The Stories Behind the Hacks

We talk with some of the winning teams from last year to find out their stories. Where do winning hacks come from? What are the moments that get left out of demos?

Hackathon · Raymond Zhong

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The USG Projects Board is the branch of the USG that provides grants for student group programming.

To herald HackPrinceton coming up this weekend, I thought it’d be interesting to look back at some of the winning hacks from last year’s fall and spring hackathons. I still vividly remember how after the spring demos, it was clear that Tamagetitdone had captured the audience's hearts, applause, and collective imagination. Tamagetitdone was Greyson, Michael, and Ben's "productivity-focused digital pet for your browser." We watched the little digital pet jump around the screen, munching on distracting page elements; a profile picture here, a wall post there, and thought back to our own meanderings onto Facebook... The laughter grew with each nibble of another wall post. Tamagetitdone ended up taking home both the first place and audience award, winning the judges' and audiences' favor.

Most winning hackathon teams came into HackPrinceton with a team, not a specific idea. Matt and Himanshu of Risk of Electrocution, a hardware hack that plugs into a standard outlet and measures the risk of electrocution, chose to attack a research problem they had already been working on. Other teams knew they wanted to use the hackathon as an opportunity to familiarize themselves with a new technology: Ankush, Neil, Pranav, and Joseph from Robot Kinection wanted to work with robots and Arduinos (microcontrollers that facilitate electronics projects) in preparation for a robotics olympiad. They were able to build a robot powered by a Kinect, using algorithms to translate drawn paths into numerical data, mapping it to radio frequencies transmitted to the robot. Tamagetitdone's team just knew they wanted to make a tamagotchi and an app for better time management, and combined the two. As for the Tamagotchi, Greyson says that he just likes "watching things grow". Pat, Joe, and Nate of Theramixer, a hardware hack that allows you to mix music by making gestures with your hand around onscreen DJ pads, sparked their idea from a conversation at Radioshack while they were looking for materials.

Though the process in the middle tended to all blur together, the teams all had their memorable and/or infamous moments. The team behind Risk of Electrocution also built a robot bartender, remembering "heart-rendering" moments when they spilled alcohol on the Raspberry Pi, another microcontroller, just as it started working. Demo time is another beast entirely: it's a law of the universe that what could possibly go wrong during demos, will go wrong. Robot Kinection's team watched their unresponsive during the first attempt, calling it "more than pitiful to laugh at." Theramixer had to adjust the calibration of their screen-sensing algorithm on the fly for the lighting on stage.

I had one last question for them: Why hack? I had my guesses as to why - at the very least, hackathons are plain fun. Grayson says that he "loves working on cool projects. Any time I get an idea, no matter how bad, good, or detailed, I write it down. Hackathons give me a chance to turn those ideas into realities." Theramixer's team recognizes how cool it is to just sit down and make something in 24-48 hours. They're interested in making something that "can be part of something's life". Always building to share with other people, they enjoy the collective "ahh" from the audience as confirmation that what they've built is genuinely interesting to others.

There's no forgetting the moment when everything finally starts working after hours of debugging: the moments that seem to stretch before the final compile, the excitement of using your very own app for the first time. But there's no one that loses a hackathon: it's a break from normal routine and a chance to let your imagination run wild with the latest technologies, surrounded by similarly inclined students.

- Angela