iBeacons signal new collaboration for app development class
House lights dim, electronic music swells and the audience hushes as the first female silhouette sashays out from behind the curtain. The moment the stage lights illuminate her flamboyant yet somehow tastefully understated ensemble, she strikes a pose and steps emphatically out onto the runway as the first model in the 2014 Stephens College Student Designer Fashion Show.
Smartphones and digital cameras illuminate a dozen scattered faces in the audience, including a group of five University of Missouri computer science students in the back row who, after spending just three months fast-tracking a new iOS app, flip through their phones with bated breath to see how Runway Radar holds up to its first real-world trial.
The app is the result of a semester’s worth of work in the MU Division of IT course, “Collaborative Mobile App Development,” led jointly by Division of IT Director Dale Musser and School of Journalism Futures Lab Director Reuben Stern.
Runway Radar is just one of six different projects undertaken by the course’s six teams, all working collaboratively to develop novel mobile applications that integrate technology less than a year old.
Thirty minutes before the show, the Runway Radar team passes out half-a-dozen iPhones to volunteers who agreed to test drive the app during the show. The developers know their product inside and out, but volunteer feedback will give them a good idea of just how useful customers find an app that gives you real-time information during a fashion show.
“So right now, when I open it up you can see the first model,” explained senior computer science major and developer Alex DeBeer. “We have all of the general information like photos and a short bio pre-loaded, which is what [teammate] Jarrett is working on backstage.”
Runway Radar works in tandem with newly released Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices called iBeacons, essentially small, low-power transmitters that emit a signal over a small area, granting Bluetooth 4.0 receivers (such as iPhones) access to specified sets of information.
Apple unveiled iBeacons at its 2013 Worldwide Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.
The specific beacons deployed for Runway Radar — and every other app in Musser’s class — are Estimote beacons, donated by New York startup Estimote, which licensed the technology for manufacture.
“Estimote is a very developer-focused company,” said Tanuj Parikh, senior director of business operations at Estimote. “Our goal is to empower developers around the world to build incredible consumer applications on top of our technology. That means supporting large companies, a retailers, young startups and education institutions.”
Parikh added that many of Estimote’s engineers pursued advanced degrees in computer science, machine learning and data science, which makes them amenable to supporting educational use of the company’s technology.
The beacons themselves are small, modular devices that simply emit a pair of codes, unique identifiers that, once registered by a smartphone app like Runway Radar, act as keys to a set of information on a web server or database. Unlike QR codes, the beacons store very little information, allowing them to be low power and therefore discrete, integrating neatly into whatever environment they’re deployed to.
They’re small enough that they fit inside a shirt pocket so, on the runway, they work with most outfits.
As the models enter and exit the catwalk, different outfits update on the app, but the going is slow and the app can’t seem to keep up as each model gingerly struts out one after the other. It’s a frustrating result for the developers, but a respectable stress test for an app still under development.
“[The app] just isn’t cycling through correctly, so that’s a little frustrating,” said DeBeer. “In all, though, it’s a great little device, and I think we’re showing good implementation.”
There’s no backend to the Runway Radar so far, no live database to reference, so co-developer and senior CS student Jarrett Kille has been working to pre-assign and reassign information to each beacon backstage, attempting not to disrupt the pace of the show.
“The app works, we’re sure of that, except it’s a little rough around the edges,” explains co-developer student Ben Cohen, also a senior. “We already ran into some problems we’ll have to work out later, but hopefully it goes smooth enough now that people get an idea of what the app is about.
“Hopefully we’re not distracting anyone,” he added.
Whether mobile technology has a place in live events at all is a curious secondary question several teams are exploring.
Another project, Ziew, looks to bring iBeacons to zoos, where users can receive automatic information about whatever animal exhibit they might be near. There’s even a function allowing visitors to collect virtual tokens at each spot to potentially redeem at the zoo’s gift shop.
“The point of it is not to immerse people in their phones, but to use the phone to help immerse people in their surroundings,” said junior IT major Christina Mosnick, developer for Ziew. “What we want to figure out is, what can we do while they’re at the park to make the experience better in some way.”
Team UJuke settled into an even more nuanced approach, taking advantage of the limited range of the beacons to create what they refer to as a kind of democratic jukebox. Users in a café or bar vote on what songs play next by downloading the app and voting on different tracks, creating an interactive song selection experience within the inherent security dome of the iBeacon’s signal.
Increasing interactivity, enhancing user experiences, providing easier avenues of engagement between people and their venue — all represent broad design concepts that fall under the class’s collaborative umbrella. The mechanics must be sound, but more so, each app needs purpose, direction and a feel that is consistent and user-friendly.
“The thing we’re concerned with in the startup world is developing a ‘minimum viable product,’” explains Stern. “It’s the one thing your app does that makes people want to download it, and all the teams need clarity about this so that their designs can be cohesive and coherent.”
The forced collaboration between programmers and designers ultimately creates a finished product that not only works, but has a certain polish. According to Musser, it also forces each contributor — whether designer or engineer — to embrace the language, workflow and idiosyncrasies of the other.
“Before this semester, the app development class had several semesters of big data. Before that, we used clients,” Musser explained. “So, we’re kind of constantly changing the ‘why,’ but it doesn’t change what the core is about, which is collaboratively designing and developing a mobile application.
“I use the phrase ‘instance technologies,’” continued Musser. “All of these technologies are just instances. We could be working on anything, but the students are still getting the core concepts that are timeless.”