For years, anyone has been able to develop and market an app for Android smartphones. Now, that same idea is coming to your smartwatch, as Google announced Wednesday that anyone can design and sell virtual watch faces for Android Wear devices in the Google Play store.
These watch faces can tell time, of course, but they also have access to many deep functions within Android itself, meaning they can pull data like weather off the internet, or respond to the movements of onboard sensors.
Small picture, this means Google is providing APIs and a marketplace for you to sell a new bite-sized type of app that you glance at on your wrist. Big picture, this means Google is taking the first steps to move tech-fashion from a statement of industrial design (think Beats headphones, or even Google Glass) to an expression in digital interface.
“It’s something we’re really excited about–the tiers of self-expression,” explains Android Wear lead designer Brett Lider. The first tier is the watch hardware itself, he says, which has fixed aesthetics of metal, rubber, or glass and any suite of sensors that define its function. The second tier is malleable. Instead of a hard-fixed face, LCD screens allow what he describes as “infinity in a tiny package in terms of expressiveness.”
For this second tier of design, the Android Wear team came up with a handful of internal guidelines to define watch faces to come. Most notably, they insist that designs should feel “authentically virtual,” with “no gears, screws, dials, steam power.” Here, Google is drawing a hard line in the sand between the skeuomorphic details that might mimic a watch, and a more purely digital design that might reinvent what a watch can be. The guidelines add that designers strive to “do things that you can only do in software,” and realize that it’s “Okay to completely redefine how we parse what time it is” as this “new era of timepieces doesn’t need to be tied down to the specific mechanical limitations of the past.”
Having said all that, the first 20 watch faces that Google is launching with today–having partnered with brands like Red Bull and fashion designers like Rebecca Minkoff–don’t necessarily push the boundaries of traditional watch face design so much. There’s a Santa Claus watch face, for instance, which tells the time through Santa’s pointing arms in old-school, radial style. But simultaneously, there are bolder watch faces available, like Surfline, which translates the swells at your favorite beach to a wave-based data visualization that lives on your wrist (yes, there’s a faux hour and minute hand on this face too, but shh).
This first crop of watch faces is proof that Google is less interested in pushing a single high-minded thesis of digital watch design than it is ensuring that the open market offers consumers any option they could want.
“There’s stuff that’s more feminine, masculine, for younger ages, and for older folks as well,” Lider says. “It’s really about providing users with choice for how they reflect themselves. This is choice that can change day to day, outfit to outfit.”