Techworld

Good Times app a winner for AT&T hackathon developer

Ruggero Scorcioni only showed up in Las Vegas to network with other developers, but walked away with $30,000

LAS VEGAS - With app development, serendipity matters. Ruggero Scorcioni knows that better than almost anybody.

Scorcioni showed up in Las Vegas last weekend to enter an AT&T 26-hour app development hackathon, primarily with hopes of networking with other app developers. Instead, he ended up winning first prize and $30,000 in prize money for building -- impromptu -- an app he dubbed "Good Times," which politely tells people phoning him to call him back when he's not especially busy.

Nothing special about that capability, really. The interesting thing is that this call management app works by detecting Scorcioni's brain waves and processing that information to keep outside callers from interrupting.

If he is relaxed, his brain activity will inform the call management software to allow calls through. When he's busy, callers are told: "This is not a good time to call, please call again later."

Conversely, if Scorcioni is about to make a call, but has just been fired, or is upset or especially intent on something, the software will detect his heightened brain activity and tell callers it is not a good time.

"I expected to come here to work on software, but ended up hacking some hardware, pulling out wires from a headset," Scorcioni told Computerworld.

The inspiration for the app came from realizing how even the sound of a phone ringing or buzzing will divert his attention from an important project.

Serendipity really came into play for him when he arrived at the hackathon early and was one of 100 developers who received a free headset called Necumimi made by NeuroSky. The device is a kind of toy that relies on actual brain waves detected from a sensor on the forehead.

The brainwaves detected can move cat ears attached to the top of the headset, and the ears will move to an upright, alert position when the brain is most active and focused. The ears relax and fold downward when the brain is highly relaxed.

In addition to the headset, Scorcioni was supplied by AT&T a small, cheap Arduino processor circuit board commonly used by developers for processing the headset's data, as well as a small circuit containing a 3G radio chip and a SIM chip -- both served by AT&T's data network.

With the radio, the impulses Scorcioni was able to detect from the headset were communicated via AT&T's wireless network to his cell phone after going through the call management software in the AT&T cloud.

Scorcioni said he had no idea if his impromptu app is commercially viable or not. "I just won the money. It's exciting," he said.

At 41, he has had plenty of time to research brain wave science as well as write computer programs. After receiving a degree in computer science in his native Italy, Scorcioni came to the U.S. 12 years ago to earn a PhD from George Mason University in Virginia in neuroscience.

He said he's very familiar with studies of brain waves being detected by EEG's, most recently with more than 64 sensors reading a person's brain activity from a special skull cap. "I have no idea about the science with the headset, but I just processed the data it produces to the call manager," he said.

Still, he is convinced that there's no question that a more active brain will consume more oxygen and produce more electrical signals that are picked up by sensors, as NeuroSky's device does.

The Good Times app idea could become valuable eventually, he said, and could be used for many purposes beyond screening calls. "It could be used to change music on your smartphone that you're hearing based on your mood," he said. "If you are watching TV and are bored by the show, it could change the station."

Jeff Bradley, senior vice president of devices and developer services at AT&T Mobility, called Good Times an exciting prototype that could get more life at AT&T, although he didn't make any commitments. The app was chosen by the audience at the AT&T Developer Summit here, after three finalists including Scorcioni made fast-pitch presentations onstage.

For "breakthrough" apps, AT&T will give a 12-week support process, backed by an AT&T sponsor, at one of three AT&T Foundry centers which function like innovation centers. AT&T actually got the idea for its Drive Mode app used on smartphones to prevent texting when a car reaches a speed above 25 mph, Bradley said.

Part of the reason AT&T has been able to foster so much app development -- including 28 hackathons in the past year -- is because of the Web RTC (Real Time Communications) cooperative created by Google, Mozilla and Opera, he added.

Scorcioni is eager to see where his fledgling idea might lead. "It could be interesting," he said. For now, he's glad his family back in Italy got to watch the his fast pitch and prize award via the Web live.

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Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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