Brandon Carlson is a software developer and the owner of short-term rental properties — and for the last few years, Carlson has gotten used to renters contacting him for help on odds-and-ends questions. 

Where are the grilling utensils? The linen closet? The trash bags?

“Every time, I tell myself, ‘I should really put a sign up,’” said Carlson, founder of Urbandale-based software firm Lean Techniques. “Then I go to my lake house, and I’ve got all these signs everywhere. It feels like a hotel room, so many years ago I thought, ‘I would love to have an [augmented reality] app that somebody could just hold up, and you could scan the room and see where everything is.’” 

Eventually Carlson was curious enough to try it out. Other rental property owners and management companies were receptive to it, and Carlson wanted to test the concept on renters using his own properties. He turned to Iowa State University’s inaugural computer science capstone class to build the augmented reality prototype app.  

Five ISU students worked with Carlson and Lean Techniques project coordinator Taylor Greiner to develop the augmented reality platform. Users open the app on their phone, and through the camera they can view geotagged notes tagged on closets, kitchen cabinets or other locations marked in-app by the property owner. 

The project — which the ISU students nicknamed “AR-bnb,” pronounced as a pirate’s “Arr” — is still in a prototype form for Carlson. Students tested the app in their own apartments, making notes over chess boards and kitchens in augmented reality for Lean Techniques to review its functionality. Next, Carlson will take the app and make notes in the AR field through his rental vacation properties and offer the app download to visitors for their use. 

“When you have vacation property, you typically have locked closets and things … they’re off-limits to other folks. So [students] created some functionality where you can [mark] ‘this is inaccessible.’ The way they approached the problem was super cool,” he said. “These projects mirror professional work.” 

This was Lean Technique’s first partnership with one of ISU’s capstone classes, but ISU hosts connections between multiple Iowa industries and students for technical project research. Through ISU’s Center for Industrial Research and Service, companies submit proposals to work with students on capstone projects in engineering, design or technology exploration, said Carey Novak, student projects manager for CIRAS. 

“We live in a very technical world, and as these technologies keep evolving, capstone projects are a relatively easy way for a company to explore a new idea,” Novak said. “It’s always a challenge if you live in Iowa to recruit technical talent. If you can work with three or four or five students for a semester, it’s so inexpensive to assess them as potential candidates rather than trying to do a mass recruitment effort. Those two benefits are pretty significant.” 

For Lean Techniques, the students’ project focus pushed the app’s timeline ahead from what the Lean Techniques team could do on their own time, Carlson said. Carlson anticipates polishing the app in the next two months as users test out the concept.

“Anytime you try to do something like that, the forces of the day-to-day tend to pull you away from some of these side projects,” Carlson said. “That makes this really advantageous to companies trying to do this. These students, this is their singular focus, and if something comes up at the office, they’re not going to get pulled into it.”