Inside the SetiQuest Explorer Beta Test (Interview)

On Friday, I wrote about one of the most interesting beta tests on the planet (and perhaps, the galaxy). SetiQuest Explorer, a newly developed app for Android, was produced by the Seti Institute – a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research and education on extraterrestrial life. For you sci-fi buffs, this organization was the inspiration for the movie Contact, one of my personal favorites.

The application lets users look for patterns in noise from radio signals picked up by the Allen Telescope Array in Northern California. The telescopes are focused on stars beyond our solar system, including stars with planets nearby that NASA’s Kepler mission has determined are in a habitable zone, meaning they could sustain life.

Anyway, I promised to get in touch with the developers of this application to learn more about the challenges they face in their current beta test. Francis Potter (pictured left) who led the development effort, was kind enough to field a few questions from yours truly. Here is the brief Q&A. My questions in bold.

Needless to say, this is not your typical beta test. What kind of information and feedback are you hoping to receive in the testing phase? And what is the nature of the issues already being reported (if any)?

FP: We decided to take a community-driven approach to many aspects of this application, including testing. The version that’s out there now is very raw, and we’re getting useful input on everything, from the placement of buttons to the authentication options. No major bugs being reported though.

The press coverage has mentioned that the iPhone version will be available later this year. Is there a particular reason why the SetiQuest Explorer was first developed for the Android operating system?

FP: We built the app using the Adobe Flex/AIR framework. It compiles to Android very easily; making an iPhone app from the code base is a little more work, so we decided to hold off. We did build an in-browser version for personal computer users, and we’re releasing it simultaneously with the Android application. Besides, those of us on the core team are all Android users, so it made sense.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far in testing the application? I’m guessing it had to do with transferring data from the Seti servers, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

FP: Obviously the big challenge is that we don’t have all the handsets. We have a cross-section of them though. The Adobe toolset makes it really easy to test on the desktop using different pixel dimensions, so that was easy. But we know there are subtle differences between some of the handsets. Hopefully our beta testers will tell us if there is a problem!

We demo the app on the Samsung Galaxy Tab. It’s a terrific form factor for this kind of app. I’ve become a big fan of that device.

What advice do you have for other developers conducting a high-profile beta test? Any tips for sorting through all of the feedback?

FP: Ask me in a few weeks; we’ve just begun! We’re inviting very free-form feedback on a Facebook comment thread, and also getting some emails. Our main strategy is to listen and respond to people’s concerns, and really act on their feedback as quickly as we can. That way, people stay engaged and become partners in the endeavor, which is what we want. At the end of the day, we aren’t looking for paying customers; we’re looking for people who are interested enough to sift through noisy data visualizations in their free time! Hopefully our approach will work for those people.

In general for this kind of functionality, companies used GIS (Geographical Information System), is that what you guys are using too?

FP: The application uses the Google Sky API to show the user the target they are looking at and its celestial neighborhood. Otherwise there’s no real geo integration yet.

Since this is an Android app (open source and Java based) what are the future enhancements or features you are considering for this application?

FP: Not Java based at all. We used the Adobe AIR for Android framework on the client. I can’t say enough good stuff about that; it’s a beautifully designed development environment, and the Android compilation is seamless. When we have had minor questions, the Adobe team have responded very quickly. The server technology is Ruby on Rails.

The main enhancement we’d like to add is more interesting visualizations. Right now we are showing very simple black-and-white patterns. But some graphics geeks have been tinkering with the data, exploring ways to visualize it in 3D, or with color, or even by playing music and listening for patterns. We’re hoping to find some community members who are interested in developing some of that kind of functionality as volunteers.

Editor’s note: A big thanks to Francis Potter for taking the time out of his busy schedule, and also to Anuj Sharma for submitting a few of the questions. If you know of another mobile app that you want to learn more about, email me your ideas to

One Response to “Inside the SetiQuest Explorer Beta Test (Interview)”

  1. Brazjion said:

    Downloaded app yesterday…have the droid 2.
    Only 6 patterns show up on my phone…not the seventh or the question mark. Online pattern examples would be very helpful….or better yet a screen tracer pen…to point out what we see when we press the question mark…to include a screen snapshot of it…to share with others…so we do not waste our time recording useless information…Or if we do find something great…it can be posted for all to see! (10% royalties…for all great ideas).

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