Android Wear 2.0 could bring us the smartwatches we were promised

Smartwatches have generally failed to live up to their enormous promise, but Android Wear 2.0, formally announced at Google I/O, could be our deliverance.

As a technology writer, it’s surprisingly easy to become nonchalant and disenchanted with the latest advances in gadgetry. Smartwatches, particularly, are sore point in the industry; some swear by them, while others, such as myself, see the genre as one that has yet to prove it can fulfil its promises. Android Wear 2.0, announced at Google’s I/O yesterday, might go a long way to proving that smartwatches are here to stay.
While Android Wear has been doing an acceptable job in recent years, it’s been difficult to find a truly exciting specimen amongst its ranks. While Motorola’s Moto 360 might have the smarts and the Huawei Watch a convincing beauty, there’s been little to get truly thrilled about.
Read: Top 5: Best wearables of 2016
Our Editor Theunis van Rensburg recently had the Gear S2 atop his wrist, which runs Tizen, while our Staff Writer Jaco van der Walt owns an Apple Watch. We took those head-to-head in Episode 28 of Bandwidth Blog On Air, and found that while both hold promise, neither at this stage is perfect.

A standing argument has been that for smartwatches to develop to a point where they are truly indispensable, we’ll have to wait at least as long for smartphones to get to where they are now. I was a proponent of that belief up until yesterday.
Android Wear 2.0 is the platform’s first major update since 2014, and, much to everyone’s surprise, only brings key upgrades to three areas. Thankfully, Google has paid significant attention in what amounts to perhaps the most imminently successful attempt to break wearables out of a rut.

A face full of apps

The first are is one that, at surface value, is quite modest. Android Wear 2.0 brings the ability to customise any watch face with information obtained directly from Android Wear apps.
The problem with smartwatches has been – so far – the limited amount of real estate that a device can use to show information. The Apple Watch, for instance, makes use of a frankly ridiculous square screen and a small digital crown in an effort to depict data that comes close to trying to read the makeup of coffee beans on a bleary Monday morning.

“The problem with smartwatches has been – so far – the limited amount of real estate that a device can use to show information.”

With updated watch faces, users are able to project personalised information atop their wrist, and, at last, the advent of glancing to your wearable becomes truly meaningful.

Can you read my handwriting?

Speaking of small spaces, another area where wearables suffer is in contextual input, either through speech or writing. The latter can be taken care of easily, but is a challenge to force users to adopt. Handwriting, instead, is the more logical approach for privacy purposes – and Android Wear 2.0 hits the nail on the head by upgrading handwriting recognition.
Granted, Google speakers had more than one hitch demonstrating this feature at I/O. However, the greater premise of the upgrade speaks volumes; Google is actively considering how users input data to their wearable device, rather than force a stymied hands-off approach through the likes of Now or Assistant.

Android Wear 2.0 hits the nail on the head by upgrading handwriting recognition.

Keyboards are nigh-on useless on smartwatches from my perspective, and its disappointing that Android Wear persists in retaining a keyboard for when the device it is housed within goes rogue from a phone. While I’d personally like to see Google totally embrace accurate handwriting input, this represent the start of something big.

Hands-off fitness tracking

Smartphone dependancy is another obstacle that hinders wearables from truly taking off, and gradually, we’re seeing fitness trackers and smartwatches alike become self-sufficient. Specifically, in regards to fitness tracking, this is an obstacle neither operating system provider nor manufacturer have been able to tackle gracefully.

“With apps now effectively communicating with one another aboard their platform, wearables just got that more useful.”

Thanks to a new update to the Google Fit framework, Google has provided a means around this: apps are now capable of passing information to and from one another. Calories that’ve been consumed can be counted in one app, while calories that’ve been burnt can be counted in another.
Thankfully, users will now also be able to leave their smartphones at home while going for an evening jog, and will be able to send and receive data through a cellular connection alone if their relevant wearable supports one. With apps now effectively communicating with one another aboard their platform, wearables just got that more useful.

A future for the smartwatch

With these core improvements, Google has tackled three divisive elements that plagued consumer interaction with Android Wear devices (and wearables, generally); the usefulness and relevance of information, input, and dependancy.
While this won’t be a revolution overnight – we’ll have to rely on some savvy manufacturers for that – Android Wear 2.0 could very well bring us the smartwatches we were promised right in the beginning. It’s a surprising break in a slow and steady upward trend for smart wearables, but hopefully, it’s one that will quickly change the trend of wearables from being dispensable luxury into indispensable tools.
Read: Top 5: Problems with Smartwatches
What are your thoughts on Android Wear 2.0? What can Google address next in improving the next generation of smartwatches? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!
Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA
Read the full list of updates to Android Wear 2.0 here