“Fang” Wins Watson Mobile Developer Challenge

FangBy Steve Hamm

Fang, a cute plush toy who is much smarter than your average (stuffed) bear, is not something that engineers and marketers at IBM would have ever dreamed up. It took the creative geniuses as a New York City startup, Majestyk Apps, to conceive of this novel way of using the power of Watson to delight and teach children.

Majestyk was one of three winners of the IBM Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, who were announced recently. The others were GenieMD, of Pleasanton, Calif., a maker of mobile personal healthcare apps; and Red Ant, of London, England, a provider of mobile technology for the retailing industry.

In February, IBM invited teams to design mobile apps using Watson’s cognitive computing capabilities to analyze, discover insights and learn from Big Data. Several hundred submissions across a wide range of industries were narrowed down to 25 finalists who used Watson to build, train, and test their apps. Five finalists presented demos of their projects Monday to a panel of four judges at Innovate, an IBM conference in Orlando, Fla.

IBM has been busy expanding its capabilities and developing services that help professionals and industries harvest insights and make better decisions. Late last year, the company launched the Watson Platform, a set of technologies and services that enable other companies to develop services and applications on top of Watson in an environment we call the IBM Watson Developer Cloud.

It’s part of our effort to create a vast ecosystem of partners–including startup entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, enterprises and academics–dedicated like us to maximizing the potential of cognitive computing. “These bright and enterprising developers have discovered novel ways to apply Watson that can have valuable business benefits,” say Mike Rhodin, senior vice president, IBM Watson Group. “Their ideas, along with many others we received, confirm our belief that putting Watson into the hands of entrepreneurs will make cognitive systems the computing standard of the future.”

Majestyk is a digital agency that focuses on innovation in mobile technologies, but, also has some experience working for clients in the toy industry, where a variety of so-called “smart” toys have been introduced in recent years. However, according to Majestyk CEO Donald Coolidge, “They’re not that smart.” So when he and his colleagues heard about the Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, they jumped at the chance to participate. Fang, a prototype, is equipped with a friendly adult voice. When a child asks it questions about the world around them, the device taps into Watson for answers. Also, the toy can ask the child questions. “We’re creating a truly smart and truly interactive toy,” he says.

Coolidge sees Fang as the first in a family of Watson-powered devices that serve as companions and tutors to young people, starting at age 4 with the plush toy and continuing through elementary school and into high school with wearable devices such as wrist watches.

Red Ant took Watson in a completely different direction. They created Smart Sell, a prototype application for mobile devices designed to be used by sales people within stores. The idea is that employees will use their smartphone or tablet to identify each customer they interact with and the products they’re interested in–based on demographics, purchase history and wish lists. Watson will match customers up with information about products and customer reviews, giving the sales person all the information they need to recommend just the right product for the customer. In the process, potential recommendations will be scored by Watson across four dimensions: price, utility, luxury and fashion.

GenieMD created a prototype intelligent mobile personal health assistant powered by Watson. In its current solutions, Genie MD already collects medical and health data from medical records and gathers data from wearables such as glucometers and blood pressure devices. In the Watson app, individuals will be able to ask questions about health in general or their particular conditions and get personalized answers. The device will also be able to alert you to situations so you can avoid problems. Say you have asthma and you’re heading out to work. The health assistant knows about your medical condition and checks on the forecast, and, noting that a high-pollen day is expected, advises you to take your inhaler with you.

Thanks to the other finalists, BrightMinded of the United Kingdom, which proposed a personal health training assistant powered by Watson; and CrayonData of Singapore, which proposed a digital assistant designed to help people find restaurants and other entertainment and service offering that they would enjoy.

In these early days of the Watson Platform, a relatively few entrepreneurs get a chance to play in the Watson developer sandbox. But as time goes on, hundreds and then thousands of developers will be able to tap the power of Watson. Tech market research firms have not yet done assessments of the potential size of the market for Watson solutions, but, to give you a sense of the scale of this opportunity, Forrester Research forecasts that the market for mobile apps will top $32 billion by 2018.

This is just the start of something very big–a force made up of many companies that will be capable of transforming professions and entire industries.

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