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Android Wear’s dumbest-looking new feature is also its most useful

By Michael Fisher July 1, 2015, 2:05 pm

If you’ve been following along for the past few weeks, you know I’ve been a little busy – too busy to focus on the latest Android Wear developments, in fact. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been oblivious to the goings-on in Google’s wearable world: during my review period with Pebble Time I took all kinds of mental notes on how the new smartwatch compared to Android Wear. During that time, I watched our editor-in-chief’s LG Watch Urbane review video … and all I kept coming back to was this:

PAl5YA

You don’t have to feel bad if this is making you laugh. The first time I saw it, I too took a brief ride on the rofflecopter. I mean, how can you not? Anton looks like he’s trying to shake a mosquito off the thing, or jump-start its winding mechanism like it’s an analog wristwatch with a sticky spring. And the crazy thing is: he’s doing it right! This is exactly how the new wrist-flick gesture is supposed to work in Wear 5.1.1.

While I felt a little juvenile after that first guffaw, it didn’t take long to find other people who felt the same way. During Google I/O 2015, when the Android Wear wrist gesture was demoed on stage, I was watching remotely from Google’s Cambridge office with about a hundred others. After the demo, the room took a beat, people looking at each other as if to confirm that what they’d just seen was real, and then there was a flurry of stifled giggles as the presentation moved on. And this was a crowd of developers, Google geeks and other invited guests – not the jaded journalists who have a hard time getting excited about anything at a press event.

Android 5.1.1 brings a lot more than just a quick way to convince your friends that you’re a little overcaffeinated, of course. Between the new menu design, a proper app tray, pattern unlock and baked-in Find my Phone functionality, there’s an awful lot to get excited about here if you rock an Android Wear smartwatch. The new WiFi capability is particularly impressive; those of you who’ve used it to field notifications when your phone’s nowhere nearby might take issue with my headline above. But I’m seldom without my smartphone (smartwatch or no) so upon returning to my Moto 360 last week, the very first feature I tried out was the wrist-flick. And it almost instantly became my very favorite Wear 5.1.1 addition.

As longtime readers will know, I’m famously pro-smartwatch. I started using them in 2012 with the original Pebble and have rarely been seen without one since. I’ve reviewed everything from Samsung’s most feature-laden bracelet to the most humble Martian offerings, and earlier this week I penned an editorial rebutting common objections to mobile tech’s newest category. The smartwatch is of my favorite gadgets.

Yet even I have to admit that it’s not always the most convenient accessory, because when it comes to anything beyond reading notifications, the smartwatch is fundamentally a two-handed device. Whether you’re pressing Pebble’s buttons, spinning Apple’s digital crown or swiping on Android Wear’s touchscreen, you’ve got one hand holding the watch in place while the other one manipulates it. In some cases, that makes the watch even more cumbersome than a smartphone, which you can at least use one-handed (well, unless it’s a Nexus 6 or something).

And then there's the cufflinks to think about, too.
And then there’s the cufflinks to think about, too.

The new Android Wear wrist gestures go a long way toward solving this shortcoming. For all its bells and whistles, the Android Wear 5.1.1 interface is still at its core a vertically-scrolling list of cards. With the new software, all you need to do is flick your wrist “upward” to scroll up and flick “downward” to scroll down. As I recently discovered when forced to use the Moto 360 as my principal navigator during a drive (my phone had fallen off the dash and slid beneath my seat), this can be pretty handy. In my case, the watch was already in front of my face since my hands were on the wheel, so when an SMS notification came in that interrupted my navigation session, all I had to do was flick my wrist –rather than take my other hand off the steering wheel– to dismiss the text and go back to navigation.

It’s useful in more-trivial use cases, too. Yes, it’s time for the daily reminder that I’ve recently discovered the augmented-reality game Ingress – which, like most smartphone apps, takes up the whole screen while it’s running. This prevents you from easily reading or replying to messages that come in during gameplay, such as “meet at the next portal down the road,” or “this is your boss; why aren’t you working right now?”. While any smartwatch helps with this, Android Wear watches just became more useful than any others, because now you don’t need to use your other hand (encumbered by your scanner/phone) to interact with it.

If you’re not the gaming sort, sub in any everyday activity that would benefit from one hand being kept available where two were required before. Reading the news headlines while standing on the subway and gripping the handhold; scrolling through an email while walking with one hand hooked into your bag so you can be a One Strap Cool Guy; checking the baseball score on one arm while using the other to shovel nachos into your face; dismissing a Facebook update while sitting on the couch with your arm around your sweetheart; whatever.

Whatever.
Whatever.

Do I wish the ridiculous-looking Android Wear wrist gesture wasn’t necessary? You bet. Will I be self-conscious when using the feature in public? Already am. Will social pressures in the already-questionable field of wearables ultimately push it out of favor? Very possibly. But when you consider that the alternative for one-handed smartwatch interaction is raising your wrist to your face and stabbing at your watch with your nose, this is a pretty solid solution. And if you’re like me, and constantly busy with one thing or another that requires you to carry, manipulate, or otherwise handle objects with at least one hand, you’ll be grateful for this new feature.

The rest of you can just be thankful I made it through this whole piece without once making a NSFW joke about other “one handed interaction methods.” You’re welcome.

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