"Dude," Kyle says. "It is impossible to see this." He squints at the screen, which is displaying a feed of images from a webcam hooked up above a yellow toilet. The toilet is sitting next to the desk.
"I really think we need the green toilet," Alex says.
"Okay," Kyle agrees. "Let’s use the green toilet."
Thankfully, the liquid that Alex is spraying into their hack isn’t actually pee. It’s just water and yellow dye. But they keep calling it pee anyways, and it’s throwing me for a loop.
In fact, their whole project is throwing me for a loop—I don’t know what’s going on, and the two of them are so excited about it that I can’t get them to explain it to me for more than 20 seconds at a time.
Finally, Kyle takes a moment away from the visibility problem—their webcam isn’t identifying the “pee” as it streams into the toilet—and explains: “We want people to recognize the musical potential of their pee."
Then he adds, “We’re not sure what that means yet.” It might be a urine-controlled MP3 player—aim left to go to the next song. Or it might behave like a steel drum, where the user can, uh, shoot different places to play different notes.
They don’t know yet. But they do know is that they need to use the green toilet—and that’s progress.
The Team: Kyle Hardgrave (Penn) and Alex Rattray (Penn) The Hack: Musical Toilet The Stack: Linux, Python, SimpleCV (Python computer vision library), SoundCloud, Webcam, Toilet
"Our main goal was to raise awareness [of the Dorm Room Fund]," he says. First Round Capital started the Dorm Room Fund, which is managed by students, to help student entrepreneurs raise seed funding. PennApps is a natural way for them to reach out to the community.
But why ducks?
"We wanted to do something get people excited and talking and having fun," Isaac explains. "We had a bunch of ideas, like a site that hackers could use to send each other hugs, and also a site for ‘PennApps Dares’—escalating, crowd-sourced challenges."
That sounds crazy. And also potentially dangerous. Hackers are hackers.
"We decided to do the ducks," Isaac continues, "because we thought that it was something that a lot of people would enjoy."
I ask Isaac if he’s seen any really good superlatives yet, but he won’t say. “We’re announcing the best ones at the end. The best ones will get giant inflatable ducks.”
As soon as Team Merge started describing their solution to a common problem, a hacker from the next table over interjected.
"It’s like the worst problem in the history of the world, ever," he said, smiling. He was mostly joking, but he had a point—Max, one of the hackers from Merge, was describing a problem that almost every college student can relate to.
"When I want to get people together for dinner, I’m always texting the same group of people: ‘Hey, are you free in an hour?’" Merge is an iOS app for short-term event planning, meant to make impromptu dinner or coffee that much easier. (The name "Merge" is a reference to merging in version control— in a sense, you’re merging schedules on the fly.)
"We just wanted to make something that we’d actually use," Max said, adding that they didn’t use any sponsor API’s because, "We didn’t have a good way to shoehorn one in. Our last hack, Electioneering, used some API’s and was super cool, but it wasn’t something that we’d really use in our day-to-day lives.
"This is something that we’d actually use."
The Team: Ashu Goel (Penn), Jeff Grimes (Penn), Teddy Guenin (Penn), Max Scheiber (Penn) The Hack: Merge, an iOS app for short-term event planning The Stack: iOS, Flask
One of the most popular PennApps foods is rapidly becoming a tradition. Popsicles first appeared during a warmer weather PennApps, but even in January, gourmet popsicles can get even the most serious hackers to step away from their screens.
We had some amazing flavors this year: Spiced Apple Cider, Vietnamese Iced Coffee, and Mango-something-or-another.
"No," Sam clarifies. "It’s like ‘Tumblr.’ It’s actually like StumbleUpon, but with Tumblr content."
The inspiration, Sam says, struck when he was talking to a friend who really likes both StumbleUpon and Tumblr. When that friend started wishing for a mashup of the two, Sam knew he had a hackathon project: "I was like, ‘Hey, we can build that!’"
PennApps presented the team with a great set of API’s for them to use: Tumblr, obviously, but also MongoDB and Facebook login (to preserve users’ preferences and voting history). They’re also thinking of adding Dropbox integration, so that users can save posts they really like in a permanent and accessible way.
The Team: Sam Agnew (Rutgers), Ruell Brown (Rutgers), Jesse Huang (Rutgers) The Hack: Stumblr, StumbleUpon for Tumblr content The Stack: JS, Flask (Python), MongoDB, tumblr API
I’m still confused, so Sri explains. “When we do stuff with graph theory,” he says, “we want to visualize stuff. But right now there aren’t any good tools that let you play with your graphs.”
Their hack, Hamilton, aims to change that. (When I ask why it’s called “Hamilton,” they chuckle. “Like Hamiltonian cycles. We’re really clever.”) Hamilton will be a web interface that lets people upload a graph from a file. Users will then be able to manipulate a visualization of the graph, and download it again—or perhaps share it. “We’re thinking it might be like JSFiddle, where you can post it and share it,” says Sri.
I ask if they’re using any API’s. “Not yet,” someone says. “But we’re thinking of using Filepicker.io or Dropbox for file handling.”
As someone who’s been struggling with a tricky graph problem all week, I can’t wait to see—and use—their final product.
The Team: Sri Raghavan (CMU), Vincent Siao (CMU), Adam Weis (CMU), Dan Yang (CMU) The Hack: Hamilton, “a graph theory graph thing” The Stack: Heroku, Python, JS, Canvas
"I’ve heard a lot about your ears," I say. This is true. I have heard a lot about the ears—but I wanted to hear it from Song himself.
Song Zheng is a dev evangelist for Tokbox, and he got everyone at PennApps talking when he went on stage with four ears: his own, and another pair on top of his head. This wouldn’t be so unusual, but these ears move. On their own. And he doesn’t mention them during his demo—his gives his API demo wearing robotic ears, and doesn’t say anything about them.
Of course, rumors fly.
So when I ran into him in the hallway of the Towne Building, I’m eager hear the scoop from him.
So I tell Song that I’ve heard so much about his ears, and he says, “Like what?”
"Like you can control them with your mind," I say.
"Oh yes," he says.
"There are sensors here, here and here." He points to his forehead and behind his ear. "So it picks up all the brainwaves." He flutters his hands around his head, and his ears flicker back and forth.
"We’re building a RCPRS," one of the hackers said.
"A what?" I ask.
"Oh, you know. An RCPRS. A realtime, collaborative playlist request system.”
Oh, of course.
"So say you’re having a party," someone explained. "You can then give everyone a link, and they can go to that link and submit playlist requests and vote on them."
Sounds pretty cool, and useful. I’d use that at a party (or a hackathon). I ask about the API’s they’re using.
"We’re using SoundCloud, Spotify and YouTube for the music, and we might use Dropbox. Oh, and we’re using mongoDB. And Socket.io."
"It’s a wrapper for web sockets, which lets the client and the server communicate in real time." Web sockets work a bit like AJAX, they explain, but instead of making a full HTTP request you can use sockets, which are much more lightweight. Socket.io will let the voting on the RCPRS work quickly and smoothly.
The Team: Andrew Braunstein (Penn), Adi Dahiya (Penn), Rafe Kettler (Penn), Ankit Shah (Penn) The Hack: A remote-controlled playlist request system. (Not the final name.) The Stack: mongoDB, node.js, socket.io, SoundCloud, Spotify, YouTube
In 2013, it’s official: PennApps is the largest university hackathon in the world, ever. We had a pretty full house, even in Penn’s 1,000-person Irvine Auditorium.
But it’s not only big. It’s shaping up to be extremely high caliber, too, and the bar was set with some truly terrific API demos.
Here are a few highlights.
Cory Levy, of One, gives a “demo” which is less of a demo and more of an inspirational speech.
First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund, which is run by students for students, showcased some of the startups that have come out of Penn recently. They highlighted Firefly, which was created at PennApps Spring 2012!
Little known fact: PennApps 2013 is the first hackathon in which a banana has participated.
After some rapid-fire live coding, Venmo’s Kortina shows off his demo.
And, lastly, @SwiftAlphaOne, SendGrid dev evangelist and co-founder of Hacker League, shows everyone how to post their hacks for demo day.
First things first, if you have not registered for HackerLeague, please do so immediately.
2) Practice Demoing in Hall of Flags
Everyone is required to a practice run through in the Hall of Flags in Houston Hall (where the initial kickoff event was—here’s a map). You will all practice demoing in the same order as the real thing.
Please include what schools your team is comprised of
And 2 cell phone numbers of 2 members in the group (so that we can call you to come over to Houston Hall)
Treat this demo like the real deal—you will only have 75 seconds. And yes yes we will cut you off during the real thing at 76 seconds and so we will the practice as well.)
Rob Spectre (of Twilio) has graciously offered to give you guys feedback on your run through!
3) Keep Practicing!!!
Here are some of his tips from our past hackathon from Rob Spectre himself:
Demoing your hack is the second critical part of participating in any hackathon. Crushing your demo can make a good hack great and bombing your demo can make a great hack bad. Rob’s presentation this afternoon on “How To Crush Your Hackathon Demo” are available on his Github.
Here’s a summary:
Rehearse, rehearse, REHEARSE! - You only have two minutes. Make sure your timing is right.
Capture your audience in 30 seconds - if you don’t get ‘em early, you don’t get ‘em at all.
Abandon PowerPoint - Deckware is for financial consultants and insurance salesmen. Don’t be that guy (or gal).
Show them what your hack is, don’t try to narrate or tell them about it - Let your hack wow the crowd, not your initimate familiarity with 4chan memes.
Fail gracefully - you wrote this software in 48 hours. There are bugs. Be ready to deal with them.
Demos are the meant to be the most fun part of any hackathon. If you’re having fun, the crowd will be able to tell.
Just a sense of what the rest of today is looking like:
At noon, hacking will stop. We will be locking submissions to HackerLeague at that time, so you must submit by then. Make sure to note Lunch will be served at noon as well. Around 1230, we will start moving to Houston Hall. Teams will need to check their hardware, etc, to make sure their setup is working.
The demo session will start at 2. A note on demos: demo time will not be 2 minutes per team as in previous years. We are looking at somewhere between 75 to 90 seconds per team, depending on the number of teams who submit on HackerLeague. We will let you know where in that range the actual length will be after HackerLeague submission closes.
We are using HackerLeague for app submission. By noon tomorrow, you must have clicked “Submit Your Project for Judging” if you want to demo. Note that you must also list your APIs if you want to be eligible for the respective API prizes. Please have all team members join your team if possible!
We’re excited to be giving out over $15,000 in prizes this weekend! This list will be updated as our sponsors update us on any other prizes they’ll be distributing, but you can see details for all prizes here.
This email went out last night to all participants:
Hey everyone! I hope you’re excited for PennApps tomorrow because we definitely are! We have a lot of information, so please read this entire email! By the way, if you have any questions, we will all be checking our email all day tomorrow.
The Dining Philosophers is organizing a week full of tech talks in preparation for PennApps. Whether you are a beginner or more advanced, and even if you’re not participating in PennApps, everyone is invited to come have fun and learn something new. We’ve listed “pre-reqs” to help you gauge the difficulty level.
Registration for our Fall 2012 event has officially been opened. Go and sign up while tickets last! We look forward to hosting you at Penn for the weekend of September 14-16. Want to learn more before you register? Find more details on our website.