HackPSU: behind the scenes at my first hackathon

If you would have asked me what hackathons were about before HackPSU — my first hackathon — I’d have answered with something like Geeks, Redbull and Coding.

“The way I measure success at a hackathon is if you leave having learned something new and you had fun along the way,” said Linsday Lindstrom, Technical Evangelist at Microsoft Corporation (who has more than a dozen hackathons under her belt).

HackPSU is a student-run hackathon held at Penn State University. The 24-hour hackathon was the culmination of Penn State’s IST Startup Week (March 18-23) which featured an array of speakers from startups and online media including Weebly‘s David Rusenko, Chris Fanini and Dan Veltri; Reddit‘s Steve Huffman; Matt Brezina and David Hua of Sincerely; Rajiv Eranki formerly of Dropbox; Tikhon Bernstam of Scribd; and more.

HackPSU 2013 drew a solid crowd of hackers and attendees from universities across the East Coast and Midwest, with more than 150 participants (a record crowd). One hacker even bummed rides all the way from Michigan via Craigslist. More about him later.

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Day 1: Before Midnight

After the opening bell, the teams began to form. Coders and non-coders. Small groups and large. Some even going solo. They all claimed a spot somewhere in the IST Building, which stretches across an entire expressway (U.S. Business Route 322).

I started my hackathon coverage by getting to know the teams and sneaking an early look at their ideas (the hacks).

The first project that caught my eye was from Zain Shah. I spotted Shah head-first in his computer in the IST lobby. He was testing his hack, with his jacket slung from his computer to his head, creating a sort of dark room.

He told what he was working on. When a picture was captured with the computer’s webcam, his hack could find the shape of an object by determining the distance of each point from the flash. In seconds.

He showed me the rough 3D-model it generated of his face. It looked like a digital rendering from a pin-box toy.

I moved on to other teams and soon glued myself to one group, working on an app to guard people from distraction, whether driving, working or studying. They’d later call it Distraction Infraction.

It didn’t seem to prevent me from distracting them, however, as I parked myself on the couch and hung out for a couple of hours while they worked on their hack. (This was their first hackathon, too.)

Another team was working on a To-Do list app based on user’s location or venue — a project similar to Foursquare lists.

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DAY 2: After Midnight

For my day two coverage, I revisited teams to see how things were progressing. It wasn’t long before I found a team that had executed a midnight pivot.

“The ‘pivot’ move happened sometime around midnight or 2 a.m. the first night after digging into what else there was out on the market,”  Cory Trimm told me. He and his hack-partner, Chase Miller, had been working on the To-Do list app.

The new hack — a mobile app called Actio — would encourage users to accept daily challenges and then upload a picture to a centralized website.

“We wanted people to push their boundaries every day with things that may make them uncomfortable,” Trimm said. “Then people that completed the challenges would be able to see the other users’ photos that completed them as well.”

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The Final Round

At this point, it was all about the finishing touches. Everyone — for the most part — was still going strong.

Each group would have two minutes to present to the crowd and judges (the speakers from IST Startup Week). Around 30 teams presented for a fast shark-tank-like pitch.

Hack presentations included photo restoration; a solar-powered smoothie cart; iPhone-controlled games; a life-balance app; a multiple video-chat service; a party-discovery app; an NFC tagging app for retail stores; and more. 

Some presentations were thought-provoking; some rushed; others somewhat shocking — namely, the hack from Fontenot, the hacker who found rides to HackPSU via Craigslist. His hack, originally called Sperm.ly but later renamed, was a sperm-donor directory. 

“Accelerate Evolution – You may not be the brightest, best looking guy in the world, but your child can be.”

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Later, Fontenot — a veteran hacker — told me he chooses hacks that either make people think or that cause a stir with the crowd. Check and check.

Then there was the finished product from Shah, whom I spotted the previous day testing his hack, jacket over his head capturing the rough 3D model. His teammate, Ishaan Gulrajani, had arrived later that night around 2 a.m.

Shah and Gulrajani attempted to execute a live demo within the two-minute time limit. Gulrajani took the stage and presented a dented coffee cup, holding it up to the crowd.

“[Our hack] literally lets you take real 3D images just using the camera on your smartphone by analyzing multiple photos with different lighting conditions,” Gulrajani said.

Gulrajani calmly reached for the smartphone tripod in his sweatshirt pocket and positioned it in front of the cup, all the while explaining to the crowd what he was doing. Then he got out his smartphone, seemingly not worried about the ticking clock. He snapped the picture. We waited for it to appear on the screen.  Then moments later the image synced and Shah shared it on the big screen, panning and zooming for us to see observe 3D image they’d just captured.

“We had a judging criteria sheet that highlighted different aspects like design, functionality, novelty, etc,”said Lindstrom (Microsoft) “Since I’m technical, I took into account the technical difficulty behind the solutions, especially given the time crunch.”

Not surprisingly, Shah and Gulrajani took the hacker crown with their Hologram app. This summer, Shah will start at Apple as a software engineer.

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After photographs and a little tech talk among hackers, a few of us pitched in to help clean up the remnants of what closely resembled a frat party (minus the alcohol): pizza boxes, empty food containers and Redbull cases, mixed with articles of clothing. 

Still on a little hacker high, some of us decided to head downtown. 

Wearing my “HackPSU” shirt, a few people stopped to ask me how the hackathon went. I tried to explain the experience, or what I could manage in two minutes — though I didn’t mention Geeks, Redbull or Coding.

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As we were leaving the club at 2 a.m., David Hua — head of platform at Sincerely — gave me some words of advice for my next hackathon — what they were really about. 

“It’s about participation,” Hua said. “On any level.”

By then, I’d already figured that out.

“I’m excited by the projects that people build, but I’m more excited by the friendships that they make in the process,” HackPSU organizer Kathleen Warner told me, after our hacker hangover had finally worn off. “If I can help even just a few people create meaningful relationships out of the event, then I feel like I did my part.”

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