Alta Archives: The Alta Smartwatch

Posted: September 16th, 2013 | Author:

Brian Harris is building a watch. But not just any watch. He’s building an Alta smartwatch that’ll keep him updated on the snow conditions this coming season. We sat down for a little Q&A with Brian to learn more . . .

1. For those who don’t know, give us the Brian Harris background: Name, Age, Occupation, etc.
Brian Harris, 33, married with 2.5 kids (#3 coming in December). I work at the University of Utah in the IT group and am working on my masters degree as well.  Hopefully I’ll wrap that up before the baby comes.  I grew up in Colorado and moved to Utah to go skiing, er, attend college.  I’ve mostly been here since.  Salt Lake City is a tough place to beat.

2. You’re an Alta skier. How long have you called Alta home?
I first skied Alta my freshman year of college (98).  I’ve had passes to Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Snowbasin, but Alta is certainly my favorite.

Alta Ski Area

Yeah, Brian can shred too.

3. What is it about Alta that keeps you coming back?
I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t get up at all last winter.  Grad school hurts.  I’m hoping to right that wrong.  I think my favorite thing about Alta is the character – from the terrain to just the feeling you get standing in the parking lot.  It’s a pretty special place.  The snow isn’t too shabby either.

4. Quick hits – Favorite run, lift and on mountain food?
Favorite run: Baldy Chutes, if I can only pick one.  Lift: anything that is running. Food: I love a good burger during a day on the hill.

5. We first made contact via Twitter, where your profile states that you’re a “geek.” Why do you consider yourself a geek?
I love tech toys and gadgets.  I’ve owned a laundry list of GPS devices, cameras, smartphones (who remembers Pocket PC and Treo?).  I enjoy tinkering with things and seeing what they do.

6. Speaking of geekery, you’re working on a pretty sweet, custom made watch right now. Tell us about it.
I’m one of those that jumped on this smartwatch thing.  I bought a Pebble Smartwatch and have been tinkering around with that.  For those who haven’t heard of it, Pebble is a Bluetooth enabled watch that connects to your phone.  It primarily can be used to see things from your phone on your watch (think SMS, email, Caller ID, etc).  It also has the ability to interact with your phone on certain levels such as controlling your music (useful while driving believe it or not).  While not for everyone, for those really geeky types like me, it’s great fun.  I’ve just started looking into how to display the ski report on my Pebble.

Alta Ski Area SmartWatch

The one and only Alta Ski Area smartwatch.

7. What has been the hardest/most complicated part of this project for you?
While I work in IT, I’m by no means a programmer, so that is a bit intimidating to me.  I just finished a very basic java class for my degree, so that helped a bit, but Pebble uses a different language, so still more to learn there.  But, the great thing about Pebble is there are some really cool tools others have built already that, when put together, can do some really neat things, without any programming needed.

8. Taking a step back, what led you to start working on this watch and how long have you been working on it?
One of the first things I installed on my Pebble was an app called Glance that, among many other things, shows you the current weather conditions (I’m sure most reading this can relate to my obsession with the weather – I’m glued to weather sites during the winter).  It got me thinking, man it would be fun to get the ski report on my watch.  I guess I’m officially too lazy to pull my phone out of my pocket and check a website.  For a while I didn’t really know where to start, but then a few weeks ago I read a post from somebody that got his Pebble to display the temperature of his aquarium.  That filled in a few of the gaps in terms on how I can do the ski report sans significant programming.  So that is what I’ve been trying to put together.

9. Give us some details, what all can this watch tell you about Alta?
At the moment, I can see base depth, 24hr snow total, year-to-date snow total, current conditions (powder, packed powder, etc) and when the conditions were last updated (not real interesting, but a good sanity check to make sure it’s working).  I’ll spare most of the details, but the basic idea is I have a small app on my phone that periodically checks Alta’s mobile website, picks out the stuff I want from the HTML and sends it to another app that then tells Pebble where to display it on the watch.

10. Any plans for production?
Probably not.  This was one of those things that I just wanted to see if I could do it.  Though if anyone wants more details, hit me up on twitter, @hongziyang, and I can share.  I’ve done one version using onthesnow.com and another using Alta’s site directly.  I like the info I can get from Alta’s site the best (ex: I could display 12 hour snow totals if I wanted, or even storm totals), but onthesnow.com would be easy to adjust to look at other resorts too.

At some point, if I can figure out what I’m doing, I’d like to make a proper app that does this without all the hacks.  Especially since my solution only really works on Android, not iOS.  But I’m sure someone will beat me to it, and probably do a better job.  But that’s ok, I’m having fun.

11. Any plans for an upgrade and/or update once the season starts?
It might be useful to have the system know how to automatically email my boss that I’m going to be in late if there is more than 8″ that morning.

I think it would also be cool to somehow track open terrain so you can watch (pardon the pun) for ropes dropping after a storm.  But not sure how well that would work in the real world – you tend to see it happen in real life faster than websites get updated.

But priories first, I need to ski.

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