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Second annual Hack Mizzou mines depths of Lafferre, brains

A total of 400 students worked day and night at the second-annual Hack Mizzou, held over the first weekend of October at Lafferre Hall. Hacks are weekend-long events in which students compete to design and build just about anything that can be programmed by a computer. Photo by Katie Bell.

A total of 400 students worked day and night at the second-annual Hack Mizzou, held over the first weekend of October at Lafferre Hall. Hacks are weekend-long events in which students compete to design and build just about anything that can be programmed by a computer. Photo by Katie Bell.

It’s nearly midnight on Sat., Oct. 4, and the University of Missouri College of Engineering’s Lafferre Hall is in overdrive. After over 30 consecutive hours of planning, designing and coding, tech talks, naps and a rather competitive “Smash Brothers” tournament, Hack Mizzou has finally reached its climax. During these last hours between midnight and 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, only brain power will get the projects done. Until then, Lafferre will feel like finals week — tense, a little frustrated and ready to work until the job is done.

But it’s been quite a trip to get to this point. The packed hours of intense tech had two distinct origins: CS student Dan Silver’s brain, where the idea of hosting a Major League Hacking (MLH) competition was hatched, and Middlebush Auditorium at 5 p.m. on Fri. Oct. 3, where nearly 400 participants kicked off the second annual Hack Mizzou.

By midnight on Friday, Lafferre’s labyrinthine halls have been thoroughly burrowed, and by 5 the next morning, sleep deprivation finally catches up with racing minds. It’s back to work by 2 p.m., and a tinge of excitement is obvious in voices as plans are laid.

“Did you see the Alienware truck outside? They’re offering Myo’s to anyone who can win a ‘Street Fighter’ tourney.”

“It was just working, and now it’s not, but we got a 4-D fractal to show up on the Oculus.”

“Laser tag out in front of the columns? Yeah, I’m down.”

A stroll around the first floor hallway reveals barely a fraction of the 400 students taking part. There is still too much to do to leave a burrow except for the most necessary of necessities: coffee, energy drinks or a bathroom break. On the other hand, the same stroll almost certainly crosses paths with Silver or one of the many volunteers who helped organize the Hack. Silver, president of MU’s student chapter of Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), has been hooked on hacks since he was in high school. Put simply, hacks are weekend-long events in which students compete to design and build just about anything that can be programmed by a computer.

“Hackathons are all about making a cool app or website regardless of whether it might be profitable or not.” Silver said. “It’s just cool technology, and that’s all people care about.”

Last year’s hack was much smaller in scale; only about 100 participants worked in the confines of the Memorial Union. With a much higher budget thanks to sponsorships cultivated by Silver and senior ACM Secretary Gabrielle Perdieu, sponsors were able to secure prizes that put the “Price is Right” to shame. Grand prize is an Oculus Rift Development Kit, a Parrot.AR drone, a Google Nexus tablet, a Pebble Smartwatch, a GoPro Hero3 and a Dell 20-inch monitor. In addition to becoming part of a programming community, top performers can win much more than just a prize; hack sponsors tend to look very favorably on students who show a certain hard to quantify ability or creativity. As a veteran of the MLH circuit, Silver possessed a natural desire for Mizzou to host one of these hacks so that other students could see what so enamored him. It didn’t take long before he had some converts.

“We’ve seen an explosion of interest in hackathons at Mizzou … When I went [to MLH PennApps], I brought five Mizzou students with me. And then at Hack Illinois, we brought twenty more.” Silver said. “We had so many people go to Hack Illinois [last year] that they sent a bus here to pick us up.”

Last year's inaugural Hack Mizzou event attracted about 100 participants. The 2014 version, however, attracted 400. Photo by Katie Bell.

Last year’s inaugural Hack Mizzou event attracted about 100 participants. The 2014 version, however, attracted 400. Photo by Katie Bell.

Some of these converts include Mizzou freshmen Michael Smith and Jeff Ruffolo. It’s their first hack, and they’re here because of Silver’s encouragement. With nothing to lose and the promise of at least gaining valuable experience, giving the hack a try is a no-brainer. Their idea is to build an app that allows a user to take a phone photo of someone in order to get that person’s contact information returned to the user.

“It’s kind of a steep learning curve.” Ruffolo said. “None of us have done anything like this before. It’ll be on Android, and we’ve never used that before.”

After settling into the “blue room” by the C1212 computer lab, it takes most of Friday night for Smith and Ruffolo to get the PHP database and Microsoft Azure cloud set up and peacefully sharing information, and by 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, focus shifts to learning just how Twilio works. As a test, the group sends a dollar’s worth of messages — at Twilio’s penny a pop — to share information with their team member peacefully asleep back in the dorm. Their test is a tentative success.

“It’s telling me that he’s gotten all 100 messages,” Ruffolo laughed, “So he should be getting here any minute now.”

During these step-by-step advances, a knock on the “blue room” door interrupts work, and a stranger’s head pops out from behind it.

“Have you guys been using the Oculus Rift?” the stranger asks. “Do you still have one checked out? What have you guys been using it for?”

For the uninitiated, an Oculus Rift is the newest and best attempt at virtual reality. It gained its fame through a successful Kickstarter online funding campaign. Billed as the future of gaming, getting one’s hands on the devices is an extremely rare treat. Hack Mizzou has ten, as well as Leap Motion sensors, Tessels, Pebble watches, Arduino Unos, Myos, breadboards and a variety of sensors. These techs are all cutting edge; in fact, many are still in development. They cover everything from wearable tech to web capable microcontrollers for hardware development.

Reggie Roby, who introduces himself as a senior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is having a problem with his Rift and wants to know if others are having a similar problem. While Smith and Ruffolo checked the device out, they haven’t tried to work it into any sort of app. Undeterred, Roby moves on to find answers. His idea is ambitious: using the Rift and a Myo gesture control band, Reggie and his team want to create a device that will allow a programmer to drag and drop pieces of code as if they were puzzle pieces in 3-D.

“It’s going be like ‘Minority Report’ but with coding,” he explained. “I mean, these [Rifts] are crazy…[But] I was working on it from 10 o’clock last night like non-stop till five this morning. When everyone started waking up and breakfast came around, I got fed up with it. I’ve put too many hours into this thing, and I’ve literally not made one step forward.”

Roby ultimately finds another group just outside the transportation lab that is using the Rift combined with Leap Motion as a way to dynamically control a 4-D fractal. But unfortunately their projects don’t use quite the same underlying structure, so except for a little commiserating, neither group is much help to each other. A little defeated, Roby returns to the chemical engineering computer lab. There his team members demonstrate how a person can just use the Myo and a computer screen to drag simple coding loops across the screen. They’ve been at it for over 24 hours as the clock inches toward 6 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s backward, and we’re trying to flip it around, but we have a lot of the background stuff done, so now it’s just integrating the parts.” Roby said. “We got time, we’re not worried…but we need a break, mostly ’cause of this Rift.”

Roby and his team ultimately axe the Rift from their design in one of the first casualties early in the evening. Many more sacrifices for the sake of time are made over the course of the evening. A few feet from Roby’s team, a group from Rolla is considering how they are going to quickly populate their website with the content they want.

“We’re pretty far ahead; we’ve got our natural language parser working. Some parts are actually live,” said Steve Kipp, a senior at Missouri S&T. “We’re about halfway there…”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, halfway to completion or halfway to minimum viable product?” asked Kipp’s partner, Tim Buesking a sophomore from Missouri S&T.

“Halfway to minimum,” Kipp said with an optimistic grin.

Kipp’s app is a search engine for programmers looking for specific frameworks and coding languages. The problem for their team is how to get all the information that they want off of Wikipedia and other websites quickly and easily and into their content bin. But even if they don’t get all the way to that point, the team is satisfied by how much has been accomplished on the project they’ve planned for weeks before Hack Mizzou.

“I had the idea for a class and this Hackathon gave us a great opportunity to get a prototype ready.” Kipp said. “The end game of this is that a lot of companies, like IBM, spend a lot of time and lot of money researching things like enterprise software but there’s no search engine for it. If we can get to that level of software comparison, we think there’s a lot of potential there for us.”

As an undergraduate, Kipp spent time working as a corporate intern where he got the idea. Though he has been to four previous hacks, he’s never chosen to create an actual long-term product like this one. Kipp and his team expect to keep working on this project regardless of how they place in the competition.

“I feel like this one has a lot more potential because we have a business model and a whole other semester to keep fleshing it out,” Kipp said.

After over 30 consecutive hours of planning, designing and coding, tech talks, naps and a rather competitive “Smash Brothers” tournament, Hack Mizzou finally reached its climax late Saturday night into Sunday morning. During those last hours between midnight and 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, only brain power got the projects done. Photo by Katie Bell.

After over 30 consecutive hours of planning, designing and coding, tech talks, naps and a rather competitive “Smash Brothers” tournament, Hack Mizzou finally reached its climax late Saturday night into Sunday morning. During those last hours between midnight and 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, only brain power got the projects done. Photo by Katie Bell.

Whereas Kipp’s team plans to spend the next few weeks working on their search engine, some projects are beginning to wrap up. In the hive of consoles in C1212, one group of Purdue freshmen has modified a Leap Motion to act as a controller for a quad-copter drone.

“Literally, your hand is the drone. You bring your hand up and the drone rises; you bring your hand down, and the drone goes down,” said Harris Christensen.

Though it is still a little early in the evening, they have been diligent and have finished the bulk of their project. Now they have time to get a start on the same idea but with a bigger drone. They also manage to have time to go to one of the three tech talks, “No Drones About It,” put on by the hack sponsors. With the project is done, what can only be described as the hack hangover sets in.

“All of us have already signed up for more hacks,” Christensen explained. “We’ve all learned so much about how these drones work…[but] there’s really not much else left to do.”

Though Harrison’s group looks forward to some well-earned rest, another group — a collaboration of students from Purdue and Missouri working outside of Ketchem — has just lit the other end of their candle. Working on an app for a Pebble smartwatch that will allow a doctor to set prescription notifications for a patient, the group reaches a crossroads as the clock creeps towards 11 p.m. on Saturday evening. They’ve made a lot of progress to this point, and much of the coding is done, but without a great idea of how to move forward within the Pebble architecture, their idea has run aground. The lesson on the whole teams’ mind at that moment is how hard implementing something as simple as an alarm on a whole new piece of tech can be in a short amount of time.

“We might have bit off more than we can chew,” said Purdue junior Derek Lee. “And what’s funny is that originally we thought we weren’t biting off enough.”

Back inside the “blue room” however, a calm, light-hearted atmosphere dominates the late night hours. After talking over their biggest problem with a couple of web developers on hand from Carfax, the last obstacle standing in the way of completion is time. With valuable programming problem solving under their belts and a couple hours left to play video games on the Rift and get some work done for the coming week, the group ultimately lets their facial recognition/contact information app slide to a backburner.

They aren’t alone. Once all the finished projects have been submitted to http://hackmizzou2014.challengepost.com/, 52 projects are still standing, and a quick estimation projects that nearly a third of competitors dropped out over the evening. The final products range from a “Mutually-Assured Pizza” device that uses an Arduino to order pizza with a “nuclear launch control panel” to “Math Cheater,” a mobile app that solves math problems from a photo. One group made a video game modeled closely after the popular game Asteroids. Another group created a game that can send pictures found on the Internet straight to one’s phone.

Silver is thrilled with the results.

“[Hack Mizzou] is amazing and so much better than expected,” Silver said. “The quality of projects people are working on is so much better than last year.”

The Pillbug — the prescription alarm software — is one of those that make it. After an eleventh hour breakthrough, they are able to complete their app with just enough time to spare.

What came to be called Future Scripts, Tera-tactile, and Quad Control also reach the finish line. While the judges ask questions and compile points, participants finally get that sigh of relief they have waited for.

“Right [after 11 p.m.] we finally got the Pebble to work, and we finished right before time was up,” Lee explained. “But we’re confident, and we learned a lot so we’ll just have to see if the judges like us. I think we might have a chance in the best medical app category.”

After a slice of pizza or two, they file back into Middlebush to find out who will be crowned. With little ceremony other than heartily thanking sponsors, Silver announces the top ten out of the 52. Quad Control has made the final cut, and now it is their time to shine as they make their presentation.

“I love the presentations, there always my favorite part.” Silver said, “Typically these students are trying to present in front of 1000-plus people, the judges, their friends, and they haven’t slept in 72 hours. If they can get two words out, it’s impressive.”

But for apps like Quad-Copter, a demonstration of their app speaks far louder than any words they can string together. Their small drone takes off right into the crowd, to the delight of the judges and those not immediately in the drone’s path.

After a whirlwind of two-minute presentation, the judges convene quickly to decide the winner. A team from Purdue that created a roving “robot assistant” controlled by smartphone and Leap Motion takes top honors, and in second place is Quad Control.

“It really wasn’t what I expected at all,” said Christensen. “I was just hoping to grab one of the Leap Motion’s so that I can keep playing with it.”

Instead Christensen and his cohort take home a Parrot.AR drone of their own, Google Nexus Tablets, a Pebble and an Amazon Fire TV. Not a bad a haul for just less than two days’ work. After the sponsorship prizes are announced, and all of the new tech turned back in, laptops are packed up and goodbyes are made, it is clear that the only thing on most volunteers’ and participants’ minds is a soft, warm bed. It has been nearly 48 hours since kickoff plus many more for Silver. He couldn’t be more pleased, but there is still one thing on his mind.

“Well, we still have to clean it all up so they’ll let us host it again next year,” Silver said.