It is the sort of application that seems made for an iPhone: the image of a sun moving across a multi-hued sky, gently alerting Muslims to prepare for each of their five daily prayers. Yet future profit was far from the minds of the six doctoral students at the Georgia Institute of Technology who came up with the concept, which they unveiled this week in Boston at the human-computer interaction conference CHI.
They do plan to make the application available to support wider Muslim prayer practices over the internet, hopefully within the next year, but have not begun to consider how, said Susan Wyche, one of the researchers and a doctoral candidate at the Institute's College of Computing and GVU Center. The researchers chose Islam for their study due to the religion's popularity worldwide and in the US, where 65 per cent of the 2.35 million Muslims are immigrants.
There are already a number of commercially available prayer call mobile applications, such as Mathan or Azaan, but these rely on text messages and numbers - lists, basically - to relay prayer times. When the researchers consulted with seven focus groups on the project, they found the various members, from professionals to students, were yearning for more meaning from a mobile call to prayer. They explained the call to prayer also signals to Muslims that is time to shift from a secular frame of mind.
"Your reminder to pray is very different than being prompted to pick up milk at the grocery store," said Ms Wyche. "There is something more sacred." Muslims have historically used technology, such as compasses and telescopes, to help them determine the direction to face during prayer, while the position of the sun in the sky has been one of the most religiously valued methods to determine the right time to pray.
From the outline of a mosque to a prayer mat, imagery is a vital part of Islam, so the group set out to use it to design something that went beyond mere function to strengthen the user's connection to their religion. The application had to be about more than "efficiency and productivity", said Ms Wyche. "Why would you design a device that makes someone pray faster?" The application, which is called Sun Dial, signals the approaching prayer to users through an image of the sun lining up with a green circle. When the two are aligned, it is time to pray.
It is linked to islamicfinder.com, a website that provides prayer times for more than six million cities worldwide. The researchers used the colour green because it is associated with nature and considered blessed within Islam to communicate the solar positions. "That was another element that drove the design, seeing something simple, thoughtful, where everything is in its place," said Ms Wyche. "When you go into a mosque, there is a reason why everything is where it is. There is nothing extraneous."
The project had a side benefit of giving the researchers, none of them Muslim, a personal window into an often-misunderstood religion.
"Islam is growing like gangbusters around the world and I think we really need to start dealing with it and understanding it," she said. "It was just a pleasure to learn about the faith."