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Wearable Tech

Google's Wear OS updates hint at a wave of fitness smartwatches to come

September's revamp adds more Google Assistant, a swipe-down notification stream and easier Fit access.

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Google's newest Wear OS software updates will be arriving next month. New smartwatches should be coming, too.

Google

The competition among smartwatches and fitness wearables is heating up like never before: Fitbit has a new model, there's a new Samsung smartwatch and Apple is expected to have a new watch soon. Not surprisingly, Google is upping its game, too: The company's line of Wear OS smartwatches is getting some overdue software updates starting the middle of September, alongside a new set of smartwatches being announced at Berlin's IFA tech show

It's most likely the first shoe dropping before Qualcomm unveils new smartwatch chips next month -- prompting yet another wave of smartwatch hardware, including a possible Google-made Pixel watch that's expected alongside new Pixel phones in October.

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"We wanted to focus this release on quick, glanceable information," said Miles Barr, engineering director for Wear OS. The updates in the release coming next month are pretty straightforward stuff: a new swipe-up list of notifications for easier access to messages, plus a swipe-right gesture to bring up Google Assistant suggestions based on whatever you're currently doing. But it could be a hint at bigger things to come.

The swipe up, swipe down, swipe left-and-right additions.

Google

Heart rate and health focus this year

A year ago, Google and its smartwatch partners like Fossil Group leaned on fashion over fitness features, a decision that led to a wave of watches that felt feature-generic. This year, the plan's changing. "Most if not all the watches released this year will have heart-rate sensors," Barr says about Wear OS smartwatches. The just-announced Skagen Falster 2 is a good example: It has a full set of fitness features, as opposed to last year's sparser model.

It makes sense, since Google Fit -- the fitness-tracking portion of Wear OS -- has just been revamped with new Move Minute and Heart Point goals, designed to meet World Health Organization and American Heart Association metrics for daily fitness. That brings Google's offerings closer to what Fitbit, Apple, Garmin and others have on their fitness trackers. The two-ring fitness readout can be quickly checked with a swipe-left gesture. Heart Points are calculated using heart rate readings, although Google's also developed an algorithm to estimate Heart Points on Wear OS watches without heart rate.

There isn't any smart coaching, though... not yet, at least. According to Barr, this update to Wear OS is more about getting people familiar with the new fitness metrics. Google's head of Wear OS, Dennis Troper, previously suggested smart coaching is one of the upcoming features in Wear OS watches with Qualcomm's next-generation smartwatch chip. That could end up being an announcement in a few weeks at Qualcomm's Sept. 10 event.

Google

A shift in Google Assistant, and notifications

Wear OS will also handle notifications differently, opting for a stream of information that can be accessed with a swipe up. It's closer to what the Apple Watch offers now, with a promise of contextual responses for each notification.

It's Google Assistant that could be the biggest change. Google's promising a systemwide application of smarter Google Assistant suggestions. These could be recommendations, or smart suggestions for related information or actions in notifications. They'll show up in a swipe-right gesture from the main watch face.

How Assistant's new features look.

Google

Assistant can still be summoned for voice requests, but the added contextual feedback aims to add more of what Google's first Android Wear watches had in the first place, with AI assistance in the moment. The swipe-right recommendations will always be for the current moment or forward-looking, says Barr, as opposed to looking back at previous recommendations. Apple's adding more Siri shortcuts to WatchOS 5.

Google Fit's latest updates are available now, and the rest of Wear OS' changes should arrive around mid-September. By then, there should be a new Apple Watch... and maybe a handful of new Google smartwatches, too.

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