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Innovation on the Go

Innovation on the GoTufts engineers make their mark with successful apps for smartphones.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.24.10] As companies and independent computer programmers seek to gain a foothold on your smartphone's home screen, the development of mobile applications-or "apps"-has emerged as a hot new industry.

We spoke to three developers from the School of Engineering, two alums and a current student, who have had success in this burgeoning field.

Loren Brichter (E'06) - Tweetie / Twitter for iPhone

When Loren Brichter (E'06) developed Tweetie-an iPhone application for users of the microblogging service Twitter-in the fall of 2008, he didn't expect it to be a big deal. It was simply his initial foray into mobile app development.

mzl.jiveeyhj.320x48075_400But as Twitter users discovered Brichter's app, it became a big deal. In April 2009, Wired magazine wrote: "Tweetie will create a significant impact on Twitter as a whole." Brichter went on to win a 2009 Apple Design Award, and Time magazine hailed the second version of Tweetie as one of the top 10 iPhone apps of 2009.

Twitter took notice. This past April, Brichter joined the company's mobile development team and appropriated Tweetie as the default Twitter client for the iPhone.

"Looking back, I released it when Twitter was just exploding in popularity, and Tweetie hit some sweet spot between power, speed and simplicity," Brichter said in an e-mail interview. "I just got lucky. "

A coder since middle school, Brichter had taught himself an array of programming languages before arriving at Tufts, where he majored in computer and electrical engineering-"the hardcore hardware stuff that makes the software work," he said.

"You can treat something as a black box after you understand how it works," he said. "Nothing is magic."

After graduation, Brichter went to Apple and was part of the team that worked on the original iPhone. A year after leaving Apple, he developed Tweetie, mainly because he wasn't happy with the other Twitter apps that were available.

"I never ever would have guessed this is where it would take me, but it's been an awesome ride," said Brichter. "The folks [at Twitter] are crazy talented, and they really appreciate good design and give fantastic feedback. The upcoming stuff is going to be way better than what I could have made alone."

So what is next? Could it be the Twitter app for the iPad he was hired to help develop? Brichter remains cagey. "Hopefully you'll find out in a few weeks," he said, signing off with the emoticon for a smile.

Michael Sheeley (GE'05) - RunKeeper

Michael Sheeley (GE'05) is training for a half-marathon in what you might call a perfect union between brawn and brain.

mzl.udjryxpc.320x48075_400Sheeley is co-founder and COO of the company behind RunKeeper, an app for iPhone and Android phones that helps runners, walkers, hikers and cyclists track their training regimens and fitness. Time magazine named RunKeeper, which has been downloaded more than 2 million times, one of the top 10 iPhone apps of 2009.

But he's not just the co-founder-he's also a customer. Realizing that he needed to use his company's product in order to better understand it, Sheeley, who was not a runner, began using RunKeeper last year to train for an 11K race. He lost 15 pounds in the process and received support from the RunKeeper user community. By training for the half-marathon, he's hoping to drop another 30.

"Throughout my career, I've realized leadership usually comes from the person who's the most knowledgeable," says Sheeley, who earned a master's in computer science. "What Tufts did was put me to the next level in my career and in my knowledge to become a leader in software [development]."

Entrepreneurship seems to be part of Sheeley's DNA. In 2001, as an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, he developed a social network for college students, well before Facebook launched in 2004. As a graduate student in Tufts School of Engineering, he started his own company developing mobile applications to help cable television repairmen respond to customer calls while on the road.

"Devices were too expensive," he says. "Wireless networks back then weren't robust enough" to support the volume of data being transmitted.

At Tufts, he studied with Professor Carla Brodley, whose data modeling course informed his research into GPS tracking-a key function of RunKeeper.

"She let me research stuff that I was interested in," recalls Sheeley. "She knew I was an entrepreneur and didn't constrain me or my ideas."

After graduation, just as the cost of cell phones began to drop and data networks were becoming more sophisticated, he got a job at the aerospace firm BAE Systems, where he continued to build his skills in mobile development.

"When the iPhone came out, it was like, 'Eureka! A business model can be built on top of these platforms,'" Sheeley says.

He connected via the career networking service LinkedIn with Jason Jacobs, a fellow entrepreneur who envisioned a mobile application for runners, and the two founded RunKeeper. The app launched in August 2008.

Sheeley foresees developing a "Facebook for fitness," where users can track their exercise and nutrition and draw motivation and coaching from their network.

While Sheeley admits it's been a "crazy ride," he says "it's extremely rewarding to actually have a product out there that people are using. I'm actually making a difference in our users' lives."

Foster Lockwood (E'13) - The Facility

There is no riddle behind how Foster Lockwood (E'13) became interested in computer programming. Now it's his own riddles that have put him on the app map.

"The Facility," an iPhone mystery puzzle game he developed for computer science lecturer Ming Chow's Introduction to Game Development course, has been downloaded more than 95,000 times. In May, the game achieved iPhone App Store rankings as high as eighth for puzzle games and sixth for adventure games. It also ranked as high as 39th for top games and 71st for top applications.

Lockwood, whose dad ran a software company, first experimented with programming by trying to recreate the features he saw in other games. After high school, he took a community college class in the programming language C++, which he found unexpectedly intuitive.

mzl.ltwkassf.320x48075_400As a freshman at Tufts, he took a course in data structures with Associate Professor Soha Hassoun, learning programming principles such as memory management, which is especially relevant to iPhone development since the small devices have more memory constraints than desktop computers. "Afterward, I didn't believe how much more I knew," he says.

Lockwood developed The Facility as his final project for Chow's class and, at his professor's suggestion, submitted the game to the iPhone App Store. It was accepted within the week. At one point, it was downloaded 10,000 times in one day. He has since created a sequel, "The Facility 2."

Lockwood got the idea for the game from an interactive fiction-writing exercise in Chow's class. The game begins with the player waking up alone in a strange room and gradually exploring the rooms of "The Facility" and unraveling the mystery.

"I'd always been into the programming part of things, but not the ideas," Lockwood says. "But this got me to take the coding out of it. You really just had to make an interesting story."

Like programming, the game's foundation is attention to detail. To create the world of the game, he taped giant Post-It notes to the wall of his dorm room and drew a grid that laid out the rooms of "The Facility."

Puzzle games exploit the part of the human brain that thrives on reward, Lockwood says.

"It's amazing how addicting just answering riddles or trying to find out the plot of a mystery can be," he says. "You can really get people into something just with a simple paradigm like solving a riddle."

Profiles by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications 

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