RJI Student Innovation Competition 2016What motivates someone to take on a big challenge dependent on new technologies and team dynamics?

Nearly 100 students accepted the challenge last fall when they showed up for the kickoff of the 2016 Reynolds Journalism Institute Student Innovation Competition, marking the largest turnout in its nine-year history. Since November, the pool of ambitious students has been whittled down to five finalist teams, working to develop a game-changing app for the Apple Watch. The competitors say they’re learning new skills and gaining valuable entrepreneurial experience through the app development process.

The teams have their sights set on a common goal — to make the best app and win the competition. The process for each team has been similar, but with differences at the margins. As they learned early on, there are many unexpected challenges that come with working on the frontlines of emerging technologies. The teams are near the point where ideation, market research and design conceptualization will pay off as coding and testing are now dominating their push to the finish line.

However, most of the teams we spoke with have indicated it wasn’t easy getting to this point. “The first four advisor meetings we had were just fleshing out the idea,” said Jeff Orr, a competitor studying strategic communications with a minor in computer science.
“It’s like, we had this big thing mapped out in our brain, but getting it down to the nitty gritty of what is our idea and who we are serving is something that was really challenging for us.”

It’s been hard to think of the Watch as an independent device from the iPhone. Aside from the ability to tell time, the Watch is heavily dependent on the phone. The compatibility between the devices is far from perfect. Computer science major John Gillis says he must always keep in mind that the Watch is a separate device.  For example, there are sometimes delays between receiving downloads and notifications on the Watch and the phone.

Strategic communications student Yitian Gu said something her team had to initially overcome was distinguishing what specific value the Apple Watch brings to their larger product concept. “We came up with all the functions that really the Watch conducts, so that’s the way we found the uniqueness of the Watch,” said Gu. Each team had to come to the same place. During their weekly meetings, Mike McKean, Dale Musser and Reuben Stern — the competition mentors  — would stress that each team focus on the value of the Apple Watch and how their app takes advantage of the new platform.

Once that focus became clear, each team brainstormed app ideas. This can be tricky because an idea that seems very practical for a smartphone may not necessarily have the same appeal to current or potential smartwatch owners. The competitors are learning that some features they’d like to deploy on the Apple Watch aren’t yet feasible.  What Apple makes possible on version one of its Watch can limit the team’s creativity, Orr said.  A member of a competing team, Erin Fry, agrees. She had a tinge of sarcasm in her voice as she said how much “fun” it is to be told that what her team wants to develop can’t be done. “I know we’re not the only ones who have heard ‘No, that’s not possible’ or, ‘rejected,’” Fry said. At that point it’s back to the drawing board. For many in the app competition this is their first time innovating a product in an early technology space.

Until the speed dating session back in the fall, most members of the finalist teams didn’t know each other. Everyone agrees the collaboration with students from different disciplines has been challenging at times. However, they’ve also appreciated the learning experience. Samantha Huston is a strategic communications major working with computer science and business marketing majors. She says the most rewarding part of the competition for her is the group dynamic and to see how different brains work. Her teammates are even encouraging her to take up coding, a skill she believes would have great benefits for her strategic communications degree.

The potential benefits of the Apple Watch keep these young innovators pushing through adversities. Among the benefits they shared were the opportunity to be pioneers on a new wearable device, to learn what most other students don’t get the opportunity to learn, and to work on teams with people not like themselves, an environment they’ll encounter often in the professional world.
As the competition enters its final week, the entrepreneurial spirit the student competitors brought to the table last fall will motivate them to complete the final mile and set themselves up to win.  

You can see the outcome of this year’s student competition as the teams share their apps with the public and learn their fate during the kickoff of the annual RJI Tech Showcase at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 3.  Watch the live stream at RJI Live.

The authors are senior convergence journalism students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who are working with RJI Fellow Victor Hernandez on his Wearables Playbook project.


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