Mobile Computing | Feature

Using the Web, Students Create Cross-Platform Conference App

A team of students from Drexel University has successfully created a collaborative app for conference and classroom use that works across mobile operating systems.

Every school that has developed a campus app knows the feeling: Creating native apps for a range of different operating systems--whether iOS, Android, or something else--can be an expensive, time-consuming pain. That's what makes the work of five seniors in the College of Engineering at Drexel University (PA) so remarkable. The students have developed a conference-management app that works seamlessly across different mobile platforms.

The potential of mobile devices as a collaborative tool at conferences and in classrooms is huge. But the diversity of device platforms makes this collaboration difficult--and sometimes impossible. Many existing systems, for example, are limited to specific platforms, isolating users from one another. While some schools have solved the classroom problem by issuing students with mobile devices, such an approach may not ultimately be realistic in a BYOD era--and definitely won't work in a conference setting. The solution designed by the Drexel team, on the other hand, provides a unified interface that allows conference attendees or students to actively participate and collaborate.

Called UniConf, the app enables scheduling, collaboration, and sharing across all devices. Not only can presenters offer conference attendees more options for participation, but attendees can also communicate with each other during the event.

Led by Jedidiah (Jedi) Weller, the nine-month project included development, design, prototyping, and testing. The product has been successfully used at several conferences to date, with positive feedback. The group also won honorable mention in Drexel's Senior Design Competition.

"In a conference setting," said Weller, "UniConf increases collaboration among all members. The presenter can upload all the resources--PDF, Excel, etc.--and send out a web address to everyone in the audience, who can then see exactly what is included in the presentation." In addition, he explained, both presenters and audience can view audience questions at the same time. There's a scheduling system for multiple events, as well as a chat room specific to the event, where attendees can talk together without being disruptive.

The biggest challenge, of course, was interoperability. The team wanted to provide "different skins" for iOS or Android, without having to write separate interfaces. Their solution was to create a website that mimicked an application on a phone or tablet: The website has the look-and-feel of an app, while also functioning like a native app. It can be used anywhere, on any mobile device.

Unisys Corporation sponsored the team, providing tools and the mentorship of consulting software and security architect Mike Kain, who is also adjunct professor in the College of Engineering's computer science department. Using the Unisys ClearPath ePortal, a point-and-click Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) enabler, the team was able to develop one application and port it through iOS and Android.

The idea for the project started while Weller was interning at Unisys. Weller asked the company if it would sponsor his idea, which was originally a tablet PC mounted on a wall outside the conference event. His initial idea, which focused on such areas as presentation, scheduling, communication, and sharing, was eventually expanded into the UniConf app.

The UniConf tool is designed for use either at conferences or in the classroom, according to Kain: "The development platform is built on Microsoft ASP. The team's use of ePortal, a software product for larger mainframe lines, plus ClearPath, a tool for adapting to mobile technology, demonstrates that IT departments can use mainframe resources to create completely contemporary mobile apps."

Kain called the app's success at its initial conferences "amazing. People were lining up to get the user code."

Whether or not UniConf is a true app depends on how you look at it. "As technology develops, there's a trend toward a meld between the web and apps," explained Weller. "It's kind of both. It's a web service because you access it through a web server. And it's an app because it's customized for your device." Whatever it's called, its function remains the same: UniConf figures out what you're using and makes the website look like an application on your phone or tablet.

Preparing Students for Real-World Work

It's difficult for college students to get real-world experience while working toward their degrees. Some students--Jedi Weller among them--are fortunate enough to work as interns with companies in their field. But schools can also help simulate that real-world experience via in-house initiatives. A good example is the Senior Design Competition, conducted by the College of Engineering at Drexel University.

According to the school, the competition "is a three-course sequence that is intended to simulate a professional work environment, to provide experience working on an open-ended problem, and to develop information-gathering and communication skills." This year, eight design teams from multiple engineering departments advanced to the finals, with projects ranging from non-polluting fracking solutions to a 100cc motorcycle intended to break the land-speed record in its class.

The UniConf project, sponsored by Unisys, received honorable mention, but the benefits to the team go well beyond such plaudits.

"I learned what goes on behind the scenes at a major corporation," said Weller, who was the lead on the project and ultimately landed a full-time job as an associate engineer at Unisys. "I hadn't done a lot of application development in the past. It was eye-opening to see how the corporate world works as opposed to the educational world, including what is public, what we can share."

A real surprise for Weller was how protective companies are of their licenses--and how careful not to infringe on other licenses. "As a student, this was not a worry," he noted. "In business, you have to be conscious of licensing and agreements. I read a license agreement for the first time in that environment."

For Weller, the project served to ready him for the workplace. "It matured both me and the group as to how to communicate, and how to deal with other professionals," he said. 'It also developed our interpersonal skills, our ability to speak to people and to communicate our ideas. It's amazing how much we learned in the short term. And it was great for our personal profile."

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