Tuesday, March 15, 2011

In Texas, autistic adults develop iPhone app, an abacus-styled animation game

From the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Thanks to Bill for the tip!

PLANO, Texas -- One of the newest iPad apps might be a little hard to find, but it's a milestone for a small Plano nonprofit trying to set up working futures for adults who have autism and its high-functioning variant, Asperger's syndrome.

After several months of work, students at nonPareil Institute, based at SMU's campus in Plano, issued their first iPad application, called Soroban. The abacus-styled animation game allows users to add, subtract, multiply and divide up to seven digits. The app, which sells for $4.99 on Apple's iTunes store, is the first of what the institute hopes will be enough to sustain it and eventually allow the group to build a campus where students can live, work and play.

"What we release to the public is going to get better and better," said Dan Selec, one of the group's co-founders and a career IT professional who has a teenage son with autism.

Three students did the primary work on the programming, design, sound, research and tutorials, and a local Japanese woman did the voiceovers for free.

Cheryl O'Brien, 50, of Allen, who has an electrical engineering degree and was diagnosed only six years ago with Asperger's, wrote the computer code and scripts for the tutorials and tested the final product with kids. "I took it to the ice rink and passed it around," said O'Brien, who has two children, including one with autism.

Renee McMurtre, 20, who lives in Fort Worth with her mother and is middle- to high-functioning on the autism spectrum, wrote two Asian-themed instrumental compositions using her Apple GarageBand software and keyboard. Michael Goodman, 26, of Frisco, who earned a communications degree at SMU and who has Asperger's, did the research and wrote a short abacus history for the game. "I didn't know [the abacus] was the world's first calculator," he said.

NonPareil, which means having no equal, got its start 11/2 years ago in Selec's Plano home with an idea: Train adult students who have autism and Asperger's for work in higher-paying fields such as video gaming and computer graphics. Those with autism can have significant problems socializing with others, but many gravitate toward technology.

In September, after securing a $200,000 donation, nonPareil moved into quarters at SMU in Plano and opened a small training center. Students pay $500 in tuition a month for one-on-one training and weekly group sessions, as well as access to the lab, computers and software.

NonPareil has 40 students ages 19 to 52, all higher-functioning. Several are from Tarrant County. Ten more high school students are expected to join the organization after they graduate in May. NonPareil is hunting for a larger training facility, the next milestone toward its ultimate goal of a live-in campus.

Area school districts have forged partnerships with the Plano center so their eligible high school grads can get into the program. TCU's Neeley School of Business invited Selec and co-founder Gary Moore to make a presentation on social entrepreneurship March 29.

Even though nonPareil can receive tax-deductible donations, its founders want the organization to eventually sell enough applications to end the need for fundraising. Near-term, they plan fundraising this year, said Moore, a former longtime IT recruiter.

The self-sustaining model is what major donors want to see from organizations they seed, said Moore, who also has a teenage son with autism.

"They want to see that social entrepreneur model," he said.

For each sale of the Soroban app, nonPareil gets $3.75 from Apple, Selec said. As many as 20 have sold so far, and Selec and Moore want to explore the market in Japan, where the abacus is still used in schools.

As they develop more applications, they're shooting for going viral.

The two point to the success of Angry Birds, in which birds go after pigs that steal their eggs. The Finnish owner, Rovio, estimates 40 million monthly active users.

"You don't have to develop too many of those to go fund a campus," Moore said. "That is the goal."