Voice is not enough: Motion is key to Android Wear

analysis Early previews of Google's wearable platform focus on bringing Google Now's voice and touch control to a smartwatch, but Crave's Eric Mack says the real future is on the move.

Forget poetry, the future is wearables in motion. Motorola

Google and Motorola rolled out their joint vision of Android Wear, the Moto 360, and the future of wearables on Tuesday. (LG also gave us a taste of its upcoming G Watch.) Based on the few videos and all the information released for developers, it appears that Google's wearable platform is a fancy port of Google Now "cards" and voice control in a pretty spiffy, new form factor.

While this is the focus of the developer preview out this week, don't be fooled. Android Wear will be much more than just some full-faced watches that respond to speech, taps, and swipes. For the past few years now, Google has been telegraphing that it is much more interested in how we ambulate our entire bodies, not just our index fingers and vocal cords.

Last August, I went to New York to get my hands on the much-hyped Moto X. I spent a few weeks with a review unit and then sent it back and moved on to demo the other anticipated Android phones of the season -- like the Nexus 5. But when it came time for me to put my money where my mouth was and buy my next daily use device a few months later, I went with the already slightly aged and less powerful Moto X.

What sold me on the Moto X was its integration of a few features that are almost certainly heading for the Moto 360 and likely other Android Wear devices -- touchless control and activity recognition, and the seamless marriage of voice control and contextual awareness that still is not really offered on any other device.

Normally, my Moto X has an "active display" function that pulses on and off to show me the time and any new notifications. I can touch the screen to get more details on new notifications. That is, unless the phone is face down or in my pocket -- then it doesn't pulse on at all to conserve battery life. So, flipping my phone down and then back up is a very easy way to see new notifications with a flip of the wrist.

Hmmm. What other form factor might benefit from responding to such motion?

Get a move on
The Moto X also was among the first phones to take advantage of a new activity-recognition feature that lives in Location Services in Android and can discern if a user is walking, driving, or standing still, among other states. The Android Wear developer preview encourages programmers to become familiar with using activity detection and even geofencing to trigger contextual notifications on wearables. For example, if your phone detects that you're riding a bike, apps could automatically forward all notifications to the Wear-powered device on your wrist.

If you still don't think Android Wear is about motion and gestures as much as talking and tapping, take another look at Google's own introductory video. There's a rather comical scene in which a woman sprints to catch a plane, and her smartwatch detects the activity and automatically estimates how many calories she just burned; or the woman whose watch detects that she's dancing and offers to look up the song that's playing.

This last one in particular took me back to the floors of CES in Las Vegas this year where wearables abounded. Some of the more impressive devices were those that made use of programmable gestures. A small device called Kiwi demonstrated how it can be programmed to perform the same Shazam-like action when the user draws a musical note in the air -- this is perhaps a little more intuitive than having to get jiggy with it anytime you're curious about the title of a song.

And Google has clearly demonstrated that it is interested in merging gestures with contextual awareness as much as it is in getting us to speak to it no matter where we are.

In addition to its work on activity recognition in Android and with Motorola, Google recently bought a small Swiss app developer called Bitspin that is best known for making Timely, an Android app that is really a fancy alarm clock and makes use of -- you guessed it -- motion detection and gestures. What a, uh, "timely" acquisition that was for Google to make in the months leading up to the reveal of Android Wear.

Expect Android Wear to ultimately go even further than simply responding to the flick of a wrist and figuring out if you're walking or biking. In the full SDK, Google plans to introduce the ability to gather more sensor data. Android APIs currently include support for not just harvesting data from a phone's accelerometer, but also from a gyroscope, and sensors for temperature, light, pressure, proximity, humidity, rotation, linear acceleration, and even magnetic fields.

That's a whole lot of context that would be all the more powerful when paired with an arsenal of gestures.

Dick Tracy had part of the equation right -- a good wearable needs to be able to be spoken to, but to be truly smart, understanding body language is just as important.

 

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