TERRE HAUTE —
Backyard astronomers stare at the night sky, trying to remember how to find the North Star, the Big Dipper and Mars.
Some might even attempt to impress a date by locating Pegasus or Cassiopeia.
If only they had the Sky Map app on their smartphones …
That piece of 21st-century technology — developed by a team of software engineers at Google’s Pittsburgh offices, including 25-year-old Terre Haute native James Powell — has turned a smartphone into a mobile planetarium for more than 26 million Android phone users since the application debuted in May 2009. Earlier this year, Google donated the free Sky Map app to the “open-source community,” allowing astronomy enthusiasts to “take the code and augment it as they wish,” the company stated.
Today, any Android user can download Sky Map, point the phone at the sky and see a display of the constellations, planets and stars located in that direction, day or night, cloudy or clear. By scanning the sky from the moon to the Milky Way, a user can see each object identified on the screen.
The app became an instant, fast-growing hit.
“It was really much more successful than we expected,” Powell said.
Ironically, though he grew up in a science-oriented family in Terre Haute, Powell had never seriously studied the stars and planets when he and five coworkers at Google began trying to create a palm-held planetarium in late summer of 2008.
“I like stargazing as well as anybody else,” Powell said from Pittsburgh, where he lives and works for Google, “but I had no background in astronomy.”
Powell did, however, possess keen knowledge of computer software. As a high schooler at Terre Haute South Vigo, he developed a fascination for 3D graphics and computer game programming. He took advanced math and physics courses, and even took classes at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology while a South student. In choosing a college, Powell picked Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for its highly regarded computer programming curriculum.
Powell graduated in just 21⁄2 years.
“He worked hard at it,” said Don Powell, his father, “and he’s pretty talented, too.”
Just three months after picking up his diploma and starting work at Google, which has its Pittsburgh offices adjacent to the Carnegie Mellon campus, Powell and his fellow engineers began crafting Sky Map. They worked on the concept as part of their “20-percent time,” a Google policy allowing employees to work on their own ideas (after getting approval from their superiors, of course) during one-fifth of their company time.
“They want to give their engineers freedom and the opportunity to pursue these things,” Powell explained.
Android phones had just recently hit the market when two Google engineers first envisioned using the devices as a means to identify planets, stars, moons and galaxies. The team of engineers, which included Powell, initially intended that phone application to highlight the abilities of the sensors inside the first-generation Androids. To create a visual reminder of the intended capabilities of the yet-unformed app, they took an office desk phone and, using a rubber band, attached a digital watch, compass, level, map and antenna.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Powell said, reflecting on the progress from that crude prototype to the slick, compact finished product. “People liked the idea, and we got the approval to go ahead with it.”
Ultimately, Sky Map not only illuminated the Android phone’s possibilities, but also gave users a literal window to the stars. It even served as an icebreaker for couples on dates. (And it’s cheap; the app remains a free download.)
In an online letter posted last January on the Google website, engineers John Taylor and Kevin Serafini thanked the app’s users, adding, “You tell us that Sky Map has helped you show off your phone, enabled you to see the stars when the urban light-pollution or weather obscured them, and even find romance!”
Further development of Sky Map will be handled by students at Carnegie Mellon through a partnership with Google in Pittsburgh. Another reason Google left Sky Map in the hands of others is that “there is no longer that need to show off the Android platform,” Powell said.
These days, Powell helps handle other Google projects, including fine-tuning Google Search. “I’m sure the average user has no idea how complex that [process of the Search] is,” Powell said. Instantaneously, as a user starts typing in a topic, the search for information begins. The Search function triggers a spellcheck, gathers related advertising, and compiles the sought-out information.
Google Search is “a hundred times better” than its original version, Powell said, “and it will get even better.”
When he’s not working, Powell enjoys playing tennis, cooking, and studying Byzantine chants. The latter stems from his conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity five years ago. The study of the chants “is very complicated,” Powell said. Several renowned experts on the topic live in the Pittsburgh area. “It’s not something you’d find in many places in America,” he added.
Now with shared NFL loyalties to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts, Powell says the Steel City “feels like home in some ways. It’s reasonably close to the Midwest,” adding, “There are things about home [in Terre Haute] that I miss.”
Back in Terre Haute, his family checked out Sky Map many times. James’ dad and older brother, Philip, downloaded the app onto their phones together when it was released in 2009. “It’s exciting to see such things,” Don Powell said, “and it’s always good to see anybody excel in these things, particularly your kids.”
Philip earned a physics degree at Harvard, and the Powell’s daughter, Beth, pursued a pharmacy career. Don’s wife, Paula, majored in computer technology, and Don studied applied math, technology and management, and now works as vice president of manufacturing and technology at Gartland Foundry.
“So the dinner conversations are quite unique,” Don quipped about their studious backgrounds.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, James looks forward to more projects with Google. “I can’t imagine why I’d work anywhere else, to be honest,” he said.
“I just plan to work on whatever I find interesting, until it’s no longer interesting,” James continued, “and then move on to something else that interests me.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or email@example.com.
Terre Haute native helped Google develop mobile planetarium — Sky Map
TERRE HAUTE —
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