Creating an App for That

UNC Asheville students and alumni are combining knowledge from other fields with computer science know-how to make a real impact in the non-virtual world—whether it’s predicting the weather, allowing visitors to virtually walk through history, or dreaming up new games.

"I think most people, when they hear computer science, they’re thinking you sit in front of a machine and you madly type code all day,” said Marietta Cameron, chair and associate professor of computer science at
UNC Asheville. “And what people forget is that the software that we create is not just software that we create for the sake of the machine. It’s software that we create for each other, to better society.”

Her students and alumni of the Computer Science Department share that philosophy, but even those graduates who have only taken one or two classes in the department gain valuable skills, interdisciplinary and interpersonal, and possibly world-changing, whether that’s on a screen or in real-life.

History in the Modern Era

Trevor Cunnien ’14 majored in philosophy and economics at UNC Asheville, but for the past year he’s been working on a cutting-edge app for the Chicago History Museum that brings the ghosts of Chicago’s past to life for modern day audiences.

Thanks in part to Cunnien’s work, modern day visitors to the Chicago Riverwalk can see the sinking of the S.S. Eastland, a giant excursion boat that sank over 100 years ago, as if it was happening right in front of them, using a new app called Chicago 00.

A view of the past with the Chicago 00 appBy standing on the Chicago Riverwalk near the Clark Street Bridge—the actual site of the Eastland Disaster—and peering at the Chicago River through an iPad screen, visitors can watch the tragedy unfolding in the Chicago River as if they were there in 1915. Through the Chicago 00 app, the scene comes alive: the S.S. Eastland, known as “The Speed Queen of the Great Lakes,” has rolled over onto its side with more than 2,500 passengers and crew on board. Men are pulling a child from the river. A professional diver climbs down a ladder from the boardwalk to search the underwater portions of the ship. Welders clamber on the hull of the submerged ship, cutting holes into the ship and freeing survivors trapped in pockets of air.

“It’s a multi-faceted digital experience project,” explained Cunnien, who works as a researcher on the Chicago 00 project. “We’ve got two pieces so far; the first is the Eastland Disaster augmented reality experience, where you take your phone and go down to this one block on the Chicago Riverwalk downtown, where the Eastland flipped over. From there you can walk around the site, and you point your phone where you’re prompted to, and it overlays photos and videos on the site of the disaster and walks you through the story.”

Cunnien’s majors in philosophy and economics included studies in economic history as part of his coursework. “I thought they were two fields that definitely speak to each other,” Cunnien said. “I felt like philosophy could augment economics’ emphasis on rational analysis with a little bit of more critical thinking; and then economics helped to ground some of the social, political, and philosophical arguments.”

The combination served him well as he worked toward a Master of Humanities at the University of Chicago. It was during that time that he started working on Chicago 00 as part of an internship, which eventually turned into a full-time job.

The second Chicago 00 project takes a virtual look at the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, which took place in 1929 and involved the murder of seven gang members during the Prohibition Era. While the massacre is infamous, there is no historical marker denoting the event that took place in what is now a parking lot. But a look through Chicago 00 reveals exactly where the bodies fell, where the police staged a reenactment of the gruesome scene, and where the crowd gathered outside on the steps of buildings that still stand today.

A still from the Chicago 00 app shows a diver from 100 years ago jumping into the Chicago River.“Part of the project is revealing the history of spots that you just would walk by and you would have no idea,” Cunnien said. “There are tour groups that go by there, but I don’t think anyone who drives by that street on their way to work has any idea or really thinks about it.”

Chicago 00 allows users to experience history outside of the museum, in the very places where the events took place—something that has never been done before, Cunnien said.

“It’s a unique way to experience history.”

Digital is the Future of History

In their own work to bring the past to life, students in UNC Asheville’s Digital History and Games Programming classes teamed up across disciplines in the spring semester to create interactive games based on the local history of Western North Carolina.

Computer science major Sophia Krieg ’17 and her team spent the semester working with colleagues in the history department to create a virtual representation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville with a 3-D game that invited players to navigate the church building by answering questions about the Unitarian Universalist faith and history.

“This is the first time I think we’ve worked with another class trying to build something, which is a cool experience because they have all the background for it, and we have to build it,” Krieg said. “It has a lot of substance when we come together.”

Kristen Walden ’18, a history major whose team created a 3-D game based on the history of Black Mountain College during WWII, found collaborating with game programmers was valuable to her work, as well.

“Digital is very much the future of history,” said Walden, who plans to get a masters degree in library science, “so for any aspiring historian, they would well to get comfortable with this kind of stuff.”

The cross-course collaboration has been an exercise in “learning each other’s language,” according to Professor of History Ellen Holmes Pearson, who teaches the Digital History course.

Chair and Associate Professor of Computer Science Marietta Cameron“We have students who are very much open to connections,” said Cameron, who teaches the Games Programming class. “We’re at a liberal arts institution, so they’re already inclined to be open to connections that they don’t think of initially, but that make sense.”

The connection between history and computer science is an especially apt one, Pearson said, as “technology is the low hanging fruit; it’s everywhere and we’re all going to have to learn how to work with it, even those of us who are ‘humanists.’

“To have a better understanding of how we can work with one another across disciplines is truly what we’re all about,” Pearson said.

An Online Finish Line

Michael Kuczkuda ’17 created the infinite runner game, DreamRush, which is now available in the Apple and Android app stores. Michael Kuczkuda ’17 had just completed his senior presentation during UNC Asheville’s Undergraduate Research Symposium in December 2016, when he got the news. His game, DreamRush—the same one he had just presented—had been accepted to the Apple App Store. He had submitted it less than a week earlier.

DreamRush is an infinite runner game, Kuczkuda said, where a player is running in his sleep, trying to stop nightmares from waking him up. It’s his preferred game-style.

“It’s something you can always go back to and do again,” he said.

Kuczkuda submitted the game to Android next, where it was quickly approved and is also available for download. And he’s got more plans for the game in the future, such as adding Facebook integration, which will allow players to share and compare scores with their friends.

After graduating in May, Kuczkuda headed to New Jersey to start a job as an associate at Infosys, with a UNC Asheville degree in his pocket and professional game developer on his resume.

Forecasting the Weather (when there’s not an app for that)

As an atmospheric sciences major, Kyle Noel ’17 has to know his way around some pretty complicated computer programs in order to predict the weather. After all, when Noel and his fellow members of the UNC Asheville student chapter of the American Meteorological Society share their weather forecasts with the world via Twitter, they want to make sure they are as accurate as possible.

“People like to joke that we’re right about 50 percent of the time,” Noel said. “The truth is we’re probably right about 90 percent of the days of the year.”

Their Twitter account, @UNCAweather, has garnered just under 700 followers since the first tweet in 2015. The idea was to make information about the local weather available to students on campus, but Noel noted the following is much larger, from athletics and coaches to school officers and the community.

Getting accurate predictions to those followers is tricky—especially because of Asheville’s geography.

“The challenge with the mountains has mostly to do with the computer models,” Noel explained. “For weather forecasting to work on computer models, it has to be on the most powerful computer in the whole world... called a super computer.”

Noel said he doubts that “truly perfect weather prediction machines” will ever exist, as that computer would have to be a hundred times more powerful than even today’s super computers.

“That’s why you still need meteorologists,” Noel said, “to interpret the computer models, to watch out for the trends, and to bring in local knowledge of climatology.”

Without the perfect “app for that,” Noel and other meteorologists must rely on human ability to develop an accurate weather prediction.

“Mostly it has to do with local knowledge, actually,” Noel said. “You have to know of the ridges in the area, and you actually apply meteorology knowledge to the computer models. If we know that the snow is trying to climb over the mountain to get into the valley, the snow will probably disappear.”

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It’s that kind of understanding that a computer just can’t generate at this point, according to Noel. It takes a combination of computer models and human understanding to really break down the details of an upcoming weather event, such as how much snow a storm will bring, or the severity of a thunderstorm.

“Personally,” Noel said, “I probably should delete the weather app from my phone.”

Noel said that the next big challenge for meteorology is finding effective ways to quickly communicate dangerous weather events to the public—a vital step in forecasting that can keep a storm from turning into a disaster. As he begins applying for forecasting jobs after graduation, it’s a challenge Noel is prepared for—with or without an app.