When Google announced Android Wear in March 2014, alongside the first smartwatches that would be running it, it wasn't quite what we expected. In hindsight, what Google was doing with the smartphone, by building a software platform for other manufacturers to build on, seemed like a perfect fit for wearables. We led ourselves to believe we'd be seeing a 'Google Watch'; instead we got many.
But since then Google has launched the Pixel phone, its first foray into making a 'Google Phone', and rumours abound that it will do the same for the smartwatch next year.
Which makes it a perfect time to revisit the narrative leading up to the launch of Android Wear – and where the clues might lead to next. Last week we looked at the paper trail of patents that led to the launch of the Apple Watch, and now it's Google's turn.
October 2012 – Flipping heck
Google is granted a patent for a smartwatch that includes "a wristband, a base, a flip up portion, and a camera". The images show a watch with a round face that includes a sort of lid that, when flipped up, reveals an augmented reality display. The description could be clearer, but it looks like the display is transparent, overlaying virtual images and information on the real world.
The user will see relevant information about what the watch is pointed at. In one example we see it being pointed at a shelf of coffee in a store, and the watch displaying price and nutritional information for the user. The technology bears similarities to Google Glass, but to date it has not appeared in any smartwatch – let alone one from Google. The camera and microphone do appear in future Android Wear smartwatches.
May 2013 – Round and round we go
Google is awarded a patent, filed for in 2011, describing a smartwatch that "can include a wristband, a base, a battery and a first auxiliary component".
The watch described has two touch pads on the wristband that would provide pinch and stretch functions, which doesn't sound too dissimilar to how Google Glass's touchpad works.
Also, note the date of the filing: 26 October 2011 – that's the same as the one revealed in 2012. Something is afoot.
December 2013 – Hello Moto
Motorola Mobility, which is at this time owned by Google, is awarded a patent that describes how it could make smartwatches with flexible displays. Google inherited thousands of patents when it snapped up Moto, but this one was filed after the acquisition – 19 June 2012.
It's becoming clear that Google has wearable ambitions in mind, although it sells Moto Mobility to Lenovo in 2014.
January 2014 – A small gesture
Filed for in 2008, a patent for a "gesture-based small device" is revealed. It describes how the user might interact with the watch using both the screen and other sensors. While researching for this feature we stumbled on the LinkedIn profile of Google Senior Research Scientist Rich Gossweiler, one of the people the patent is assigned to, where he reveals more details on what is going on both with this, as well as the earlier flip watch we saw:
"One of the challenges is that your finger covers the display. In one design, we use sensors on the side of the watch to move the input area over to your arm. In another design, we flip up the display, allowing you to look through it or point with it, or have a second surface to touch.
March 2014 – Motorola and biometrics
The USPTO publishes a patent to Motorola, discovered under filings awarded to Google, that describes a smartwatch with an intelligent wristband. The band would integrate smart buttons for launching apps, with the patent stating it could "provide a telephone keypad, for example, that is disposed along the strap of a wearable device, and that uses no electronics whatsoever."
It also describes using the band to monitor the wearer's biometrics. "In one or more embodiments, these applications require the electronic device to have good contact with a user's skin."
We've seen Apple looking down this avenue too, but it's interesting that Google and others may be interested in the wristband as an extension of the smartwatch. It didn't materialise in the Moto 360, but that round face certainly did.
March 18 2014: Android Wear is born
Google announces Android Wear and launches a developer preview. It also announces that Motorola, LG, Samsung and HTC have joined as partners, revealing Motorola's and LG's efforts – the Moto 360 and LG G Watch respectively. We like the Moto 360 – it's round and looks classier than LG's effort – but it turns out to be chunkier than the press shots had us believe.
It's now clear that there's no 'Google Watch' as such, but many different ones running on Google's OS. The rumours of a device depending heavily on Google Now are partly true, but there are other elements to it too. Over time, more Android Wear watches are revealed, while the OS goes through some changes. However Android Wear 2.0 gets pushed back to early 2017 – could this mean it would coincide with the rumoured Pixel watches?
March 2015 – Google's medical marvel
Another patent is revealed for a smartwatch-like device, but this one is more focused on health. The device would be capable of using nanoparticles to detect and treat illnesses directly to the bloodstream.
There are different styles of device shown on the patent, including the one above which has two displays – one for biometric data and other other for the time (and possibly other info too). Another version is a wristband with a wraparound display.
December 2015 – Blood suckers
Google is awarded a patent for a watch that can take blood without inserting a needle. Rather than giving you a prick, a detachable chamber administers a microparticle through the skin of the finger, creating a break from which blood is drawn. The chamber is then put back in the watch where it analyses glucose levels.
When you consider that 9.3% of the US population have diabetes, Google's continuing interest in this area is no surprise. Also note that the watch shown in the picture above appears in the patent from March, making us think these might be the same device.
So where does this all leave us? Well, oddly enough not too far from the place we were before the reveal of Android Wear. Right now we expect Google to launch its own smartwatch(es) in the new year, while its research into health wearables also continues.
That leaves a question over whether the two might come together. It's clear that Google sees a lot of benefit in the health area, but in and outside of wearables, and putting that into a smartwatch would give it a much more compelling reason to sit on our wrist beyond serving up messages.