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KC coders compete to show off NASA’s discoveries

Updated: 2013-04-22T03:15:51Z

By ALAN BAVLEY

The Kansas City Star

Someday you may check the local weather on your smartphone and get the atmospheric conditions on Mars as well, or play a game on your iPad that turns your living room floor into a Martian landscape with a rover you can drive around.

These were some of the novel apps that Kansas City area techies devised over the weekend as part of an international competition — billed as the world’s largest hackathon — to find new ways for NASA to get the word out about its scientific research to a public increasingly fixated on its pads, pods, cells and monitors.

Worldwide, more than 8,000 software developers, designers and social media experts from Bogota to Bangalore signed on to compete in NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge. The space agency’s challenges included coming up with apps that would let people take a virtual tour of the moon, visualize solar flares that are invisible to the human eye or trace the location, color and size of a shooting star in a meteor shower.

Prizes to the winners, announced later this year, will include viewing a space launch or getting space flight training.

In Kansas City, more than 30 staffers from such tech-savvy companies as Cerner, VML, Sprint and RareWire gathered at the Crossroads offices of Ingenology, the web design company that organized Kansas City’s team. On Sunday afternoon they presented their projects.

“NASA has all this data, but sometimes they miss the boat matching the scientist with the data to the people who are interested. We want to bridge the gap,” said Doug Niccum, co-owner of Wavelength Media and senior developer at Ingenology.

The Kansas City team worked into the wee hours of Sunday morning to come up with apps for two of NASA’s challenges.

One was to find ways to inform the public about NASA’s impact on the economy, including the hundreds of consumer spin-offs from space technology, from fog-free ski goggles to stay-cool underwear. The techies decided to create an app for children.

“It’s great if you and I know about it, but if you’re 12, how do we take all this random information and put it in a form that kids can use?” asked Mark O’Renick of Salva O’Renick, Ingenology’s parent firm.

The team came up with a computer game, Stellar Stuff, about spin-off technologies.

The other challenge they took up was to develop a way to visualize weather data from the Mars rover Curiosity. The team developed a smartphone app that gives the temperature wherever you are, as well as on Mars. On Sunday afternoon, the temperature was 63 degrees in downtown Kansas City, with a high of 37 degrees on Mars.

A companion app provides an “augmented reality” experience: Point your iPad camera at the floor and the terrain of Red Planet spreads out like a carpet. An animated rover appears that can be maneuvered around.

Ingenology president Mike Wilson was hopeful that Kansas City would do well in the competition. “Kansas City has very few opportunities to prove what we can do with technology, to live up to the hype that Google Fiber says about us,” he said. “Out of all the stuff we’ve seen so far (in the NASA competition), ours has been the most beautiful and functional.”

To reach Alan Bavley, call 816-234-4858 or send email to abavley@kcstar.com.

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