One of the hottest new electronic mediums for visual artists comes from a Vanderbilt University School of Engineering student who says he has no artistic skills himself.
Ben Gotow, a senior computer engineering major, develops applications (apps) for the iPhone. Two of his artistic drawing apps, Layers and NetSketch, have become so admired by users that online galleries have been dedicated to each app as a thematic medium. The applications are also a source of income for the student—he has earned more than $70,000 in sales of three apps through Apple’s online store.
Cell phones increasingly are adapting the functions of computers. More advanced cell phones, known as smart phones, can serve as phone, MP3 player, camera, laptop, game arcade, video player and more. In addition to basic functions, smart phones can also be outfitted for additional uses through downloadable applications purchased online. That creates new opportunities for computer engineers.
Gotow was initially drawn to iPhone development by Apple’s iPhone SDK, which allows apps to be written in the same high-level language used for desktop applications. “All of a sudden, developing a mobile app became a lot more like developing a desktop app,” he says. Writing applications for the iPhone is a relatively new arena—Apple, which owns the iPhone, only began allowing outside developers to create and sell applications for the iPhone in June 2008. Since then, more than two billion apps have been downloaded from Apple’s App Store; sales for the iPhone and iPod Touch total more than 50 million units.
The Virginia native says he first conceived the idea for NetSketch while in a computer engineering class. More than 350 work hours later, he submitted his proposed app to Apple to review. NetSketch was accepted by Apple and available for downloads starting in July 2008. His other two applications, Layers and Mathomatic, soon followed.
Advancing Human-Computer Interaction
Gotow says he likes to focus on the interaction between users and technology. “I’m interested in human interfaces: When the user picks up the phone for the first time, what’s the first thing they try to do?” Gotow says. “I try to create interfaces that just work. The iPhone is a great platform because the multitouch screen allows for some really intuitive methods of interaction.”
“I’m interested in human interfaces: When the user picks up the phone
for the first time, what’s the first thing they try to do?”
~ Ben Gotow
Gotow has been writing computer programs since childhood. He says his father, software designer Jon Gotow of St. Clair Software, fostered his love of programming and problem solving from a young age. “His help and expertise allowed me to tackle design issues ranging from networking and threading to UI [user interface] design and has helped make NetSketch a solid and efficient application,” the student says.
Gotow gets inspiration for new apps by looking beyond the limitations of his previous work. “You do something once and then realize you could go back and do something better,” he says. “Layers was inspired by the comments, suggestions and requests by users of NetSketch. I tried to expand the app to meet their needs, but I realized pretty quickly that what was being created required more than just an update—I needed something entirely new.”
Even though he professes to have no artistic skill of his own, Gotow says he loves creating apps for artists because art applications are an area in which high quality tools are appreciated and he knows his work will be put to the best use.
Building Smart Phone Technology
In addition to creating the applications, Gotow is one of more than 25 students in an innovative yearlong class launched by the School of Engineering. Developed and taught by Research Assistant Professor of Computer Science Jules White, MS’06, PhD’08, the course applies existing computer theory to new real-world models of networking and focuses on the creation of smart phone technology.
Gotow is developing a version of Layers for the iPad, Apple’s newest product. He is also working with White on an independent study project to create an augmented reality library for the iPhone based on global positioning technology. Gotow hopes to develop an app that would allow users to point their phones at a building anywhere on Vanderbilt’s campus and receive information about what is going on inside as well as the building’s history.
Gotow is also working on a project with Dr. Brian Rothman, assistant professor of anesthesiology. They’re developing an iPhone app for the Vanderbilt Perioperative Information Management System at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. After graduation, Gotow plans to go to graduate school and has applied to several programs that emphasize human/computer interaction.