During the winter of 2014, a group of computer science students here at GVSU began to work on an iPad app now known as Wimage. The brainchild of this project was Michael Hyacinthe, the founder of Fashion Has Heart, veteran, and entrepreneur. The capstone course officially ended in April this year, but interestingly, the team of students assigned to the project, along with Michael’s developers have kept working on it over the summer months. Today, not only is the app available as a free download in the Apple iTunes App Store, but it is also an entry in the 2014 ArtPrize event here in Grand Rapids, MI. Recently, I was able to catch up with Michael and Joshua Shomsky, one of my former students, to discuss the project.
Jonathan: The Wimage concept started with your earlier “Fashion Has Heart” project. Can you give us a quick overview of how the idea for Wimage took root?
Michael: Wimage was inspired as an opportunity to further provide creative and visual opportunities to those who lacked the physical and or the creative capabilities. As you know Fashion Has Heart pairs wounded vets with designers after the design week I felt as if we were disabling the veteran again because we essentially separated them from and actual designer. So Wimage was created to be that conduit for people to form ideations and designs all by using their words or voice independently.
Jonathan: I recall you even had an opportunity to meet President Obama’s “Chief Technology Officer” in the White House, is that correct?
Michael: Yes we met with Todd Parks as a result of my Techstars Patriot Boot Camp invitation in Washington DC as a veteran entrepreneur.
Jonathan: So Wimage is an app that synthesizes images (or art) from words. Can you describe how the app works?
Michael: The dream for Wimage is to perfectly translate your verbal or written story into a visual medium. While that goal may take years to achieve, we are making steady progress and can understand the core concepts, environment and mood of the stories we’re analyzing, “The Interpretation Engine splits apart the story into simple components which we then visually convey via pictures on a canvas.
Jonathan: You and I agreed to turn this into a senior computer science capstone project for the Winter 2014 semester. As the external industry sponsor/mentor of the project, can you share your perspective on what kind of experience that was for you?
Michael: The experience was amazing and we really enjoyed working with the students. The students were extremly engaged because of the impact that this project could become. While I created the overall vision our CTO and the students took ownership of project. As an entreprenur and the founder of Fashion Has Heart it was simply amazing to see how thinkers and developers can work together for one common goal.
Jonathan: So now, we are almost 6 months further down the road, the capstone course is long over, and you and your team of developers are still at it! So when did you decide to enter the app into ArtPrize, and what’s it like to be an “artist” in ArtPrize?
Michael: We decided to launch the app in ArtPrize because we wanted to demonstrate the capacity of our interpretation engine. While I don’t think we will win, the mere fact that we are able to understand and read tweets and visualize a social media platform into our engine show us the limitless capacity our our engine.
Jonathan: What are your plans moving forward for the Wimage app?
Michael: We are beginning to do some field test and have been commissioned by a university to create WimagePad Stations for students to use in schools to communicate and discuss school events using our App. We are also looking to customize the app to keep true to our initial purpose which is to help our nations veterans. We believe this app has multiple applications and can go in many directions. We will begin to focus on one initial direction once we have completed our field research and analyzed our feedback.
Jonathan: Joshua, for you, Wimage started out as your senior capstone project a requirement for your computer science major here at GVSU. Can you describe who all was was (is?) on the Wimage team, and the primary role each participant played?
Joshua: Our team consisted of Michael Hyacinthe, Nic Jansma, Ed Anderson (Michael’s grandfather), and five students: four computer science majors (Tom Stack, Phil Webster, Keith Welsh, and myself) and Vincenzo Pavano, a liberal studies major. Today, pretty much everyone is still involved except Phil; the rest of us programmers continue to work on the project in our free time.
The concept behind the project was Michael’s brainchild, so you could say he was our “customer”. His contributions were mostly creative ideas that we could take and try to implement. Nic’s experience in the software industry helped him act as our technical mentor and project manager to keep us honest and realistic with our goals. Ed didn’t say a whole lot, but he did share some words of wisdom from his years of experience in manufacturing. Phil was instrumental in getting the first few screens of the app put together, while Tom and Keith were big contributors to the Interpretation Engine component, the core text-parsing logic of our app. Early on in the project I helped put together some of the planning and design documents, and later I was able to help finish off the final pieces of the user interface.
Jonathan: All of the capstone projects last winter were sponsored by external organizations, yet the Wimage proposal was unique in that it was quite speculative with a number of interesting challenges. What were some of the biggest hurdles the team faced, and how did you approach them?
Joshua: One of the biggest hurdles was defining the scope of our project. The initial concept that we were presented with was pretty challenging already, but Michael also asked us to brainstorm ideas of how we could take the concept further. We came up with enough ideas that we had to whittle it down to the the minimum viable product that could be achieved in the four months we had to work on the project. The other big challenge for three of the four students was learning the technologies and tools that we were using to develop the app. Neither, Keith, Tom, or myself had ever written an iOS app, so we faced the learning curve of having to use Mac computers instead of PC’s and writing Objective-C code in Xcode. It was well worth the effort because it allowed us to take advantage of the excellent development process that Apple has created for developing iOS apps, and it added another tool so to speak to our programmer’s tool belt.
Jonathan: I recall you also minored in music and studied piano performance here at GVSU. Do you feel your additional formal training as an artist was helpful to you as your approached this particular application concept?
Joshua: I think my experience with music had an impact that went beyond this one project, although it certainly didn’t hurt. Music can be expressed in terms of mathematics — for example the ratio between the audible frequencies of two notes, the numerical division of rhythms — but it also has an expressive and emotional side to it. I think music could be considered a complementary discipline, one that shares aspects with computing but also challenges the performer to become more well rounded in other ways.
Jonathan: How important is it for computer science students to get additional training in other disciplines in order to really be able to think out of the box? e.g. double majoring, or perhaps minoring in somewhat unrelated fields?
Joshua: I think it is important for computer science students to experience other fields in a way that will stimulate their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Double majoring or minoring in other fields is certainly an option, but I don’t think it’s the only. Even something as simple as taking your general education classes more seriously can be beneficial. One of my Theme classes that I took at GVSU during the Winter 2012 semester was Creativity (LIB310). The readings and assignments in this course helped me to think outside the box opened my eyes to ways in which I could stimulate my creative side.
Jonathan: Can you tell our readers where they can download their free copy of Wimage?
Joshua: The Wimage iPad app is available on the App Store. It’s free, so you can download it and play around with it. We’ve also added a feature where you can upload your Wimages to wimagevisual.com. Go ahead and check out our website, and feel free to send feedback. We’re always looking for ways to make the Wimage technology easier for people to use.