Why the Moto 360 will succeed where other smartwatches failed

Motorola introduced the Moto 360, making voice the primary user interface for wearables.

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There are some big differences between the Moto 360 and every other wearable: no buttons to push or touchscreens to swipe thanks to a user interface (UI) designed for voice commands. At the core of wearable design is hands-free functionality. The Moto 360 and Android Wear is a breakthrough because, until now, interaction with every other programmable wearable occupied both hands, one to position the wrist-worn device and the other to press a button or swipe a tiny LCD touch screen. At the heart of the design is cutting the time between the user’s intent and action with voice commands. Its design is not only technically sophisticated; it is smart-looking and fashionable.

A look at the Android Wear API tells us a lot about what we can expect to see in Android Wear apps from Google and independent developers.The API runs on a smartphone. It enables developers to push notifications to the smartwatch display, and to interact with these notifications using voice commands. For example, if Facebook created an Android Wear app, it might push a timeline notification, such as "I just got into Harvard" to the smartwatch, and the wearer would be able to say "Like," and then "comment," and dictate "congratulations."

Also in the API are functions for developers to send multiple notifications to the smartwatch, much like Google Now, but to stack them one on top of the other rather than present the notifications and scroll through them like one would on a smartphone. Other functions format larger notifications into multiple pages. By combining voice input with these functions, a user could navigate down through the stack of notifications and through multiple pages of a larger notification.

Sensor data can be read using the API, and the data can be displayed on the smartwatch. Android smartphones have many sensors, including motion, environmental, and positional, although it’s not yet clear from the documentation how the sensors will be divided between the smartphone and smartwatch.

The API has been pre-released and is available for experimentation by developers who want an early preview. It includes an emulator so developers can build and test both round and square displays with their apps.

The smartwatch Android OS is not accessible except through the API, so there isn't a method for building apps to run on the smartwatch yet. This is reminiscent of the Google Glass introduction. Initially, Google provided the Mirror API used to build web service and Android apps to insert information into the Glass timeline, such as the New York Times’ headlines. Later, Google released a software development kit (SDK) for building apps to run on Glass. Android Wear will likely follow the same course as Google Glass. This API preview is meant to focus attention on voice input and refining notifications from Android apps for the smaller and sometimes rounder smartwatch displays. More features, including an SDK for building apps that run on the smartwatch, are likely forthcoming.

Little is known about the Moto 360 hardware except that the display is round. Details about anticipated smartwatches from Google's partners, such as LG, Qualcomm, and Samsung, have not been announced. And we don’t know what the Android wearable OS looks like either. It leaves much for imagination and speculation.

What is for certain is that the Moto 360 will feature a BLE chip. Qualcomm’s involvement might mean that a power-efficient 3G modem integrated with the mobile processor could be included so the smartwatch has a persistent connection to cloud services without tethering it with BLE to a smartphone.

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Freescale, Kynetics, and Revolution Robotics recently introduced an Android wearable reference design. Named the WaRPboard, it is a tiny form factor board (left) that includes an ARM Cortex A9 processor, Wi-Fi, BLE, and an accelerometer.

Like the BeagleBoard and Raspberry Pi, the WaRPboard category of design can be used for experimentation and to build prototype devices with the Android wearable OS. Product concepts could be tested in short manufacturing runs using the WaRPboard and 3D-printed enclosures. After iterating the device based on user testing of the prototypes, the final design of the wearable can be prepared for public release.

The Moto 360 is a big step forward. It is the first attractive-looking smartwatch, and the software design is just as beautiful as the hardware. There are great expectations to be met, from the hands-on, voice UI Moto 360 experience, to seeing all the other innovations inspired by the Moto 360 and Android Wear.

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