Google has acknowledged that the current preview SDK is incomplete and has promised several more features that are “Coming Soon.”

While the newly expanded Notifications API is nice, it’s the ability to build custom UI and “run activities directly on wearables,” that is the most promising new feature. Though needing more explanation, custom UIs will likely open up a lot of doors for expansion and innovation. If full fledged activities will be able to run on the wearable devices, several avenues through which new features can be designed will open up. Sports applications are a natural candidate for this feature, to show stats and scores on the fly, but any app with relevant, timely, and glance-able information can take advantage of the feature. One key component of this feature will be the ability to better communicate data between the wearable and the user’s main device.

Google has claimed that sending data through data replication APIs and RPCs will be added to the list of features. This will let the handheld device push data to the wearable to alter it’s behavior, an incredibly important feature when considering Google’s most recent update to the Locations API. The Location API can provide both geofencing data and activity context, reporting if the user is walking, driving, or biking, which can then be sent to the wearable. Google has also indicated that Control Sensors will be present on the wearable device. No detail is given on the nature of these sensors, so it’s unclear what kind of sensor data will be available. It’s likely we’ll see hardware manufacturers open up Wear to a bevy of fitness applications.

Google has also revealed the ability for applications to handle voice actions. This will be a part of the second major component of Android Wear’s UI, the Cue Card. This is a list of actions that can be scrolled through and activated by voice. Current examples of voice actions are simple tasks like “Remind me”, “Navigate,” and “Message.” There are a lot of possible ways that Google could handle designing this feature, but if applications can add entire new commands to the list, we can expect to see big new features in this area, such as the ability for users to sign up for push notifications of events or shows.

What don’t we know

All of these new features to explore are very exciting, but we are still missing several details.

We do know that Google has these additional features “Coming Soon.” This provides little to no information about how they’ll be implemented and the consequences of those implementations. Will apps need to register additional permissions to be able to use these features? Will this cause a big drain on battery life? There has been a lot of discussion, specifically about smart watches, but can we expect to see Android Wear put on other wearable devices, like Google Glass?

Despite lacking answers to many of these questions, we know that this new form factor is unexplored, and it offers plenty of room for developers and businesses to explore and innovate.

Taking a look at other smart watch platforms, such as Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear, we can see a relatively small number of apps present in their independent app stores. With Google Play, Android Wear is going to be bigger and better. If we look at Chromecast, a still fairly young product, we see Google showcasing apps that work with it right at the top of the categories list in Google Play. If the same treatment is given to Android Wear, we can expect the best apps with the most innovative Wearable features quickly floating to the top of that list.

Android Wear is a blank canvas, waiting for the top developers and the top brands to take advantage of its rich feature list.

If you’d like to give your brand a leg-up with Android Wear, contact Double Encore to start discussing your applications today.

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Joshua Lamson

Joshua Lamson

Joshua Lamson is a Software Engineer at POSSIBLE Mobile, specializing in Android Development. Joshua is a graduate of the Colorado School of Mines and has an affinity for rubik's cubes.
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