As I'm sure you've seen by now, earlier today Google exploded a bombshell by unveiling the Android Wear smart watch initiative along with a number of partners that will be making the hardware later this year. Last but not least, the Android Wear Preview SDK was announced so that developers could start playing with the Android Wear watch emulator hooked up live to their devices and get the feel for how everything will work.

After watching all the videos and reading through all the details, I jumped into it straight away, signed up for the preview SDK, and installed all the necessary components. In this post, I'm going to show you what the SDK can and cannot do right now. Right now the focus is on handling notifications from various apps running on the device paired with the watch which makes Android Wear more of a sidekick rather than a full-fledged standalone device. This may all change, but many smartwatches already work in a similar fashion.

Without further ado, let's take a look.

Installation

The components involved are:

  1. Signing up for the preview SDK here.
  2. Once you're approved, you're essentially added to a tester group that gives you access to the Android Wear Preview app. Install it. Don't worry, you're not missing out on much - it's very basic and serves as a glue between the device and the watch. It sends notifications, receives responses, and acts on them - that's about it. The key here is that we can actually act on notifications, which is what a lot of smartwatches so far have gotten very wrong. Samsung tried but because of that had to limit support to only its own devices.
  3. Install the Android SDK.
  4. Install the Android Wear system image via the SDK, along with a few more things described here.
  5. Create an Android Virtual Device (AVD) with the Android Wear configuration and fire it up. You can pick a square or round watch shape - I recommend square because the round one cuts off a lot of information and is much more awkward to use. You'll see a demo later on in this post.
  6. At this point, you have to hook up the device running the Android Wear Preview app from step 2 to your computer, execute an adb command to set up communication (adb -d forward tcp:5601 tcp:5601), and you're off.
  7. If you're a developer, you can download 3 example apps that come with the preview SDK to get a better understanding of how the code works. Just look for the link in the welcome email. The apps are called ElizaChat, RecipeAssistant, and WearableNotificationsSample.
  8. There's also the official Android Wear Developers Google+ community - join up if interested.

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Left: AVD Manager. Right: Android Wear Preview Android app

So, what do you get once you start the AVD and connect it to your phone? Behold the Android Wear:

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The hands-on part - the one you're really here to see

While the final product will be much more involved and sophisticated, the Android Wear Preview has concentrated strictly on notification handling. Here's what you can play with:

  • The home screen, which consists of the clock, the voice input button, and the topmost notification.
  • You can pull the top part of the screen down at any time to show the date and charge level.
  • The area occupying the very top 4-5% of the screen acts as a Home button and brings you back to the home screen.
  • The voice input button, unfortunately, doesn't work in the preview SDK. Huge bummer, since it's supposed to do this. Some of the provided sample apps actually initiate the dialog but voice input does not work, and the dialog just times out. The idea of bouncing input between taps, swipes, and voice is awesome, and I can't wait to try it out in real life.
    Update: You can actually type in the response using the physical keyboard and play around with responses that way.
  • You can scroll through your notifications by flicking up and down.
  • Each notification can have actions that you get to by swiping right-to-left. Each action occupies a full screen for easy tapping.
    For example, grouped Gmail messages offer an Open button, which opens the Gmail app on the phone. Individual Gmail messages offer Delete, Reply All, and Open buttons, which - you guessed it - act accordingly, also on your phone.
    This is something no other companion watch is able to do to my knowledge. The Galaxy Gear comes close and is able to pop up the app, but I don't think it can dive this deep into actions. I could be wrong though - I haven't played with the Gear since its launch (I decided to go the Toq and Pebble Steel route).
  • Notification stacks/bundles collapse multiple notifications into a more compact view. Unfortunately, 2 Gmail notifications for 2 separate Gmail accounts didn't stack the way they are shown here, but as you can see below, a sample app did it just fine.
  • Sometimes, the background changes from black to something else, like an exploded icon of a sender in the current Gmail notification.
  • Swiping left-to-right from the main notification area dismisses it. This also dismisses it on the phone, which is great - a lot of smartwatches maintain their own notification lists and don't sync both ways.
  • You can expand some notifications, such as individual Gmail emails, by tapping the bottom part where they start to fade away. This way, you can read an entire email without having to turn on the phone. Neat.
  • The screen dims after about 12 seconds. I'm really curious what will happen on a real device - will it turn completely off? Will we be able to wake up the display using a flick gesture or a voice command? These questions remain to be answered.
  • Neither Google Now nor Calendar notifications showed up on the watch for me. Perhaps they're missing some secret sauce. Too bad, as I wanted to test out paged notifications. The good news, however, is that the sample preview apps contain plenty of examples, which you can see below.

And now it's time for some illustrations and animations.

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Left to right: home screen, individual notification, swiping through the actions

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Left to right: various actions that then get forwarded to the phone

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Left to right: dismissing a notification starts fading it away, dimmed screen, disabled voice actions

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More examples - these have a single Open action or none at all

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Hey look, Spotify (above) and Play Music (not shown) do work out of the box, including pause, unpause, next, and previous!

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User input

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User input (continued)

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Various samples that come with the SDK preview

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Various samples that come with the SDK preview

Shall we move on to the GIFs?

Paging through actions in a notification and then dismissing it

Note: This is the round watch face - as you can see, elements get cut off, and using a square watch face is much more enjoyable. After this first GIF, I made the switch.

a

Going through notifications and reading a long notification

c

Screen dimming

d

Voice actions :(

b

Date and charge level pull-down

e

Pressing the invisible Home button

f

Videos

Google's Android Developers Youtube account goes even deeper into the developer preview:

The next video shows how voice replies can do the heavy lifting of replying to messages without using the phone. Too bad this doesn't fully work in the SDK preview, although you can type in the responses using the keyboard instead:

And that about wraps it up. As you can see, the preview SDK really is quite simple and concentrates strictly on notifications. By the time the full SDK comes out, developers will have already had a chance to make sure notifications work well in their apps.

I'm now excited about the future of wearables more than ever because I think the approach is finally correct for the first time. A device with a tiny screen should be glanceable, controlled hands-free, and allow for a lot of imprecise presses, and it's exactly what Google is going for with Android Wear. The 2nd half of 2014 can't arrive soon enough. After all, that's when we should expect this: