Hack days: how mobile agencies can jumpstart innovation ahead of the wearable tech wave

As wearable technologies blink, bleep and vibrate at the threshold of the mainstream, forward-thinking agencies are getting hands-on ahead of a hands-free world. Sam Scott got to grips with wearable at one such agency – Somo – as part of a hack day.

“Why are we hacking?” asks Naji El-Arifi, product innovation manager at London-based mobile agency Somo, during a hack day at the company’s offices. Addressing the agency’s employees, El-Arifi says the hack day is designed to allow staff the opportunity to get to grips with new and emerging technologies, “so we don’t have to wait for a client to come to us and say, ‘how can we do something with X device’, because we already know.“These hack days are about jumpstarting innovation,” he adds.If indications from CES 2014, held in Las Vegas last month, are anything to go by, wearable devices are set to transform mobile technology. And while aesthetic aversion and technical factors such as poor battery life may be holding the wave at bay, some agencies insist on seeing past current hang-ups.

Somo Hack Day

Several agencies are investing their imagination and technical ability in this field, and many run internal ‘labs’ where their technologists can master cutting edge gadgets. Within these digital playrooms they are encouraged to push the devices, and their own creativity, to the limits. Somo was one of the first UK agencies to get its hands of Google Glass – it now has six pairs to playwith. “The first time we hacked Glass, we went from zero hours of experience to 250 hours between us. So it’s an incredible surge of knowledge that happens when we do hack days,” says El-Arifi.It’s also a way for agencies to show that they’re head of the curve. Somo publishes videos of its hacks, which generate dialogue with clients who want a piece of their expertise. “So it’s not only our knowledge that gets increased, its great for business as well,” El-Arifi adds.The hack days aren’t just for developers and programmers either, they’re as inclusive as possible in order to welcome the non-technical members of staff to explore the headlines in more depth. “A lot of our employees will otherwise never get to work on a Pebble, for example. So we use these days to let them see what their limitations and advantages are”.

Somo Hack Day

The Somo staff were asked to brainstorm information related problems in the retail, enterprise and health sectors that could find a solution in wearable technology, with the aim of proving a user journey by the end of the day.A space has opened up for the commercial and industrial applications of wearable technology across multiple sectors. According to El-Arifi, retail is perfectly suited to accommodate the devices, even Google Glass. “Retail is a key area for wearable because who cares what you look like. You’re at work and you need information right now, while also needing to keep your hands free”.The promise of wearable technology is multifaceted. The smartphone is still an all-but-essential component of most wearable systems, either as a computer that stays in the pocket sending notifications to a satellite device elsewhere on the body, or as the screen where information created by the wearable is viewed.Perhaps the key appeal of wearables, from watches to glasses and everything in between, is the hands-free factor. Wearables can provide access to information without the need to check your handset and divert much attention away from what you’re doing.

Somo Hack Day

But one outcome of Somo’s hack day was a greater appreciation that there are major limitations to each device.Throughout the day one team was working on using Google Glass as a display linked to a heart rate monitor. A member of the team suggested that the monitor could display a cartoon character running away to encourage the user to speed up and catch him when their heart rate drops. “But glass is not that graphic”, someone else adds, “the visuals are more ambient than immersive, its not supposed to augment reality like that. And in terms of matching the music to heart rate, the sound on Glass is terrible”.It’s these moments that the hack day was intended to create. Knowing the limitations of the available tech is important not only because it corrects false assumptions but because it caninspire new ideas.“We want to make sure that our knowledge is credible so we can lead the industry. We don’t want to be sitting back waiting for the client to tell us stuff. And this is one of the ways we get to push things forward,” says El-Arifi.

Get the Newsletter

Keep up to date with the latest news and insights.

Subscribe

Sam Scott

Sam is The Drum's assistant publisher.

All by Sam