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The Voice of a Neighborhood

M.F.A. graduate’s AR app aims to connect Tenderloin residents with their local environment and act as an inspiration for young people

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Faranak Razavi (third from left) was awarded a $10,000 grant from Tech in the Tenderloin on Friday, June 29. Also pictured (L–R) is Farshid Ghods and Victoria “Via” Pruitt. Photo by Manasi Patel.

Faranak Razavi’s TeenTend app started as a mere idea at the Tech in the Tenderloin (TNT) hackathon back in September of 2017, but now after being awarded a $10,000 grant from the non-profit organization, Razavi is one step closer to bringing her community app to reality. 

“I was pretty much speechless because there were so many other great ideas presented at the hackathon,” Razavi said of being nominated for the grant. “The fact they believed in our idea and its potential outcome and how it can impact society means a lot as young developers.”

The M.F.A. graduate from the School of Game Development at Academy of Art University and her team of game and web developers competed against schools such as Stanford University and Pennsylvania State University at the Tech in the Tenderloin competition, which was hosted by the San Francisco Salvation Army Kroc Center. The goal was for students to develop a virtual or augmented reality app or program to address some of the daily issues affecting the Tenderloin neighborhood, especially its youth. 

Conceptualized based on the residents’ concerns, TeenTend, (which was originally named TenderFeels) is an AR app encouraging users to drop colored leaves indicating how the area affects their mood. Logging these interactions can tell other users to avoid or to invite them into that particular part of the neighborhood.

According to June Sargent, member of the TNT board committee, Razavi’s concept was selected because it gave the neighborhood a voice. Additionally, city officials could use the app’s raw data to identify specific issues that need to be addressed.

“There was ownership, like you’re contributing,” Sargent added. “We like the contribution aspect of it because a lot of apps are just in there and you’re out; here, you’re contributing to possibly improving the neighborhood. With those kinds of things, it has a bigger purpose, which I appreciated very much.”

Prior to the grant award, Razavi and company sat in on a mentorship session with S.F. Chief Innovation Officer Jay Nath on how they could improve TeenTend. Razavi shared that Nath had ideas on how to incorporate TeenTend data into the city’s 311 system.

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Razavi’s app, TeenTend. Photo courtesy of Faranak Razavi.

Moving forward, Razavi said the app’s development schedule involves a ton of playtesting, obtaining feedback, implementing a working neighborhood map and user customization. The app should be really easy to use, especially for the youth, she emphasized. 

In addition to Razavi’s app, the Academy and TNT continue to build a working partnership. According to Julia Beabout, TNT co-founder, the organization’s mission is to “create more access for low opportunity youth families” in the neighborhood by using gaming as an entry point.

“Trying to get them to make the connection that these games that they’re playing, that they love, that there’s great jobs available around these games,” Beabout said. 

“[It’s about] sparking the kids’ imaginations, so they can say, ‘Yes, I can see myself in this role,’” Sargent said.

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TeenTend app team Victoria “Via” Pruitt, Farshid Ghods and Faranak Razavi. Photo by Manasi Patel.

A few weeks after announcing Razavi won the grant, Beabout and Sargent brought four kids to Game Design Lead Steven Goodale’s class at the Academy’s 180 New Montgomery building to playtest on student-built games. In a similar vein to the hackathon, the TNT committee members hoped that close proximity to Academy game developers opened the eyes of their own students.  

“Being exposed to these high-power college-age kids and see how they work … to see how these people are not that different than [they are],” Beabout said. “It’s removed some of the mystery so the opportunity seems more possible to them.” 

Goodale believes this type of outreach is just one of many ways AR/VR can be impactful. With no set industry rules in place just yet, Academy students have the opportunity to play and unlock its potential, just as Razavi did. 

“It’s kind of magical tech to improve the living conditions in the city,” he commented. He also acknowledged that the breadth of questions the tech can address is vast. “It’s a totally unique thing to think about: How can we use AR to make living in the inner cities better? Can we use it to make people happier or safer or inspire them to care more about their environment? Or get outside people in our environment so there’s dissemination of information and people can figure out how they can help?  

“It was a really exciting problem to solve,” Goodale concluded.