PorterKey offers recommendations just one key away

By Bella Jackson

On a campus that offers countless options of where to eat and what to do, making plans can be challenging and time-consuming. But thanks to a new app developed by a University student and a recent graduate, decisions may be getting easier to make.

Faris Toqan, senior in Engineering, and Robert Pieta, a 2013 graduate, have developed a new iOS app that adds an additional keyboard to allow users to search for food, nightlife and movies, and get information such as phone numbers or reviews without leaving the text messaging screen.

“The goal is to make the search contextual,” Pieta said, “You’ve already had the communication with your friend about what you want. [The app] can go through what you were looking for.”

Pieta said that by eliminating the need to use another medium — whether it be an app or a web browser — to search for information, it makes the process of planning more efficient.

Toqan and Pieta met when Toqan was a freshman looking for a tutor to help him learn how to design programs for iPhones because a class was not available through the University.

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    Pieta said after a few months of tutoring, it became clear that Toqan was very talented, and he hired him to work for his consulting group that worked with outside companies.

    After graduation, Pieta went to work with another outside company, but in September 2014, he quit his job and founded the startup Onenigma with Toqan. Onenigma comes from the words “one” and “enigma,” and represents some of the goals the two have.

    “We tackle different problems, one puzzle at a time,” Toqan said. “PorterKey is actually the third app that we’ve developed, but it’s the first that we’ve really pushed to launch.”

    Toqan said the University’s emphasis on work outside of classes helped him take the initiative to develop products while still in school.

    Pieta echoed that statement, adding that because the University allows students to earn credit from AP tests and proficiency tests, he could focus on computer science and application development while he was at school, and was able to graduate early in December 2013.

    Pieta said the idea for PorterKey came while the two were eating at Chipotle on campus in June.

    “I really suggested it as a joke,” Toqan said. “Like, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was just a keyboard that could help you decide where to eat?’ But then Rob was like, ‘That’s actually a really good idea.’”

    The two spent around three months designing, building and testing the app before it launched on Aug. 11. Pieta said throughout most of the summer, the two worked remotely, with Pieta at his apartment in Chicago and Toqan in Abu Dhabi.

    “We’re really efficient at working as a remote team,” Pieta said. “It really frees up a lot of time that we would spend commuting to an office and allows us to focus on building really cool stuff.”

    Toqan said college students would definitely find the application useful because the three major categories — food, nightlife and movies — are very prevalent topics in communication between students.

    However, the app can be of use to anyone who wants to make plans through text message without searching additional Web pages or outside apps.

    Toqan said the biggest challenge in developing the app was coming up with a design that communicated the information in a user-friendly manner.

    The name PorterKey was not given to the app until the keyboard was already designed. Pieta and Toqan wanted a name that was based on the concept of getting advice, similar to the way in which visitors do at a hotel.

    “We were thinking Concierge Key, but it was too long,” Toqan said. “PorterKey is easier to spell and remember, and it still communicates the point.”

    Toqan said he would like to continue designing apps to solve problems that he or people he knows face in their daily lives.

    Pieta said he thinks Onenigma will keep building on its technology to even more accurately present information.

    This means PorterKey may just be the beginning for the two Illini behind Onenigma.