UMass Amherst junior’s photo-sharing platform born at university ‘hackathon’

  • Peter Tao, a junior majoring in biochemistry at University of Massachusetts Amherst, uses Spotlight, a photo sharing application he developed, at the UMass Campus Center last week. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Spotlight, a photo-sharing application developed by University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Peter Tao, is displayed last week at the UMass Campus Center. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Peter Tao, a junior majoring in biochemistry at UMass Amherst, talks about Spotlight, a photo sharing application he developed, at the UMass Campus Center last week. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Peter Tao, a junior majoring in biochemistry at UMass Amherst, uses Spotlight, a photo-sharing application he developed, at the UMass Campus Center last week. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Spotlight, a photo sharing application developed by UMass Amherst junior Peter Tao, is displayed last week at the UMass Campus Center. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Peter Tao, a junior majoring in biochemistry at UMass Amherst, displays Spotlight, a photo-sharing application he developed, at the UMass Campus Center last week. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY PHOTOS

  • Peter Tao, a junior majoring in biochemistry at UMass Amherst, uses Spotlight, a photo sharing application he developed, at the UMass Campus Center on May 2, 2017. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Peter Tao, a junior majoring in biochemistry at UMass Amherst, talks about Spotlight, a photo sharing application he developed, at the UMass Campus Center on May 2, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2017 5:14:03 PM

AMHERST — Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. The names are synonymous with the potential profitability of social media websites and smartphone apps.

Understanding that people his age are always looking for the next big thing and something appealing to use, University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Peter Tao recently created Spotlight, a photo-sharing platform that allows users anywhere to embed captions onto the pictures they take, and get a sense of what other people are up to.

“It’s an anonymous photo feed anyone can post in from all around the world, so people around you can visualize what’s going on,” Tao said.

In addition to the anonymous posts, the content is set to delete after 24 hours, ensuring continuous fresh pictures and captions for users to see and react to anytime they are using Spotlight.

“The reason is so that new stuff can be in the feed at all times, so people know it will not be there permanently,” Tao said.

He calls his creation a cross between Instagram and Snapchat, with the platform taking design cues from Instagram and the automatic deletion of photos and videos reminiscent of Snapchat. But the big advantage, Tao said, is the anonymity of Spotlight, which means users aren’t under pressure to have each photo “liked” and connections can be made beyond their friends.

A biochemistry major from Lexington, Tao said he went to what was called the HackUMass IV hackathon in October with his roommate, among more than 700 people interested in creating projects related to electronics and computers — and eating pizza — during a 36-hour event.

“We decided to participate in the hackathon completely spontaneously, but to prioritize sleep and the free food,” Tao said.

But then he started writing code at the hackathon and realized the app, at the time being called Breadcrumbs, where photos and videos uploaded would be “dropped” into a stream of other media, might have potential.

Tao said even though software engineering is not his major, he appreciates doing the work. “I think it’s so cool we can build social media platforms that can make our lives better,” Tao said.

Hackathons = ideas

Nigel Paine, a computer system and engineering student who is organizing the HackUMass V this fall, said hackathons are supported by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at the Isenberg School of Management.

Many of these students, said Birton Cowden, director of New Venture Development at the Berthiaume Center, attend as a way to showcase their potential job skills, but also to build many cool things.

“My goal or hope is to figure out more pathways to add more longevity to the great projects students are working on,” Cowden said.

The center offers an innovation challenge that grants money and provides mentoring and general guidance for the business side, such as a doctoral student who last year got $35,000 in seed money for her creation of an automated controversy detection, a service that will allow consumers, companies and other organizations to detect false information.

Paine said students appreciate the potential for these awards. “If they want to pursue it further it provides an incentive for them to do so,” he said.

Following the hackathon, Tao said he spent at least 24 more hours writing and updating the code for Spotlight, streamlining it and not basing it on a user’s location.

He came up with the name because of how spotlight means attention, however briefly, for each photo.

“Once you post something, it’s on Spotlight and everyone can see it,” Tao said.

The final step was paying a $100 fee to Apple to become a licensed developer, after creating the code and submitting it for review. Spotlight is now available in the app store for iPhones and should be available for androids over the summer.

Tao shows the simplicity of using the app, once downloaded, by sitting at a table at the Blue Wall in the Campus Center and snapping a photo of a Texas Pete hot sauce — noting it is an appropriate photo since he shares a first name — and then adding the text “So Hot!”

Spotlight is connected to another app that screens for inappropriate photos, making sure that potentially obscene or graphic pictures won’t become part of the feed.

Though Tao sees potential for making money off Spotlight — and one day becoming a profitable venture — he never designs apps with that intent in mind. A previous creation, Praise, was done in response to a high school friend with mental health issues. That app uses Facebook, fetches friends and then pairs them up for a compliments.

“It’s an app to help people feel better about themselves,” Tao said, adding that he intends to revisit and improve Praise.

Observing that Instagram had 25,000 users within a day of its launch — the classic fairy tale of knowing the right people in the right places, as Tao puts it — the pace of people using Spotlight is much slower, with most users current UMass students.

The next step, he said, is to get as many people to be using the app as possible. “You can always have more users,” Tao said. As it grows, it could be more attractive to potential investors, and eventually become a useful tool for the business community to promote their enterprises, reaching a population always using smartphones.

“You’d have to start talking to businesses about advertising, that would be the first step,” Tao said.

Tao said he can envision shops and restaurants in the region using Spotlight.“I like the idea of local advertising that would expose people to things they haven’t seen before,” Tao said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.




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