Hundreds of students and hackers from across the globe gathered at the University of Washington last weekend for the second annual DubHacks, one of the largest 24-hour collegiate hackathons in the Pacific Northwest.
Cozied up in one of the university’s lecture halls, students listened to DubHacks keynote speaker James Whitaker, a technical evangelist from Microsoft.
Red-faced and riveting, yelling and swearing, Whitaker threw down some brazen wisdom.
“What’s going to matter most is your ability to do epic shit,” he said.
In its second year, DubHacks boasted 650 attendees, up from 370 last year. Diverse and multi-talented, the pool of hackers developed approximately 100 projects this year, all with varying goals and levels of success.
Although the majority of participants hailed from the Pacific Northwest, the novel event has drawn attendees from Poland, University of British Columbia, Florida, and California.
“Apps are one part, but there are also hacks,” said Anwell Wang, the public relations director of DubHacks. “Websites, games, desktop applications, really anything that you can make with code or circuits, people are doing it.”
Inside one of the many hacking spaces, Seth Pendergrass, Omar AlSughayer, Zhaoxin Trace, Mohammed Alhubail, and Adi Pirvu, hoped to revamp the face of medicine with their app, AirMed.
Designed to quickly identify diseases through a set of survey questions on symptoms, as well as using a combination of machine-learning, picture identification, and even geolocation, their app aimed to remedy the typically worst-case scenario diagnosis of WebMD.
Across from them, Ben Lucking and Duncan Mackey spiced up the pizza industry. In a world where no group ever gets a truly perfect pizza that pleases everyone, the duo, casually dressed in Hawaiian shirts, mapped out their plan on a whiteboard, and designed Zabro, an app to include everyone’s topping preferences in one pie.
Down the hall, Nikita Morozov and Ryan Jacobson taped together empty Red Bull cans and assembled a complex system of wires and circuit boards for their remote cat feeder, Beastro.
“This is the coolest thing we’ve done so far,” Morozov said at 2 a.m., holding up a piece of cardboard with a small blue bulb and its triggering motion sensor. “We have something that lights up.” He waves his hand in front of it and laughs.
A few rows behind them, Team Beaver from Oregon State University trudged through the 3 a.m. hour on their project, Notesi, which aimed to help students obtain lecture notes for missed days. Nawwaf Almutairi’s eyes jumped between his laptop and attached monitor, snuggly packed in his suitcase.
While not all of the ideas were perfect, practical, or even potentially problem-solving, the vibe of the hackathon was all positive, and some of the teams hoped to continue refining their projects even after the 24-hour time limit expired.
DubHacks doesn’t just host students. With major companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Disney, and Google all making appearances, as well as providing workshops and support, this hackathon was far more than just a collection center for keyboards, computer majors and hardware.
“It’s great to be in a student body where it’s student developers — there’s just so much creative energy that’s there already,” said Jeremy Foster, a technical evangelist at Microsoft and hackathon mentor. “It’s an indirect relationship maintenance. It’s us working with the students to enable them and make them feel like Microsoft genuinely is there to support their existing workflow, their goals, and to empower them.”
Cassidy Williams, a software engineer for the New York-based startup Clarifai, saw a lot of potential in the DubHacks projects.
“We just want to see the potential behind these ideas and help our paid customers see what they have the ability to do. This sounds cheesy, but it shows the world what machine-learning can really do,” Williams said. “It’s what all the big companies do right now, and we do it really well, and we want other people to be able to do it too.”
Beyond sponsoring the event, the companies also handed out prizes to the teams with the most excellent work, including entry into Facebook’s national hackathon at its headquarters, DSLR cameras, and skateboards.
“You don’t see anything like this in Oregon or in other Washington universities. It’s really the largest and the first college-run hackathon,” Wang said.
What began on Saturday at 3 p.m. — with registration and opening ceremonies — concluded with quiet resolve at around 9 p.m. on Sunday.
Exhausted and fresh off their caffeinated high, the hackers packed bags for the voyage home, some with prizes, some with bags of swag, but all with new experience under their belt.
Five of the top completed projects ended their night on stage, including Director to Video (which creates movies from text), Cloudbike (which generates bitcoin from workouts), Pocket Hipster (which creates poems from images), Dinosaur Detector (an image recognition game), and Elegance (a fashion app to help dress yourself).
Not everyone ended with a complete project, including Jack O’Brien.
“The food alone was worth it,” said O’Brien, who revamped his idea and project four times throughout the 24-hour period, and still ended without finalizing anything.
“I think the main goal,” said Wang, “is that everyone comes out having learned something.”
Christopher Zeuthen is a journalism student at the University of Washington.