The Pixel Watch must revolutionize Google Maps
The Pixel Watch was announced at the Google IO Developer Conference in May 2022. It’ll arrive ‘fall’ 2022 – so it’ll likely land alongside the Pixel 7 phone.
Google took a closer look at the design for us and took a look at the particular version of Wear OS the watch will use. But the picture isn’t complete yet, and the leaked specs hint at more ambitious plans from Google. may have for this watch.
One caught our eye. The Pixel Watch will apparently have 32GB of storage, a fact that was accidentally revealed in a listing found in a phone carrier’s back-end system, as reported by Android Police. (opens in a new tab).
That’s twice the amount of storage the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 has. The Samsung was the first watch to run Wear OS 3 – the fundamental software of Pixel Watch. But what good is all that when Wear OS doesn’t have a thriving app scene to back it up?
Google needs to do a lot more with this space than just let you fill it with downloaded YouTube Music playlists. What else? Not apps, but maps.
Why can’t we use Wear OS maps offline?
The current experience you get with Google Maps on a watch is spotty. Load Google Maps outside on a “Wi-Fi only” Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 without a phone in your pocket and you’ll see a blank grid with a “connect to phone” message at the top.
Without an internet connection, mapping on Wear OS watches is simply absent.
Google has already told us that we will be able to browse offline with Pixel Watch. “You can get directions from anywhere, even without your phone,” said Rick Osterloh, senior vice president of devices and services at Google, on stage at Google IO.
However, what we’ll likely see is the watch version of something Google has already implemented on Android phones. On such a phone, you can program a route and a pop-up will offer to save it for offline use in case you lose internet access.
In a smartwatch this would translate to setting, perhaps, a run, walk or cycle route – because you shouldn’t be using a watch to navigate in the car – which would record the coordinates so that turn-by-turn instructions can be fed to the necessary points.
This prediction is based on the mapless navigation display we saw briefly on the Pixel Watch display during the Google I/O presentation. But we don’t think that’s enough.
Where Google is schooled by Garmin
Garmin already offers far more advanced offline navigation than that in watches like the Fenix 7, Epix 2, and Forerunner 955. As great as Garmin is, it shouldn’t be that far ahead of Google.
On these watches, you can download map data of entire continents to your internal memory. This doesn’t just include roads. Gas stations, convenience stores, and restaurants are all there as notable places you might want to navigate to.
In the built-in navigation feature, you tap a list of nearby places in the vague direction you’re pointed, saving you from having to use a horrible virtual keyboard or scroll through billions of entries. Select your location, press “go” and in about a second the watch will have worked out how you need to get there, with directions. Zero internet required, everything happens on the watch.
There’s no new concept here, Garmin has simply brought some of the ideas and technology from its classic in-car GPS units to meet the needs of runners, cyclists and those who really need a McDonald’s hash brown in this moment. This stuff just isn’t possible with Google Maps on Wear OS.
How Google could improve Wear OS maps
It would be disconcerting for Wear OS to misuse one of Google’s best services if it weren’t for essentially the whole story of the platform: slow development, stagnation and neglect.
We had hoped that Wear OS 3 would quickly revitalize the platform. In 2021, we envisioned a three-shot combo, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 followed by the Pixel Watch followed by the Fitbit Wear OS watch that the company’s CEO assured us was in the works. Interest from app developers would return and Wear OS would be back on track. And yet, here we are almost a year after the Galaxy Watch 4, with no new watches to show off the platform, that momentum has almost run out.
To restore it, the Pixel Watch needs to upgrade the platform, just like the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 did. And a new approach to Google Maps should be part of it.
We’ve basically already explained the first thing Wear OS needs: map data caching. Google doesn’t need to track Garmin and fill all your storage with map data, although we think Garmin’s TopoActive Europe 45-country plan fits into an 11.5GB package is a very good deal.
Instead, Maps could use Google’s colossal location services. He knows where you tend to go from day to day and week to week. He invariably ends up knowing where to plan his vacation, and if you use Google Calendar, he’ll know when you have that business meeting or family visit planned two cities away.
Wear OS could use this knowledge to cache detailed information about these locations. Call them red zones if you like. Mid-level details could be stored for surrounding areas and baseline data for areas Google thinks you’re not likely to go. That would probably limit storage usage enough that most wouldn’t even notice it on a 32GB Pixel Watch.
The data stored could go far beyond the simple visual map itself to extract the name of each store, restaurant and other type of business. Topographical information, road and sidewalk traffic throughout the day could be stored, as well as store closing times so the watch can let you know if you won’t reach them in time. These could all inform Pixel Watch suggested routes, created using machine learning of 2022 buzzwords.
These elements are built into the “connected” experience of using Google Maps on a phone, but evaporate once you’re not constantly online. But why wouldn’t you be online when using a Pixel Watch?
Maybe you’re a phone-free runner who wants to complete a hilly 10k circular run without doing the work yourself. Maybe you’re on vacation and find that roaming charges mean you’ll spend $3 per megabyte of data usage. A constant smartwatch problem is that the quality of experience varies far too much depending on whether the paired phone is nearby or if you’re within Wi-Fi range. They can go from great to useless in 10 steps.
Even if none of these scenarios apply, data storage on the Watch could still be used to speed up Wear OS’ map navigation, to make it more responsive. It cuts communication between the watch and the phone, the phone to the server and vice versa.
Google Assistant: the disembodied voice
The other crucial part of this is Google Assistant. If Wear OS map navigation should work offline, voice recognition should also work offline. We need to be able to ask where McDonalds is, not type the term on a tiny virtual keyboard.
However, Assistant does in other parts of the Google ecosystem. In March 2022, Google announced that its Live Transcribe feature on phones could now work entirely offline, requiring only an additional language pack download. One of the main features of the Pixel 6 is offline translation, allowing it to not only understand English, French, German, Italian and Japanese without a server connection, but also read your words and incoming messages in another language.
Take these machine learning-based processes to a watch and CPU power becomes the potential limiting factor. Reports suggest the Pixel Watch will use the Samsung Exynos 9110, a relatively low-power dual-core chip announced in 2018.
There is some hope though, as this should be paired with a “co-processor” that could theoretically be used to speed up machine learning tasks. This is the most common task for new, sophisticated coprocessors in phones. However, in watches, they’re typically used as battery-saving aids to handle passive tasks like always-on display elements and all-day step counting.
Our best guess? We won’t see any of that in the Pixel Watch. The coprocessor will manage the always-on display mode and the bottom sensor readings. This will last for a day and offline browsing will require advance planning. But maybe Google will surprise us with a tiny Tensor machine learning co-processor that will truly make the Pixel Watch the smartwatch to buy in 2022.