Google’s Smartwatches Now Let You Leave Your Phone at Home

WIRED: As he speaks, Jeff Chang surveys his kingdom. Android Wear’s product manager, the man most directly responsible for the progress of Google’s wearable platform, is seated at a large conference-room table in Google’s San Francisco office that is fully half-filled with Android Wear devices. No two are alike: seven different models, countless colors and bands. Every color of Sony Smartwatch 3 here, a dozen Moto 360s there. He’s wearing an LG Watch Urbane, and there are two others on the table. There’s a particularly gaudy Huawei Watch, which I can’t stop touching during our meeting. And all this, he says, gesturing around, is just the beginning.

It’s been a year since Google launched Android Wear to the public, and as hardware partners have jumped on board, Chang and his team have been working steadily to improve the platform. Today, they’re announcing some of its biggest changes yet. The biggest by far, the one that will quickly change how people use their smartwatches, is the introduction of advanced and reliable watch servicing, ensuring the watch’s ability to work even when it’s far away from your phone.

Chang says people hated that as soon as they walked outside, or even three rooms away, their watch stopped working. Google’s solution is a clever hack: Your watch can now connect to your phone via Wi-Fi (many models already have a Wi-Fi chip, it’s just been dormant until now, and the watch copies passwords and logins from your phone). As long as your phone is on and online, and your watch is connected to a Wi-Fi network, they can communicate from anywhere. Your phone’s still in charge of most processing and information, though. Chang says connecting a watch directly to the internet, convenient and obvious as it may be, would require re-architecting everything about Android Wear. But he smiles as he says it, and I start wondering where the team already working on it sits. Either way, the upshot is powerful: your phone can be across the room or across the world, and your watch will still work.

Apps come front and center

There’s lots more, but let’s talk about the most fun part first. With the new Android Wear update, you can send emoji to your friends by drawing them with your finger on your watch. Pick a contact and select “draw emoji,” then scribble your best thumbs-up, sushi, poop, or smiley face with a winky eye and tongue out, and your watch will guess which emoji you want to send. You’re essentially playing Emoji Pictionary with your watch at all times, which is incredibly strange and fun. It’s a clever, cross-app and cross-platform way of making it easy to communicate from a watch, but doesn’t require the other person to have one too. You can always dictate longer messages, but if a picture says a thousand words, an emoji says at least like 17.

A few of the other new Android Wear features feel like Google’s guesses as to how people might use their watches differently when their phone’s not just in their pocket. And, just as much, to give you more stuff to do: Chang is intent on proving that Android Wear isn’t “just about notifications.” Apps can now access Android Wear’s “ambient mode,” for one thing. They’ll run in a reduced-power state, but force the app to stay open and the screen to stay on. That way, you don’t have to go find your shopping list or directions every time you look at your wrist.

If your hands are full, a quick flick of your wrist will flip through the column of cards. Or swipe in from the right side of the screen, and you’ll see a list of your apps, the ones you used most recently at the top. Swipe over again, and you get a list of contacts. Both were buried deep in Android Wear’s menus before—you were just supposed to use your voice to launch apps or message someone. Google apparently learned that people like tapping and swiping, though, so now there’s more to tap and swipe.

A more powerful smartwatch

It’s a big shift for Android Wear, which has a head start on the Apple Watch simply by virtue of coming out first, but still hasn’t found a lot of user traction. Chang and his team seem to be developing a vision as they go, sussing out what people want and delivering it. The plan seems to run directly counter to Apple’s vision for the Watch, which is meant to be used quickly to do one thing, and then reset every time you put your wrist down. The Apple Watch wants to be quick, simple, and unobtrusive; Google wants Android Wear to be powerful, useful, and self-sufficient. You still need a phone, technically, but you don’t need it nearby anymore.

Google I/O is coming up at the end next month, and there will almost certainly be more watches and more apps at the company’s annual developer extravaganza. Apps are more present and more accessible than ever on Android Wear, which Google hopes will get more developers to build apps for wearable devices. Oh, and I’m pretty sure Chang’s itching to fill the other half of that table with smartwatches.