Five or so years ago, a couple of dudes in Zurich decided to strap smartphones to their wrists.
The size of technical components is becoming ever-smaller, and the group wanted to figure out what could theoretically be achieved with a wearable technology platform.
So they attached their phones to their wrists and wandered the halls of Google, where they worked, pretending they were watches. Among their findings was that a wrist-mounted keyboard is all but impossible to use: Information has to proactively come to you at the right time.
Now Google says it’s building on their work to try and give you superpowers.
The search giant is famous for its concept of “20% time”: Employees can dedicate up-to a fifth of their time to pursuing other projects. Gmail, Google News, and AdSense are among the most successful (and famous) outcomes — but you can add Android Wear, Google’s smartwatch platform, to that list too.
“A couple of little pockets of engineers and product managers and user experience had already done a couple of little 20% projects to show some ideas what could be possible if we had a wearable platform,” recalls David Singleton, Google’s global smartwatch boss. “So there was a team in Zurich who spent time with phones strapped to their wrists pretending they were watches.”
In 2013, Singleton was appointed the director of Android Wear, reporting to Hiroshi Lockheimer, the head of Android, Google’s mobile operating system. He is tasked with disrupting one of the oldest pieces of consumer tech around: The watch.
The wrist is “the ideal place for the power of Google to help people with their lives,” Singleton says, and he has an ambitious vision for Android Wear’s future — one central to the direction Google is heading. The smartwatch will feed you information before you ask for it, act as your “agent” in the internet-connected world around you, and keep you healthy — even talking to your doctor before you ever realise you’re sick.
“In two or three years time, not everyone is going to be living like this,” Singleton says. “But in 50 years — definitely.”
Android Wear has a long road ahead of it, however.
Smartwatches are a product in their infancy.
Wearable computers have been around in one form or another since the Eighties, but it’s only in the last half-decade or so that they have made any real inroads with consumer adoption.
One of the first “modern” smartwatches was the crowdfunded Pebble, which made its debut in January 2013. Google’s Android Wear was announced and launched in 2014; Apple emerged onto the scene relatively late, releasing the Apple Watch in 2015.
But it’s a growing product. In Q4 of 2015, sales of smartwatches overtook luxury watches for the first time, according to research company Strategy Analytics — 8.1 million to 7.9 million.
“We’re seeing that smartwatches are growing beyond just attracting the early adopters for tech,” Gartner analyst Angela McIntyre says. “Now it’s early mainstream penetration.”
Zac Cohen, a technical lead for Android Wear in London, characterises the public attitude towards the devices as “cautiously interested.”
One charge levelled at smartwatches again and again and again is that they’re a “solution in search of a problem.” Google, Apple, Pebble, and so on decided to build the device without actually figuring out why they were doing it, the argument goes. If you’ve got a smartphone in your pocket, why do you need a tiny screen on your wrist too?
David Singleton contests this. “We don’t think this is technology in search of a problem. We think we know the core problems we’re seeking to solve here, and otherwise I don’t think we would be doing it.”
Key among these problems: How to make everything in your pockets obsolete.
In an interview with Business Insider at Google’s King’s Cross Office in London in late February, David Singleton sketched out the birth of Google’s smartwatch project — and where it’s going.
Google employees in the British capital have historically focused on mobile. “This office was actually set up to work on mobile before the rest of the company was activated to work on smartphones and stuff because they weren’t mainstream. So we’ve got a lot of people here who are good at working on early platforms that are just getting started.”
The company won’t say exactly when its smartwatch work officially started, but as far back as 2011 there have been experiments and small projects in Google’s various offices — like the 20% project in Zurich that had Googlers attaching their phones to their wrists.
It was Android head Hiroshi Lockheimer who kickstarted the Android Wear properly. Singleton, who is British, had been working at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, when “Hiroshi was actually thinking we should get a project started on watches and asked me to come back to the mobile team to work on Android Wear.”
“So then we got all those folks together, and said ‘This is a real opportunity, let’s start a project.'”
That was 2013. 18 Android Wear devices and 4,000 apps later, there are around 120 people working on the Android Wear team, with 20 or 30 of those in London.
Unusually for a Google product, its head David Singleton — is outside of the US, providing direction from the British capital. Several key features in the operating system also stem from London’s engineering team. This includes the emoji tool that lets users draw quick doodles that it is able to recognise and “auto-complete” the appropriate emoji for messages, and the music controls for operating Google Play Music, Spotify, and other media apps.
David Singleton lays out three key strands (“pillars”) to Android Wear’s functionality: Interacting with the world, providing new “powers,” and health applications. He positions it as central to Google’s vision of a more connected, interactive, informative world.
And he freely admits that not everything he describes is achievable yet — framing the smartwatch ecosystem as in a similar stage to smartphones in their infancy.
First: Wearables can “act as your agent in the world around you.” To illustrate the point, Singleton starts emptying his pockets — credit cards, cash, ID, keys. All of this could theoretically be replaced by a smartwatch.
“In two or three years’ time, not everyone is going to live like this. But in 50 years, definitely. We think that wearables can really act as you for the technology around you … we think that the one thing long-term that will actually be your representative will be your watch.”
Next up, “We actually can give you amazing powers that you don’t have today.” Singleton describes the smartwatch as ideally placed to take advantage of key trends taking place within Google, and across the broader tech landscape, from the virtual assistants to the Internet of Things. There are three parts to this one.
- Knowledge. Google, and the broader tech ecosystem, is the middle of a shift to AI-driven virtual assistants that proactively provide information to the user. Google has Google Now, Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana. “You want the information to find you, not just for you to find the information,” Aparna Chennapragada, the head of Google’s virtual assistant, Google Now, previously told Business Insider. “And that’s a big shift. It’s a big shift certainly for new companies, and it’s a big shift for Google as well.” On a smartphone, you can choose how you consume information — but the size of a smartwatch means that’s not an option. It has to come to you.
- Communication. This is fairly straight-forward. Use your watch to talk to people without getting your phone out. Google’s machine learning-powered predictive responses to messages and emails will come in especially handy on a watch.
- Controlling the world around you. “Think about all the stuff around us — the lights, the projector in this room,” Singleton says. “There is an increasing trend to those devices being connected. It’s called the internet of things. We think that wearables are the ideal control in that world, because they can figure out everything around you and present the controls for you on your wrist.”
“Helping people keep track of their wellness.” Android Wear already has some fitness tracking capabilities: It can monitor the user’s heartbeat, and track their steps over the course of the day. But David Singleton wants to go much further.
“We have this aspiration that eventually the doctor should call you. So your wearable is able to keep track of your wellness in such a way that rather than you having to think ‘Oh, I’m not feeling so great, maybe I should go to the doctor,’ this system can actually present something to your doctor and say ‘yeah actually we should get this checked out,’ and call you and get you to come in.”
He adds: “Are there some sensors that need to come out to make that possible? Absolutely. We think that last part is something that’s very aspirational today.”
Aspirational is a word that suits the smartwatch. It wants to act as an always-on doctor, but devices (from both Google’s partners and Apple) come with little more than a heartbeat tracker and step counter. It wants to control the world, but the internet of things hasn’t moved much beyond malfunctioning thermostats and smart fridges. It wants to replace your wallet, but many shops don’t even support NFC yet.
In the process of writing this story, I tested out a smartwatch for myself (a Huawei Watch, on loan from Google). And I did find it useful — much more useful than I expected, in fact, with Google Now and notifications most handy.
But some of the most compelling reasons to buy a smartwatch are yet to materialise.
Singleton declines to disclose the number of active Android Wear devices, but by all accounts it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the total number of smartphones out there: There are currently more than 1.4 billion active Android devices in the wild.
And research suggests that the Apple Watch is currently significantly outselling Android Wear, despite arriving on the market later, and with a higher average price point. IDC estimates that Apple sold 4.1 million Apple Watches in Q4 of 2015, while the Android Wear app for Android that pairs with smartwatches running Google’s OS says on its Google Play page only that it has been installed between 1 million and 5 million times.
Singleton says he believes “competition will be good for users,” and frames the ecosystem as analogous to the early mobile industry.
“If you look back at the early days of smartphones, I really think there’s a lot of parallels for this segment there.”
Back in 2009, the first full year commercial Android devices were on sale, iPhone sales beat them around 3:1 — but Android has since ballooned into the undisputed dominant global mobile operating system. Android Wear devices, retailing for less on average, may eventually do likewise.
Angela McIntyre, the Gartner analyst, echoes this. “We can compare what’s happening with smartwatches with what’s happened with the smartphones. Apple came out with the iPhone [and] really helped smartphones catch on, but over time Android OS gaining greater market share, and I expect this will happen as well with smartwatches.”
So if an explosion in growth is around the corner, what will the spark be? Singleton says he thinks there’s a tipping point coming: “Where people start finding these devices integrate into their lives in ways that help them so much that they tell their friends about it, and everyone feels like they have to get the device.”
For McIntyre, it’s also about “getting the traditional watch brands to support Android Wear, and to feel confident rolling it out in products. Right now it’s very experimental,” and Google needs to convince them to take “that next step,” from putting out “10,000 or 100,000 units to going to 10 million or more.”
Does Singleton agree many manufacturers view Android Wear as “experimental”?
“I think it varies completely from one partner to the next. There are certainly partners that we work with who really, deeply buy into that vision … and are committed for many, many years to work hard to bring that to life. There’s people out there who are not sure, and maybe this isn’t their core business today, but they still feel like there’s something there. We’ve tended to choose to work with the partners who’ve chosen to buy into the longterm vision.”
So Google has the vision: A wrist-mounted remote control that keeps you healthy, feeds you information, and controls the internet-connected world around you.
And it has the manufacturers committed to making that a reality — or some, at least.
Now it just needs to convince the public.