Who made the best app (and walked away with the cash prize)?

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Smartphones in the classroom are a harmful distraction to learning, right? Wrong — thanks to a new app called Baton, teachers can harness the power of the ubiquitous devices for good, inviting students to participate in more productive classroom discussion.

Baton was developed by high-school teacher and masters in education candidate Zack Teitel, in collaboration with Victor Chen, a master’s of information student, and Fiona Zhao, a master’s student studying applied computing.

“I’ve worked in inner-city environments and very affluent schools, and in every classroom I’m in —  I can’t stress this enough — very single student has a smartphone,” said Teitel. “We need to start presenting opportunities to use the technology in a positive way, rather than a distracting way.”

[Listen to an interview with Zack Teitel on CBC's Metro Morning]

Baton was one of 10 iPhone and Android apps selected from more than 100 developed over the past year at the University of Toronto and supervised by Professors Parham Aarabi and Jonathan Rose, both of The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering. The top 10 most innovative and exciting apps went head-to-head in a competition for the title of Top App and a $1,000 grand prize, furnished by the Mobile App Lab.

The 10 groups demonstrated their apps April 21 to a crowd of industry representatives, professors and students, including three judges (pictured at right): Arshia Tabrizi, technology lawyer and founder of the social video platform Vidoyen, Darrell Etherington from TechCrunch and Lenny Freilich from Ontario Centres of Excellence.

“The quality of presentations tonight was extremely high,” said Tabrizi. “It’s amazing what these students achieved in a relatively short period of time.”

Added Freilich: “I like the interdisciplinary aspect of it — they’re working on, and solving, real problems.”

Apps such as Face2Name help doctors and nurses, working in enormous hospitals with rotating staff, find their patient’s caregiver in a hurry. Critter is a virtual pet that stops us from staring at our phones like zombies, sending out barks and purrs whenever we pass another person running the app.

SkinLens uses photo-filter technology to keep tabs on that scary-looking mole, checking for symmetry and colour changes. MyAlly is an app to help struggling teens prevent self-harm or suicide.

When the final judgements were in, XTouch —an app that can turn any surface into a tap-sensitive interface — was crowned Top App.

“Two taps in different spots act as two different buttons on the table,” explained Amin Heidari, the app’s developer. “XTouch extends the tactile environment beyond the surface of that mobile device.” XTouch technology is already in use in two games available on the App Store, with more coming soon.

The runner-up app, called Surgical Trainer and Navigator, or STAN, helps surgeons in training get empirical feedback about their proficiency in the operating room by tracking hand motions during surgery. Competition was fierce — at the end of the night, only a single point separated each of the top six apps.

“It’s thrilling to see this focus on interdisciplinary development really coming to fruition,” said Professor Rose, founder of The Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Mobile Software and Hardware. Rose created a graduate course, ECE1778, to unite non-programmers, or “appers,” and students with programming skills to build mobile apps that solve a real-world problem in the apper’s field. It’s a new research area, built entirely on harnessing the power of the tiny computers we all carry around in our pockets and the sensors that come with them.

“To me, I think we’ve seen perhaps one of the greatest surges of creativity in human history in the last six years,” said Rose. “It spans all different areas of endeavour. One of the beliefs that I think Parham and I share is the insight that there are lots of great ideas to come. ”

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