We've become accustomed to posts flooding our news feeds proclaiming that a friend has just completed a 5-mile run or taken their 3,000th step of the day, but that's not enough for Facebook.
At a recent hackathon held at its headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., the company partnered up with Google, Jawbone, Fitbit, Recon and Pebble to see what a few handpicked developers could do to combine Facebook's services with their hardware. The goal? To create some new, novel and practical uses for wearable technology.
According to Erick Tseng, product manager in Facebook's special projects group, "wearables are particularly interesting to us just because we're starting to see a lot of really interesting data being contributed back to the Facebook Open Graph." This hackathon, then, is a way for Facebook to better educate itself about that data and figure out what to do with it.
Facebook hand-picked 10 participants from a pool of developers and instructed each to hack a Jawbone, Fitbit, Pebble, Recon or Google Glass wearable to integrate with one of Facebook's technologies. The results of their six weeks varied in form and purpose, with an unsurprising concentration on fitness tracking. One of the hackathon's runners-up took a Pebble smartwatch and combined it with a 3D-printed, animal-shaped frame to create EmojiPet -- a Tamagotchi clone that's fed (and therefore made happy) by your posts to Facebook. A cute toy, to be sure, but not exactly useful.
Another pair of devs built an app called Pigeon, a sort of Uber for sending packages and items that enables anyone to become a courier. The app itself uses Facebook's Stripe payments system and works with a Recon Jet heads-up display to provide real-time navigation to guide Pigeon bike couriers to their delivery destinations. Pigeon fits the bill for usefulness, but it's integration with wearables is specious at best because it's not really dependent upon Recon's HUD -- one can achieve similar functionality by mounting their phone on their bike's handlebars.
There were also a couple of apps that leverage the accelerometer data from Pebble watches to translate real-world interactions (like bumping fists or shaking hands) into friend requests and wall posts when you meet new people. The usefulness here is evident (who hasn't met someone new and forgotten their name later in the evening?), but the apps are dependent upon everyone you meet wearing the same type of device.
Perhaps the most unique of the apps was Check OK, a platform that pulls data from a Fitbit Flex or Jawbone Up to construct a current picture of your physical health, and combines it with data culled from your activity on Facebook to get a sense of your current mood. After determining your overall well being, Check OK then looks at medications you are taking and notifies your doctor if it thinks you're starting to show signs of the adverse side-effects caused by those meds. Your doctor can then adjust your prescriptions before any serious problems arise. However, pulling accurate signals regarding your mood from your Facebook posts is extremely difficult, and Check OK has a limited use case.
While the hackathon certainly resulted in some interesting ideas, it's clear that devs and hackers are still struggling to truly understand and fully exploit the data generated by wearable devices. Fitness applications are still largely the order of the day, and the social potential of these devices is hamstrung by the relatively slow pace of their adoption. A recurring theme we heard from the hackathon's participants was that having access to APIs that deliver the raw data generated by devices (like Pebble) make it a lot easier to innovate -- as opposed to those devices that currently provide limited or pre-selected streams of data to use. The good news is that the manufacturers are still, like Facebook, figuring the wearables market out, and are evaluating the ways to best enable developers to work with their devices.
"One of the big open questions in wearables today is how we continue to make these devices that we wear more useful," Tseng said. And, while Facebook figures that social integration can certainly add value to the wearable equation, it hasn't answered the question of how just yet.