Alumnus debuts ‘Neon AR’ augmented reality application

The world of augmented reality has made incredible strides in recent years, and now USC students will be among the first to demo one of the most exciting apps in the field to date. Utilizing the burgeoning technology of AR, the new app Neon AR will make it easier to meet up with friends and navigate to points of interest. With its social-friendly interface, the app is designed to give users a fun experience that complements the practicality of the service it provides.

Neon, a new app created by alumnus Dave Urbina, augments reality by allowing users to see virtual makers showing where their friends are and “shoot” 3D emojis at people with the app in close proximity. Photo courtesy of Dave Urbina.

Founder Dave Urbina attended USC, and said that conducting beta testing with students at his alma mater was an easy decision.

“There’s a lot of learning to be had somewhere like USC, where students are trying to meet up every day,” he said. “There’s a lot of density, and so it makes sense for us to test there and get insightful feedback.”

Urbina graduated from the School of Film and Television in 2006. While in school, Urbina said he was primarily interested in the immersiveness of cinema, but kept in mind alternative, less traditional career tracks he could pursue.

“I think because I didn’t put myself into a box and say, ‘I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to be a director,’ I had my mind open to the possibility of exploring other cinematic experiences,” he said. “That was basically the launching point for me and my pivot, in teaching myself how to code.”

The idea for Neon AR came to Urbina during a camping trip with his wife in 2015. Urbina wanted a way to connect real-life experiences with the virtual world, and realized an app could be the perfect way to realize his vision.

“The next morning, I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we came back to this spot years later, with friends or kids, and I was able to open my phone and see a neon sign, saying this is where David camped on July 10, 2015?’” he said. “That was the genesis of it, the ability to expand a new layer on the world, and have a more engaging visceral connection with the physical world.”

Neon AR works by latching on to the user’s phone’s GPS signal, and then digitizing their real world location onto the phone with the onboard camera. When trying to find a user’s friend, the app positions a beacon that remains in place on the screen, allowing them to make their way over to them with the virtual aid. The user interface incorporates fun elements to enliven the experience, and make the on-screen world even more engaging.

“The way that you interact in the app, you can shoot 3-D emojis at people,” Urbina said. “So I shoot emojis at Tim and he gets a push notification, so he opens his phone and turns in my direction, and they come zooming at him, and he can fire back. Then I’ll look and see Sarah somewhere else eating lunch, and I can navigate to her and find her. It’s literally placing your friends visually in the world around you, so you can interact with them in a way that hasn’t been done.”

Writing the extensive code for Neon AR was somewhat challenging, especially as Urbina had only recently taught himself how to code. After searching for months for a partner with the right kind of experience to finish the app, Urbina found Tim Brandt, a graduate from the University of Michigan, who fulfilled all the necessary credentials.

Before joining Neon AR, Brandt had spent 11 years in the visual effects field, programming computer graphics and dabbling in computer vision. He had familiarity with GPS technology through his work on a safe-driving app, which would use users’ location to see if they were in a “danger zone” where focusing on the road was imperative. When Urbina reached out about his developing app, Brandt saw it as the perfect fit for his skillset and was eager to get involved.

“I was instantly excited about what he was doing, the project was uniquely tailored to my background,” Brandt said. “We were on the same wavelength and hit it off right away. We both have this vision for how technology can bring people together in the future, and we both see augmented reality as this new paradigm that allows that.”

Urbina tagged his good friend from USC, Rob Ogden, to serve as his adviser. Ogden did a little bit of everything when he came on board, assisting with strategy and capital raising, drawing on his years of experience in entrepreneurship.

For Ogden, keeping a primary focus on the product itself is paramount, and guided his philosophy when he joined the team. It wasn’t difficult for him to convince the Neon AR team to think accordingly, as Ogden said they were already operating along the same lines. While the initial product had a vast assortment of features, they agreed to settle on a core element to build the app around, which became the ability to find friends with more ease.

“Over time, the product has pivoted a bit here and there, it’s been an iterative process as these things tend to be,” Ogden said. “One of the things I stressed is finding a core focus and there not being too many features, and instead discovering the core utility of the product, which ended up being friend finding.”

Urbina sees the app becoming popular at massive gatherings such as Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where meeting up with groups amid large crowds can often be difficult. While bad cellular service is often a reason for this and could potentially hinder Neon AR’s usefulness, the final version of the app plans to use bluetooth location technology to keep the app online as festivals continue to bolster their infrastructure.

“Our belief is that you always bet on technology,” Urbina said. “If we can build a community of users, then when the technology matures, then we’ll be the first movers there, and will already be able to provide a robust user base to access with.”

Neon AR will be available Friday for download from the App Store.