It was the beginning of May. West Virginia University’s spring 2014 semester was coming to a close as finals week quickly approached. Three friends had just moved in together, ready to spend their last summer in Morgantown before the next school year began. Then, they received an assignment that changed their lives.
Alex Dunn, Steven Amerman and Walter Ferrell, computer science majors at WVU, had been working in the Multispectral Imaging Lab directed by Thirimachos Bourlai, assistant professor in WVU’s Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Bourlai approached the students with a project about which they had very little knowledge.
The assignment was to develop a prototype of an Android phone application that was the earliest version of what is now known as SecureSelfies. The app is used to lock a phone using a “selfie,” a picture of the user taken by the user, as a security measure. The selfie is then used to verify the user when they want to access the various services on their phone.
“He came to us and said, ‘You have a week to finish this prototype,’” said Ferrell, a junior from Elkview. “We were working until the morning of the presentation to finish it.”
The technology developed by Bourlai, Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell is now being licensed through WVU to software security company Confirmix.
“Many of the most innovative technological advances come from sharp university students,” said Patrick Esposito, chairman and co-founder of Confirmix. “When you combine high energy and new thoughts with a dynamic research program like the one Dr. Bourlai leads, great things can happen.”
That energy was packed into a week’s time as the three students rushed to develop the prototype before the initial meeting with Esposito and potential investors. Dunn said he worked on the algorithms up until 7 a.m. the day of the meeting.
“I enjoy doing all of my work in a deadline-induced panic,” said Dunn, a senior from Scott Depot.
Bourlai selected these three students because they showed a passion and desire to work and learn. In the fall 2013 semester, Ferrell was enrolled in Bourlai’s Human and Computer Interaction course because he needed elective hours for his computer science degree. He was in need of a ride home and bribed Amerman to stay in the class with him with the promise of a free lunch.
“I thought the class was really interesting,” said Amerman, a senior who from North Berwick, Maine. “So after the first day, I registered for it.”
Ferrell and Amerman successfully navigated the course, and then were hired to work in Bourlai’s lab. The next semester, Dunn was also looking for a job when he ran into Bourlai while walking to class with his two friends. Bourlai said he could have the job after programming a set of code to verify his skills.
Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell had no real experience with biometrics and image processing outside the lab environment and were not familiar with the programming languages needed to create the app.
“We had no idea how to set most of this up going into it,” explained Ferrell, who worked to make sure everything connected with the server that kept the selfie on file functioned properly.
Amerman was in charge of programming the technology and Dunn was responsible for writing the software code that matched the algorithms for facial recognition.
“I had no clue what it meant,” said Dunn. “I was in my room all night stumbling through and came out and said to the guys, ‘I don’t know what is happening, but I think it’s working!’”
Now, six months later, the SecureSelfies app, and its parent company Confirmix, which started a Kickstarter campaign to secure funding, plans to launch commercially by April 2015.
“It all evolved pretty fast,” explained Bourlai. “We have an excellent team environment and continue to grow. We value communication and trust and I am proud to be a part of this team.”
Living together helped Dunn, Amerman and Ferrell push through the intense pressure they were under during the week they had to create the prototype.
On their kitchen wall, they posted a product backlog, a chart of all the mini projects needed to make the big project happen. Each job had a notecard with the person’s name who claimed it.
“I think having that up in the kitchen, where we couldn’t avoid it, helped us work harder,” said Amerman. “It’s hard to keep looking at your roommates knowing you haven’t completed a job, especially when it’s right there for everyone to see!”
Now, as they continue to work on the project, they are more confident with their skills and their roles in the company.
“We’re learning how to be speak the language of business. We can’t use the tech words we would among ourselves when talking to potential investors,” said Amerman. “The communication skills are key. We only have one shot to get it right with an investor.”
“We’ve gone from trying to figure out how to program this app to trying to find investors,” said Ferrell. “In the last six months, I’ve learned more than I think I’ve learned in my entire life.”
CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.