Science & Research

For CS concentrators, ideas become apps

Students develop apps for services such as anonymous messaging, unblocked Internet

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2015

Over the last five years, the number of computer science degrees awarded has risen by over 200 percent, increasing from 40 in 2011 to 100 last spring. For some computer science concentrators, learning is not limited to the classroom, as they apply their skills to the development of Android and iOS apps. The purposes of these apps — such as directing users to the nearest food venue or providing unblocked Internet access — can start out as simple ideas but transform into major ventures.

Chorus

As a “social network for collaborative songwriting,” Chorus allows musicians from around the world to post original tracks and contribute to other users’ tracks, said Matt Cooper ’18, a computer science concentrator who has been developing the app since June 2014.

Users can accept or reject musical contributions to their tracks — if accepted, the additions are layered over the original recording, Cooper said.

“Musicians are really passionate about their art, but it’s hard to find co-creators who gel with their vision and hard for college students to find the time to create music together,” Cooper said. “So we’re trying to fix it by opening up this creative pool to everyone in the world,” he added.

Cooper and his friend Max Sternlicht ’18 worked on the app last summer in the University’s inaugural Summer Breakthrough Lab, a pilot program that provides mentoring and resources to students interested in transforming a personal project into a venture. Cooper and Sternlicht received $4,000 of funding from B-Lab and an additional $4,000 from the Brown Venture Fellowship — some of which they used to hire a private back-end developer.

Cooper said he hopes music publishers will use his app to find and buy original tracks. If music publishers were to purchase a track, the rights would be split among the contributors, he said.

“There are currently 16,000 pro song-writers and composers in the United States,” Cooper said. “If we had just a reasonable network size, we would have a lot of quality music being produced.”

Cooper and Sternlicht aim to launch the app next semester and to specifically target a user base of students from Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and Berklee College of Music.

Cooper’s team may also host concerts on campus as part of a promotional effort. Cooper said he is trying to recruit some “big artists,” such as Aer, to publish a chord progression or beat on Chorus so fans can personally contribute to the track.

The idea came to Cooper when he and a high school friend went to separate colleges and could no longer record music together in person.

“I realized that it’s pretty inefficient to write songs with people — they have to live a few miles away from each other,” he said.

“Think about the Beatles — how lucky it was that all of them happened to live in Liverpool at the same time,” he added. “But how many bands have we missed out on because the right combination of people have not lived close enough?”

Food Compass

An app developed by Trushitha Narla ’18 points users in the direction of food — literally.

Like Yelp, Food Compass provides users with a list of nearby food venues. “But then when you tap the restaurant you want, it will provide you with a compass that guides you to the food source,” said Narla, who developed the app as part of a team at a University of Michigan Hackathon last winter.

While other members of the team worked on the Android version, Narla created the iOS version, which will likely be made available in the iTunes App Store for free within a few weeks.

“Imagine if you’re walking on Thayer (Street), you want pizza and you’re not familiar with the area — the app will just point you to where you want to go,” Narla said. “This focuses on food and getting you there as fast as possible.”

Narla said she hopes to develop a second version of the app that will function on the Apple Watch and provide users with a map in addition to the compass.   

Narla interned at Uber over the summer and applied for internships at Facebook and Pixar for this summer. In her application to Pixar, Narla noted her additional recent work on computer games and 3D animations, including a flying robot bird.

FanWall

Bill Wang ’17.5 took this semester off from Brown to focus on FanWall, an iOS app that lets users connect to secure, unblocked Internet free of charge. Wang, a joint applied math-computer science concentrator, launched the app three months ago. It now has over 200,000 users.

“Many websites are blocked in China, including Facebook, Google and Instagram — sites people use daily at Brown,” Wang said. “So there’s this huge demand for this in China. At the same time, there are people from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and other Arabic countries who are also using the app because of similar government-imposed blocking,” he said.

FanWall provides access to free, unblocked Internet by connecting people to one of many servers located around the world, Wang said. Most of the servers run on Amazon Cloud — a service for which Wang pays.

Due to the increasing number of users, the server cost has risen, Wang said. “Every month, I look at my Amazon bill, and it’s torture,” he said.

As a result, Wang recently submitted a new version of FanWall to the App Store that will charge each user $1 per month, generating a substantial financial income as the user base continues to grow. 

The app’s name involves wordplay, Wang said. “Fan” is the Chinese word for “unblocking,” while “wall” is a nickname for the Chinese government’s blocking of websites — referred to as “the great firewall.”

But taking down the wall was not Wang’s initial motivation. “I was actually hoping to create an Internet speed booster so people could access any website anywhere — but slowly people started to realize that my server also enables them to access websites that are often blocked within certain regions,” he said, adding that this contributed to the speed with which FanWall gained users.

Though several venture capital firms were interested in funding the project, Wang said he declined the offers because he hopes to return to Brown in the spring. “If I take their money, I have a responsibility to keep growing the project,” he said.

To compromise, Wang said he aims to make FanWall automatic by the end of December so that he can both return to school and continue running the app.

Whoflew

The anonymous messaging app Whoflew was designed to “provide users with as much control as possible over messages,” said Eric Rosen ’18, a joint mathematics-computer science concentrator who developed the app last summer.

Upon a user’s request, the free app generates a random username — for example, “bright monkey” or “shy cloud.” Anyone who knows the username can type it into the app and connect to that user for a certain amount of time, Rosen said.

Either person can delete the conversation from both phones at any time. After deletion, individuals cannot connect to each other again through the same username.

“It’s meant to be a secure platform for whatever messaging you want to do,” Rosen said. “For example, if you would like to contact a seller on Ebay or Craigslist but do not want to give out any personal contact information, Whoflew is a convenient, anonymous way to have that conversation,” he added.

Rosen developed the app over the summer along with two friends from his hometown. “We all really like to program, so it’s been a fun project,” he said. 

Launched in early August, the app now has around 100 users, though Rosen said he hopes to expand the user base this year through marketing on campus.

“There are many uses for Whoflew — for example, companies could use it as a way for employees and customers to deliver quick, anonymous feedback,” Rosen said.

“But I can see the app as being used for slightly more nefarious activities,” he added.

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