Facebook's head of special projects talks wearables, WiFi and human connections

The last time we spoke to Erick Tseng, he was still working for Google as a senior product manager for Android. Since then, he's left the Mountain View company for one just down the road: Facebook. Tseng came on to head up the company's mobile division, which obviously proved to be particularly important the past few years. At Expand NY, Tseng talked about his new role as product manager for the company's special projects group, which is still very tied to mobile, but in different ways. In particular, he addressed Facebook's efforts to make it easier to connect to public WiFi hotspots and its early dive into the wearables space.

The former is a project simply called Facebook WiFi, and it's a way for customers to access free WiFi simply by logging into their Facebook account. Facebook is working with merchants to provide the service. "This one came out of user experience," said Tseng. "If you've ever gone to the airport or cafe and [tried] to connect to WiFi ... it's just not a good user experience." The beauty of this, according to Tseng, is that it's a win-win-win scenario. The users benefit from the simplicity, and the merchants get to have a platform that they can use to deeply connect to the customer. As users log in to the business, they also check-in to the locale, sharing that information with their Facebook friends. This has the opportunity to increase foot traffic, get that place more business and offer an easier way to find out who its customers are. Of course, Facebook doesn't make the routers or the hardware, but it has developed partnerships with companies like Cisco to help its WiFi efforts along.

Wearables, of course, is a much more exciting space to be in. Tseng expressed his enthusiasm for the nascent technology, saying, "There's nothing stopping these devices from becoming interesting computers. There's so much data that's consumed and generated from these devices." One of the key ways that Facebook is getting involved is through the Open Graph set of APIs. It presents a way for third parties to plug into Facebook and use data on the network -- there's even a set of APIs released on just fitness and wellness applications. If you have a Nike FuelBand or use a Runkeeper app, you might already be sharing that data on Facebook through an opt-in process. "We actually found that of the Runkeeper users who choose to share on Facebook, they're 40 percent more likely to remain engaged in the app," Tseng said. "With sharing and your friends cheering you on, this whole thing about fitness becomes a much more engaging and fun experience."

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. As a way to open up the potential of wearables, Facebook hosted a wearables-centric hackathon recently where the company challenged developers to come up with interesting new applications utilizing devices like the Pebble smartwatch and Google Glass. Some of them included an easier way to track package delivery using a Recon Jet, a Tamagotchi-style gadget that will interact with you based on the sort of input it gets on Facebook and a Shake app that translates physical hand-shaking into digital connections. We visited the hackathon as well and recorded a glimpse of it in the video below.

"The gist of the hackathon is that there's a lot that can be done to make wearables apps more interesting and more engaging," said Tseng. "We find that the core values around it [are] going to be around identity and what you value ... Wearables really come to life when you use them to connect to other people, not just collect data." Tseng gave an example of how the company also recently developed an app for Google Glass so that Glass users can easily snap a pic and upload it to Facebook from the headset.

As for what Tseng thinks of wearables in general, he thinks it's still early days. "The majority of the world, we're still waiting for that one thing that makes this truly useful. None of us truly knows what that is yet." However, that's also a good thing. "There's a huge opportunity for developers to experiment and iterate a completely open space. There's no leader, everyone's at a level playing field." For Facebook's part, Tseng hopes to see more hackathons in the future to help that process along. "We're looking at the space very carefully. We're working with platforms, providers and OEMs to continue to evolve." So as far as the future of Facebook and wearables go, the only thing that Tseng and Facebook can say is: "Stay tuned."

[Image credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images]