USC science students launch social media app

At the beginning of Jack O’Grady’s freshman year at USC, he found himself wishing for a way to know what his friends were up to and what events were happening on campus. Now a sophomore majoring in physics, O’Grady has developed an app called Packup that allows users to see what both friends and strangers are up to in real time.

“Everyone is within a one-mile radius, hanging out 24/7,” O’Grady said. “It was so different from high school, the dynamic of constantly making plans. So I started toying with the idea of being able to see who’s free and who’s not, and through a year and a half of iteration arrived at where we are now.”

The app allows users to indicate their availability with a red, yellow or green light. It also provides two feeds, one with friends and one with strangers, where people can share binocular-shaped photos of their location and present activity. Packup currently has a little over 400 users, including many USC students.

“We are really interested in the idea of presence — what are people doing right now?” O’Grady said. “It goes beyond just your friends but everyone around you because they’re the ones influencing how popular a cafe is, how long the lines will be. We wanted a way to connect people in real time to help them explore places, figure out where to go.”

As his idea expanded into something tangible, O’Grady found himself in need of more manpower, so he recruited two other USC students to join his team. Quinn Ellis, a sophomore majoring in computer science, assumes the role of chief technology officer and does most of the programming, and Peter Kaminski, also a sophomore majoring in computer science, manages the data and server backings. Each has their own area of expertise, but together, they were able to combine their talents to build Packup.

“Jack and I started last year around October, so it’s been a year and a few months,” Ellis said. “I did all the programming until over the summer [when] we hired Peter Kaminski, who does a lot of the back end stuff. Every time we do a small launch and get feedback, there’s a lot of stuff we learn, and there’s a lot of stuff we have to change that we thought was going to work, but didn’t.”

The team readily admits that the photo-sharing app seems similar to social media giants such as Instagram or Snapchat right now. But they were quick to emphasize the real time aspect of Packup as well as its utility and ease in helping create instant plans.

“We found that even though the pictures are different, it’s still just a picture,” Ellis said. “You post on Instagram a picture you’ve spent time on, [while on] Snapchat you post if you’re doing something cool. But they’re not about what you’re doing right now, or if you want to go do something with your friends.”

The team learned early on that building from the ground up is a challenge. After a wave of initial enthusiasm, user growth stagnated. An exciting moment came, however, when Packup was picked up by Science, Inc., an incubator located in Santa Monica, Calif. that supports promising startups.

“Before it was just an idea. We would meet up on campus at night and work on it,” O’Grady said. “But getting a term sheet and our first outside funding from the incubator brought us to the next level and gave us a big resurge in energy.”

Additionally, the group has ambitious goals in their experiments with virtual reality. Though they are starting small with 360-degree photography, they hope to eventually graduate to full-on, immersive and three-dimensional experiences in collaboration with Google Cardboard or other VR headsets.

“We’re trying to focus on creating a go-to platform for virtual reality, where people can meet up with their friends through VR and do things together,” Kaminski said. “Next month, we’ll have standard VR photos where you can pan around the photos, see it from 360 degrees.”

Throwing all their energy and efforts into Packup, the developers hope that the app will become successful enough to turn into a full-time job after college.

“I’d really like to see Packup take off and become something people really value when using their phone,” Kaminski said. “It’d be really satisfying not to have to look for a job after college, just start working on something full-time that had originally been just a side project.”