Penn State

Humans, machines meet at PSU hack-athon

Students participate in HackPSU Saturday at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business Building.
Students participate in HackPSU Saturday at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business Building.

When Kaido Lin, a Penn State sophomore, found a table at the university Saturday afternoon, she had never before met Eric Ghildyal, Alex Dawson and Shanel Huang, her tablemates and teammates for the next 24 hours.

She wouldn’t have seen them in class: Ghildyal and Dawson are sophomores at the University of Pittsburgh. Huang, a freshman, attends Carnegie Mellon.

But before the day was over, the four students were huddled together over laptops, discussing their idea for a nutrition app over sandwiches in the Penn State Business Building — or their ad hoc home for the weekend. Sleep, they said, was not in their programming.

So how did their complex problem-cracking codefest begin? With the simplest of solutions, of course.

“I sat down,” Lin said.

Nothing, it turns out, can hack basic human interaction. Welcome to HackPSU, a place where complete strangers can build the next great idea. Rome may have not been built in a day, but then again, Caesar didn’t have the Amazon Echo.

“I think we could really do something with this,” Lin, 19, said. “I’m excited.”

As Saturday spilled into Sunday, several more teams like Lin’s raced against the clock, putting their coding and collaboration skills to the test in creating a viable prototype, one that would impress judges enough to win the $300 top prize. More than 600 students attended the event, which is in its fourth year.

Lin’s team was targeting a specific challenge, one of more than 14 levied Saturday, that tasked students with devising a data-driven solution to living healthier. Their app, she said, would combine Amazon’s voice-activated Echo technology with Spoonacular’s food API, a nearly endless trove of ingredients, nutritional info and prices. The endgame is to have a personal dietary assistant conversant in your nutritional needs.

“I think hack-athons sum up what I love about coding,” Ghildyal said. “You sit down with no idea and you come out with a finished product.”

In a classroom tucked behind the lobby, Geoffrey Billy was hammering away at a different problem.

“Can we solder in here?” he asked at one point.

His teammates advised him he couldn’t. Mind whirring, he had little time to think about impediments to his team’s all-weather snow globe: Tap an app and the weather changes inside. Shake it and start over anew.

Equipped with a toaster oven-sized 3-D printer, Billy, a Penn State senior who placed second in HackPSU’s spring event, started tinkering on the team’s orb-like prototype: A fish bowl bought the night before.

“I think we got it from Wal-Mart,” he said, smiling. “We were originally going to use a pickle jar.”

Here the hacks extend beyond the screen. When completed, Billy hopes it will impress AccuWeather, the designer of his chosen challenge.

A table over, Mike Hoare, a resident assistant at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was trying to make his life easier. His team was developing a SMS service to streamline rounds made at night through the dorms.

“We inspect every room,” he said. “We still write everything by hand, so we’re still kind of in the Stone Ages in Residence Life.”

Cody Schory, Hoare’s teammate, said the group was looking at a solid 12 or more hours of coding.

Huang, who has been to hack-athons elsewhere, said competitors have brought sleeping bags and pillows in the past. Air mattresses were set to be rolled out later that night.

But for Huang, a perfectly fine school sweatshirt would do.

“One night you can stand without a pillow,” she said. “Two nights, you probably need one.”

Last year’s winner, Alex Patin, was garbed head-to-toe in giraffe-themed pajamas. He was prepared, he said, for a long night of hacking. From last year’s event, his four-person team ran with their idea of music therapy via biometric technology. Now his company, Musical Minds, has a team of 30.

Could it happen to Lin’s team? They hope so. They said they’d love to work in a startup after college, with Ghildyal calling the experience “a perpetual hackathon.” Saturday night was, perhaps, a beta test of sorts.

But for a night, personal connections — and the next great idea — can come at the expense of personal hygiene. For the experiences gained, the group said, it's a decent trade.

“Sunday morning, everyone is going to smell,” Lin joked. “I might go back to my dorm.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy