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.
Scott SteinEditor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
The competition among smartwatches and
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.
Watch this: Wear OS featured on multiple watches at IFA 2018
"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
suggestions based on whatever you're currently doing. But it could be a hint at bigger things to come.
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,
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.
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
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.
Assistant can still be summoned for voice requests, but the added contextual feedback aims to add more of what Google's first
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
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.
Watch this: Would you track your kid with a smartwatch?