Student startup accelerates advancements of augmented reality

Megan Gent
August 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “Augmented reality is the future of how we interact with the world, instead of how we interact with technology.” These are Penn State student Greg Costeas’ motivational words that drive his entrepreneurial spirit in a startup that he has created to help push this future along.

Greg Costeas

Greg Costeas

IMAGE: Provided

Costeas, a junior who began studying human-centered design and development in the College of Information Sciences and Technology last semester, is co-founder of Xora — a platform aimed at allowing more people to create augmented reality experiences by making them easier to develop. The platform allows web developers to use their existing skillsets to create AR applications, but hopes to eventually "enable for AR what Wordpress enables for website creation," said Costeas.

Xora started as a project between Costeas and his now-business partner, Royce D’Souza, a junior in philosophy, during HackPSU last fall.

“One thing that sparked our interest [during the hackathon] was the GEICO Challenge, which called for augmented reality, but we wanted to also pursue as many challenges as possible,” Costeas said. “What we ended up coming up with wasn't actually directed towards any of the specific challenges.”

The pair won the overall third place for the competition, and although they didn’t quite fit the criteria for most of the third party challenges, they received an unofficial third place from a local company called Loop Software — along with a monetary prize in exchange for a meeting.

“We made AR development a possibility for [Loop],” he said. “They were already fully capable of imagining the possibilities of AR, but it would have been as productive as imagining the possibilities of a flying car. Our tools allowed them to explore these possibilities because AR development was no longer a daunting prospect.”

Taking the next step

Costeas and D’Souza decided to further pursue Xora, so they applied to the Summer Founders Program — a signature program of Invent Penn State that allows Penn State student teams to work full time on their startup, social good or nonprofit idea. Costeas’ team was one of seven out of 50 selected to participate and receive $15,000 toward company advancements.

“If you have a vision that people believe in, you'll be able to find the money you need to make it happen most of the time, but [I applied to this program] more so for the mentorship,” Costeas said. “[The mentors have] been down the road, and they're familiar with the struggles you face.”

Costeas said these program mentors have helped him to narrow in on the company’s goals while Xora underwent a recent rebranding.

“[The Summer’s Founders Program] is sort of like a grounding force, and essentially it makes sure that we consistently are able to articulate our current position to people that are outside of the company.”

Enduring hardships

Though he was already pondering a change to his academic plan, it was the sudden passing of his friend — a College of IST student who died in February — that put Costeas’ goals into perspective, he said.

“When that happened, I sort of just put everything on pause,” he said. “I started integrating things into my life in the order that they were important to me at the time. So first, that meant being there for and with the people that were going through the same thing, who I care about.”

And second, he says, was his startup.

Costeas, who was pursuing a degree in computer science at the time, decided to make the switch to the College of IST for a major that better aligned with his goals for his startup and for his future. Human-centered design and development, which prepares students with the skills to understand how people use technology and how to identify and build technologies to enhance people’s lives, was a perfect fit for what Costeas was looking for in a degree program.

“[Current products] from my perspective, aren't ideal. And in my mind, you can't settle for not ideal,” he said. “The goal is to really understand what people need and what people want, what people enjoy, and create products that fit those needs.”

Costeas said he hopes to take what he learns in the College of IST and apply it to Xora’s development.

“[Augmented reality] is going to fix the way we interact with technology, because right now we get separated from the world when we interact with technology,” Costeas said.

What the future holds

The team’s primary focus now is helping their developers learn through a series of augmented-reality development projects.

“These projects allow them to learn the struggles of an AR developer using current tools while also building their own ability,” Costeas said. “These gained experiences will enable the development and shape the experience of the platform that we create.”

Currently, Costeas and his team are involved with an indoor navigation app that will allow blind people to navigate through buildings using their phones. That effort is being led by Nelson Troncoso, a doctoral student in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and a research group directed by Vijay Narayanan, the A. Robert Noll Chair Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and Electrical Engineering.

“I'm actually really excited about this project, as it highlights the fact that AR isn't just a visual technology. In this case it lends the user a visual sense, but then takes the information, makes it more useful by providing directions based off of it, and then communicates those directions through auditory cues.”

He added, “Initially this will likely be working within the standard five senses, but eventually we could take advantage of more advanced sensors to give people senses based on non-visible light, magnetism, radio waves, and so much more.”

Costeas said he is excited for the future of Xora and what it will bring — including the team’s interest of possible hardware creation later on.

"There isn't a fixed path that will be the right thing to do when interacting with the world, and I think working on a startup really embraces that,” said Costeas. “You don't have a job description, you sort of work to build one.”

He concluded, “But at the same time, any value created has to rise out of ambiguity. You need to find ways to create value.”

Last Updated August 25, 2020