Penn State

On the cutting edge: Hackers experiment with technology during Penn State event

Brandon Leshchinskiy and Matej Marjanovic try to put the finishing touches on their guitar sound spectrum creation during the Penn State Hackathon on Sunday, March 29, 2015.
Brandon Leshchinskiy and Matej Marjanovic try to put the finishing touches on their guitar sound spectrum creation during the Penn State Hackathon on Sunday, March 29, 2015. CDT photo

Hundreds of college hackers descended upon the Penn State campus this weekend, but they weren’t involved in any illegal activities.

Instead, these hackers looked to network, experiment with technology and learn.

“Hacking in this sense is finding a creative solution to a problem,” said Jon Gottfried, of Major League Hacking.

His organization sanctions about 150 events worldwide like the one Saturday and Sunday at Penn State, he said. Called Hackathons, Gottfried described them as “invention marathons” where teams of participants have 24 hours to work on a project that would solve a problem, create something or improve existing products using technology.

The event, held in the IST Building, drew students from as far away as MIT, Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania. Some select high school students also compete in hacking events, Gottfried said.

The organization works with students at each university to set up events, Gottfried said. Sophomore Albert Guo was one of the organizers of this year’s event and said more than 400 participants took part this year, an increase of about 200 from last year.

Seniors Joshua Lee, Dylan Nguyen and Sujeet Bhandari, computer science students at Penn State, had competed in Hackathons on campus before, and this year, the trio constructed goggles that enabled the wearer to make 3-D drawings with their hands.

Although it looked like something from “Tron” or another science fiction movie, the device could be used in 3-D modeling in a field like engineering, Lee said. Current 3-D modeling programs are complicated to use, Lee said. The goggles could simplify that to the point anyone could use them merely by pointing, he said.

“You need a lot of technical knowledge with the current technology,” Lee said. “This would eliminate that cliff.”

A few tables down from the goggles stood a reading lamp and a coffee maker wired to a computer. Doctoral student Ken Hutchison operated the appliances using commands on the screen.

Sipping a cup of the remotely brewed coffee, Hutchison explained the program to event judges and interested spectators. Unlike most home automation systems, which run using Wi-Fi, the one on display Sunday used radio frequencies. Hutchison said the current systems available commercially use a lot of circuitry, are expensive to buy and install, and require a lot of energy to use. Special appliances equipped with Wi-Fi receivers are also needed, he said.

The radio equipment used by his team can be used with less expensive, standard analog or digital appliances, and the entire cost of the circuitry to install the radio receivers and transmitters is about $17, Hutchison said. By changing the model from Wi-Fi-based to one using radio, or a hybrid of the two, the technology could be made more widely available, he said.

“We want to bring it to more people,” Hutchison said. “Right now, it’s only available to the super wealthy.”

For others, the project was a matter of fun and games. Penn State juniors William Bittner, Paul Jang, Nick Denaro and Drew Lopreiato designed a website where users can log on to play the classic video game Pong. The first-time Hackathon participants then synced the game to a piece of poster board wired with dozens of LED lights. The lights on the board reflected the actions of the players competing on their cellphones.

The site and board took about 17 hours to create, they said, and any old arcade game could be used.

“Any classic kind of game, like Snake, you could do with this kind of resolution,” Denaro said.

Projects are judged at each event and prizes are awarded to winners, Gottfried said, but the primary motivation he has heard from most participants is the chance to work with like-minded people and also network with tech industry representatives. Local startups as well as companies like Microsoft were present this weekend.

Technology companies, like Dell, sponsor the events and provide tools and equipment that might be available in class or for personal use, Gottfried said. That’s something else welcomed by participants. The gear that went into the 3-D drawing goggles was supplied through the event and new to the hackers that used the supplies.

“It’s the first time we’ve worked with this technology,” Lee said. “It’s exciting to work with new things.”