It was 4 a.m., and amid the empty food wrappers and power cables, still hundreds in Johnson Ice Rink were awake, their bloodshot eyes glued to laptop screens.
Among them was Stephanie Northway of Olin College, a small engineering school in Needham, Mass. She waved a pair of game controllers around in front of her, and two lines on her laptop wobbled hesitantly in response, the jittering eliciting a ripple of laughter that lit up her teammates’ tired faces. It was a small triumph.
They were here over the weekend for HackMIT, the third college hackathon in the U.S. in a month to attract more than 1,000 participants. The challenge: in 22 hours, code or wire up something — anything — that might be useful or fun.
Projects ranged from a browser extension that allows users to highlight text in images online to a game, billed as “GTA VI,” in which players can walk and drive on the streets of the real world, or at least the real world according to Google Maps.
The first prize of $4,000 went to Vincent Siao from Carnegie Mellon and Victor Hung ’14 from MIT, who created an application that allows users to draw three-dimensional pictures by tracing out paths in the air with their phones.
College hackathons have been drawing more attention recently, attracting sponsors from tech giants, venture capital firms, finance companies, and startups. These companies come to give out prizes and merchandise (“swag”), advertise their developer interfaces (application programming interfaces, or APIs), and recruit.
Seventy sponsors including Sequoia Capital, Palantir, Twitter, and Dropbox doled out a total of $300,000 to HackMIT, according to Ishaan Gulrajani ’16, one of the organizers.
TechX and StartLabs, the MIT student groups that organized the hackathon, reimbursed participants up to $200 each for travel costs.
The event began with a couple of hitches: At the Saturday kickoff in Kresge Auditorium, slideshow clicker problems botched the presentations of sponsors who paid for time onstage to show off their APIs, and one presenter resorted to getting the audience to shout “Next slide!” loudly enough for backstage helpers to hear. Later, one of the hackathon projects attempted to offer a remedy, allowing presenters to advance through slides with their phones or Pebble watches.
The ceremony host, Rap Genius co-founder Tom Lehman, made up for some it with his brazen, if sometimes brash, style, but he too was left hanging out to dry several times as organizers scuttled about offstage preparing the next agenda item.
He opened by advising hackers to avoid wasting time on adhering to best engineering principles.
“The shittiest possible thing is the best possible thing,” Lehman said.
Students began hacking after the kickoff, but the wireless routers in Johnson could not handle the number of people trying to use the Internet. Many set up their own wireless networks with names like “hide yo kids hide yo wifi,” adding to the interference in the room. Some teams scouted out other venues with better Wifi.
The wireless situation was just one of the challenges the sheer scale of the event presented, according to Gulrajani, who said that handling the logistics was like “putting out fires” everywhere.
But most had access to the Internet by 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., after organizers ran to Micro Center and bought scores of Ethernet cables.
By then, Julian Ceipek, who led Northway’s team from Olin College, had started on an ambitious plan for their project: they would make an game in which a “performer” would use hand-held Razer Hydra controllers to deflect virtual fire from audience members, who could shoot at the performer by pressing a button on their laptops or smartphones. The performer would also wear an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, which would display approaching bullets. The backend would be handled by Firebase, one of the APIs featured at the kickoff, and for the graphics, they would use pixi.js, a rendering engine.
Ceipek soon ran into trouble connecting the controllers to their computers. After trying to set them up for an hour and a half, the task was handed over to Northway, whose laptop could run Windows, an operating system they hadn’t tried yet.
“None of us enjoy working in Windows,” Ceipek said afterwards.
Progress was steady thereafter. At 4 p.m., team member Matt Wismer was able to sync the movement of a test sprite between two clients through Firebase. By 7:30 p.m., new clients who joined the game would appear as triangles joining a circle. Ceipek set to work on a design for an avatar to replace the triangles, and another team member, Madison May, animated the click of a ‘FIRE’ button for audience members. By 9:30 p.m. audience members could shoot bullets, and by 1:30 a.m. Northway and Pratool Gadtaula were mapping movements of a Hydra controller onto the laptop screen rather than merely displaying its coordinates in space.
By 3 a.m., Ceipek had fallen into an exaggerated version of the British accent he grew up with.
After some early-morning trigonometry, May, Ceipek, and Wismer had a collision detection mechanism in place to determine whether the performer at the center had successfully blocked the incoming bullets with its arms.
The 9 a.m. deadline, when first-round judging started, rolled around soon enough.
In the end, Ceipek’s team wasn’t among the 10 teams to make it to the final round.
But that didn’t matter.
Gulrajani hopes that participants will continue going to hackathons. “Hackathons are sort of like a gathering of the herd. Everybody who’s a really really influential person in the undergraduate computer-science-slash-entrepreneurship community basically these days just frequents these hackathons all the time,” he said.
These people “are some of the most amazing people in the world to hang around,” he said. “You leave feeling inspired and wanting to go to more and more events.”
Ceipek, who has already attended half a dozen hackathons, doesn’t need any convincing. “I think the best part is seeing what other people come up with and working with people you’ve never worked with before,” Ceipek said.
“I think there’s a certain sense of camaraderie that will come out of sitting in a room with a 1,000 other people, and just sitting there and trying to stay awake, and coding like crazy, and brainstorming ideas,” Alice S. Wu ’17, one of the organizers, said.
“Out of the 1,000 people that we brought to HackMIT, if we made a significant impact on the direction of even 10 people’s lives, then that justified the entire effort for us,” Gulrajani said. “Based on what we’ve heard from attendees, I think we’ve gotten far past that goal.”