Google Wants You to Build a Watch App

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Google will kick off this week’s I/O conference in San Francisco with a lengthy keynote, and it’s likely that the executives onstage will devote a considerable amount of time to wearable electronics.

In previous years, Google used I/O to show off Google Glass, the company’s augmented reality headset. While Glass will surely make an appearance at this year’s show, the new Android Wear might seize much of the proverbial spotlight. After all, so-called “smartwatches” are supposed to become the Next Big Thing.

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In simplest terms, Android Wear ports the Android OS to smaller, wrist-centric hardware. As with Android for smartphones, the Wear APIs provide lots of context-specific notifications, such as calendar alerts and location-specific notes, and will respond to voice queries. The software will also interact with device sensors to monitor exercise, a crucial feature if Google and its manufacturing partners want to compete with the likes of the FitBit, FuelBand, and (possibly) Apple’s upcoming iWatch.

In a corporate blog posting earlier this month, Roman Nurik and Timothy Jordan, designer and developer advocates for Android Wear, encouraged developers to build for the nascent platform. “It was the most fun I’ve had designing UIs in a long time,” Nurik wrote. “Remember that feeling when you first dreamed up an app, mocked or even coded it up, and ran it on your Android phone? It was that same feeling all over again, but amplified, because you were actually wearing your app.”

Although the pair isn’t the most unbiased source, their blog posting does offer some insight into the development process for Android Wear, and how it differs from creating apps for traditional smartphones. Their example app guides the device wearer on a guided tour of a nearby location; after some debate, they decided to alert the wearer to a tour via the most unobtrusive means possible: a notification in the “context stream,” or the data that appears on the device’s screen.

“I’ve got to admit, it was pretty thrilling designing in such a constrained environment,” Nurik wrote. “140×140 dp (280×280 px @ XHDPI) isn’t a lot of space to work with, so you need to make some tough choices about when and how to present information.” The key is minimalism: which two or three pieces of information are most important, and how can the app present them in a way that works on both circular and square screens? After designing the interface, the two tested out their app on LG G Watch and Moto 360 prototypes.

Whether other developers prove so enamored of “constrained environments” is an open question, one that will ultimately determine how large of an app ecosystem eventually coalesces around “smartwatches” and other wearable electronics. At I/O, Google will certainly do its best to convince those developers that Android Wear is worth the investment.

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