Interview: Student-built mobile sports app attracts investment
Already backed by an investor, Media Objects – one of this term’s student-pitched projects – is about to pilot one of its most innovative ideas: “Gravatron.” Created for extreme sports competitors to track performance stats, such as position and speed, the mobile app also records "airtime" – a feature that sets it apart from other sports apps. A prototype has even been tested using an apparatus (made out of Lego) that simulates the constant shaking of a mobile phone in a hip pocket. It’s just one of many creative design ideas being pursued by the project team.
Last term, team members Martin Schueller and Rachel Teo worked with Mozilla’s David Ascher on a location-based platform for people to share stories through their smartphones. Now the pair is working with fellow students AC Chen and Andreas Mohrhard, and faculty lead Chuck Hamilton from IBM, to develop concepts and applications focused on “gamifying reality.” If all goes well, Media Objects may become MDM’s latest alumni start-up venture.
The following is a short interview with Martin Schueller and Rachel Teo.
What has been the focus of project Media Objects?
MS:The key focus has been finishing [our] ideas and prototypes [developed earlier] and get them to a launchable state. What you learn [in MDM] is the process of how you take a really basic idea to a more or less finished product. What we’ve noticed in the last semester is that we can get [our idea] to a point where it’s a prototype, but we didn’t think about how to take it further, how to polish it, how to work on the details, so that it can be launched. This semester, we want to get our ideas polished.
Your team now has a prototype for an app called “Gravatron” with an interested investor. Can you say a little about what the app does, and how your experience in the MDM program has helped you in developing its concept?
RT: Gravatron is an app used for data collection for extreme sports enthusiasts. It’s kind of like Nike+ or runtastic but not just focused on speed tallies, but things that would be interesting for people into taking risks. Right now we have a functional prototype and an investor. So the focus of the team is to try and get [Gravatron] finished and polished, and to launch a pilot beta so we can start getting feedback on it.
MS: I’m a mountain biker, semi-professional, and I’m on a team with another guy who is a professional. He’s from Whistler. We both ride for a team in Germany. He came to me looking to do something in the digital market. I had this idea [for Gravatron], I pitched it to him and he said OK. Let’s make a company out of it.
RT: The way we went into [the current] project was that we had a bunch of things that we were working on, and we wanted to refine them and see what would take off. And what took off we’d push it to as far as it would go.
MS: In the beginning, the idea was to push all of our ideas to a stage where we can present them and then see which of the ideas are successful. We didn’t set goals for any of our projects, but to continue working on them. It was meant to be a really agile project. I don’t think there is any other model [to run a digital media business] because you can’t predict what will happen down the road. You can set goals, but those goals can’t be features of your project.
You both collaborated with Mozilla last semester for your industry project. How has that experience contributed to the current project?
RT: We worked with David Ascher [the Social & Communications lead] at Mozilla. He was a really good mentor in the sense that every time we had to present something, it wasn’t just giving him buzz words, David was focused on actual results and being able to show them.
MS: From a technical point of view, we’ve learned a lot, and experienced new and developing technologies. But then from a supervisory perspective, personally I enjoyed him as a supervisor, because he just wanted to see results instead of fancy presentations. He wanted to see the code right away, and didn’t care about anything else. This was something really refreshing. He said something really interesting: even if [a project] doesn’t succeed; you still mustn’t give up on it. 80% of the projects, he says, never get finished. But it’s not about finishing a project but about the idea.
As far as technology, has the focus of your work been on mobile applications?
RT: Not really intentionally, but we found that all these random projects had a theme of gamifying reality or ambient gaming. Right now [the projects] are very mobile and cross-platform. But we are very flexible, and agile, and we’d go wherever we need to.
Your team has members from Germany, China and Canada. And each of you comes from different disciplines. How have these different backgrounds and talents contributed to the project?
MS: If I had studied in Germany, I would never have been [working on this project]. All of the decisions made are influenced by the diversity of the team. This is something that really keeps things fresh – not easy – but fresh and not standard.
Chuck Hamilton is the faculty lead in this project. He has extensive experience as a project manager. How has his expertise helped with the success of the project?
MS: We are a project team of [designers and] developers so we have basically no business expertise. Chuck really tries to keep us on track on [the business] side, otherwise we would forget it, or wouldn’t do it, because we don’t know what’s needed. He really tries to push us on the business side, because it is crucial to the success of such projects.
I understand Media Objects is exploring an opportunity with the NCE Wavefront. Can you say a little more about this?
MS: Brad Lowe [Wireless Accelerator Architect at Wavefront] came to the [CDM’s] grand opening and we introduced the project to him, and he was really interested. He invited us to Wavefront – a great opportunity for start-ups like us. They provide professional technology. They have phones for testing any mobile application.
What prospects do you see for Media Objects?
MS: Our set goal in the beginning was that if one of our ideas is able to make a profit, there could be a company. It turns out that Gravatron may make this possible, and so we are thinking about doing a venture internship.