12 Things We Learned During Our Mobile Hackathon

by: | Jan 8, 2015

Our three-day New Year mobile hackathon came to a wrap on Wednesday. With the 11 projects we started, we learned a ton about some of the backbone technologies that will drive growth in Wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) in 2015 — from Android Wear to Apple HomeKit and much more.

The super-short-sprint mobile hackathon also served up a reminder of things we already knew. Like how important it is to define a focused MVP (minimum viable product) and how it makes sense to iterate and demo often.

And as one of our developers put it, we learned that hackathons “make you hungry.” In three days and in two offices (San Francisco and Florianopolis, Brazil), we consumed an estimated 300 pounds of food, 500 cups of coffee, and 200 cans of Red Bull.

Here’s a sampling of some of the things we learned — and re-learned:

The biggest challenge to the IoT isn’t the software; it’s the integration with the physical world

Installing an iBeacon – easy. Writing Android and iOS apps from scratch – piece of cake for us. Adding some custom code to a WiFi enabled door controller – no problem. For our team that hacked together a way for our office door to open based on sensing an approaching person/device, there was only one truly difficult piece: getting the hardware to fit into the door frame. There were lots of sparks flying to prove it:

Dental floss comes in handy at a mobile hackathon

So maybe dental floss is no duct tape. But when we tried to snake a cable through a tall and narrow metal door frame, no coat hanger was long enough and rope was too thick. So, in a desperate moment, ArcTouch president Joseph Carrolo found a roll of dental floss in our kitchen and was able to use it to pull the cable through. Dare we say it: mental floss led to dental floss.

You can do amazing things with BLE beacons

We knew this already, but you can do some pretty cool stuff when Bluetooth low-energy beacons with iBeacon technology are put to good use. During an office demo, software engineer Nathan Williams walked down the hall, approached a highly secured door and the door clicked unlock without any action. And from inside, there was loud applause from those of us who have been frustrated by our flaky fingerprint-scanning door lock:

Android Wear has a lot more capability than we thought

The Moto 360 watch and other Android Wear devices have a full Android stack capable of much more than advertised. For example, the Moto 360 we hacked has an onboard Wi-Fi radio that was turned off (probably to conserve battery life).

Bluetooth isn’t as open as we’d like

At its core, Bluetooth is an open wireless standard. But that doesn’t stop platform manufacturers from adding custom layers that make it difficult to develop across those platforms. Google and Apple both block native Bluetooth accessories from working on the rival platforms. Specifically, the metadata that is advertised by each device breaks the potential to pair with devices on the other platform.

Gaps and inconsistencies in the Android Wear API will slow developer adoption

One of our teams built a proof of concept to show how an Android Wear device user could send currency to a friend or family member, simply by using a voice command. We succeeded in building a library, but found a number of gaps in the API that slowed us down. Just one example: When you say “Send one dollar to Sam,” the Google API translates that voice command to text that reads, “Send one dollar to Sam” — which won’t work for a currency app. But when you say “Send ten dollars to Sam,” it translates to the numeric “Send $10 to Sam.”

Building an app for devices that don’t exist is magic

It’s hard not to be excited about the Apple Watch, which inspired one of our teams to build a home lighting control hack using Apple WatchKit and HomeKit — despite the fact that the Apple Watch isn’t due out until later this year and there are no HomeKit enabled devices available (although several were announced this week at CES). No problem. Using Apple’s Watch Extension, our team created an Apple Watch app with a custom bridge between HomeKit and Philips Hue lights.

Apple Watch app for home automation

Apple TV is for entertainment purposes only

One of our teams wanted to turn Apple TV into a real-time dashboard that could display our project status on big screens around the office. But we quickly learned the hack wasn’t possible, so we grabbed an old Google TV box (not to be confused with the upcoming Android TV) and we were able to get it running without much effort. But Google TVs are pretty hard to find these days.

Xamarin can be a real time saver

Build a multi-platform app in three days? No problem. Our team that built an innovative fitness app from scratch that was able to implement most of the MVP features on both Android and iOS with one code base using Xamarin.

MiPs can burp remotely

Loveable may be too strong a word, but in the course of our three-day hackathon, we became fond of seeing the miniature MiP robots roaming the floors of our offices in San Francisco and Florianopolis. And we learned that while the robots and out-of-the-box software was limited to just 25 feet over Bluetooth, our team was able to enable synchronized remote control of 4 MiPs over the Internet — so we could even do wonderfully crude things like make them belch in front of co-workers 6,500 miles and six time zones away.

Mobile Hackathon MiP

We still aren’t universally wireless

Most of our projects involved only wireless devices and technology. But to rig up an office automation hack using a Raspberry Pi, we had to to connect it to an Android phone and share its wireless connection since we didn’t have any easily accessible ethernet cords/ports in our office.

Investigate available tools and how to use them before you start

One of our teams ambitiously set out to give the Parrot AR.drone the ability to identify and automatically follow a person, in part because of the promise of the SDK that supports both Android and iOS. Turns out, the SDK was two years old (a couple of generations in our industry) — which made it much less useful.

More from our mobile hackathon, coming soon

In the coming weeks, we’ll be writing in depth about a few of the projects, highlighting some of the roadblocks and our breakthroughs. So stay tuned!