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Android Wear 2.0 snips the Bluetooth tether that held back smart watches

Google announced an update to the Android Wear smart watch platform that adds gestures, Wi-Fi, and custom emoji.

Android Wear 2.0 adds support for WiFi, gestures, and hand-drawn emoji. Here, the LG Watch Urbane, the first smart watch to receive the Android Wear update, is shown in a promotional video.

As Apple Watch pre-orders begin shipping out, Google wants to draw a bit of attention to the other major smart watch platform, Android Wear. On Monday the company announced Android Wear 2.0, the biggest update yet to the software, which adds several major new features and refines Android Wear’s overall interface. Here’s a rundown of what’s new in Android Wear:

Wi-Fi support

Until now, smart watches running Android Wear connected to a smart phone via Bluetooth, meaning that they had to be pretty close to the phone to receive notifications and phone calls. (Bluetooth has a range of about 30 feet, so if you left your phone in another room, your watch could lose its connection.) But now Android Wear supports Wi-Fi, so you can use your watch’s features even if you don’t have your phone on you.

It’s worth noting that this feature will work over any Wi-Fi network, thanks to Google’s cloud services. Your phone could be anywhere in the world, and as long as you’re connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, your watch will work just fine.

Gestures and power tweaks

Android Wear 2.0 adds a system that allows you to navigate your smart watch without actually touching the screen. Android Wear is built around a series of cards: one might display an unread e-mail, another might show an incoming text message, and so on. Now you can rotate your wrist away from your body to advance to the next card, or toward your body to go back to the previous card. You’ll still have to use your other hand to interact with the individual cards, but the new gestures are a convenient way to quickly glance through your notifications.

The Android Wear update also adds a low-power mode. If your watch’s battery is running low, the screen will switch to a simple white-on-black scheme that requires less power to display. Apps will be able to display data in a bare-bones format, allowing the watch to conserve juice until you have a chance to recharge it.

Hand-drawn emoji

If you don’t want to have to scroll through a list to find the perfect emoji to encapsulate your reaction to a situation, you’ll now be able to draw one yourself. Android Wear 2.0 supports scribbled smiley faces, thumbs-up, and other figures, and will convert the drawing into a regular emoji. “In practice, it ends up being entertaining, both when it gets it right, and when it fails horribly,” writes The Verge’s Josh Lowensohn. To get the system in place, Google asked hundreds of volunteers to send in simple drawings of dogs, houses, and other figures. From those samples, Google learned how to accurately convert scribbles on a watch face into familiar emoji.

The new Android Wear software rolls out beginning on Monday, April 20. The first watch to receive the update will be the LG Watch Urbane, and Google says all Android Wear watches will get it within the next few weeks.

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