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Quidditch and Red Bull: the MHacks experience

Carnegie Mellon sophomore Gregory Rose and DePaul junior Matt Kula test Oculus Quidditch, a virtual reality Quidditch game at MHacks at the Qube in Detroit on Saturday. (Ruby Wallau/Daily) Buy this photo

By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 21, 2014

Mike Ross, a Quicken Loans security guard, stood watch in the elevator lobby of the seventh floor of the Qube building in Detroit on Saturday afternoon. Ross had heard of hackathons before the weekend, he said, but this was his first time interacting with one.

Ross stood tall, watching a constant trickle of hackers and organizers go from side rooms to the main hall elevator. He wasn’t a hacker, but he stood in one of the best places to watch the event.

Saturday afternoon was the halftime of MHacks — the midpoint — the make-or-break time, when more than 1,000 hackers got an idea of whether they’d be ready to present at Sunday’s wrap-up celebration or have to accept that their ambitions were too big.

“I wish I could say energetic,” Ross said of the atmosphere, and pointed to the “dozen people crashed on the floor,” in the main hall.

The kids that haven’t burnt out are zeroed in on their computer screens.

“They work, work, work and crash,” Ross said.

He wasn’t kidding. Walking through the main hall occupied by a few hundred hackers meant stepping over pillows, suitcases, sleeping bags and sleeping college kids.

If you haven’t heard of MHacks, here’s what you need to know: There’s 36 hours to write a program or make an innovation, hundreds of students and an abundance of caffeine. It’s part competition, part collaborative learning and part party.

The main hall of the seventh floor embodied the hackathon spirit. It might have been a large office space for an online retail mortgage lender, but there was no beige or gray. Brightly colored columns punctuated the rows of tables taken over by hackers and the walls were covered with white boards where teams argued over scrawled ideas or bored hackers sketched out their school’s logo.

And there, creativity did come, but often at the expense of sleep, hygiene and fashion — sweatpants and pajamas make for more efficient hacking.

But on Saturday afternoon, when competitors rested their heads on crossed arms and drooled on the table, the creativity was at a lull.

The real start of MHacks came before the Friday kickoff. Competitors aren’t allowed to present projects they’ve previously worked on and they’re encouraged to come up with fresh ideas. The real start of MHacks came in the past couple weeks when those fresh ideas began to percolate.

A few days before Friday, Matt Kula, a computer science major from DePaul University, was Facebook chatting with his team, one DePaul student and two from the University of Michigan.

“It was a joke, honestly. But they took it seriously,” Kula said on Saturday of the idea he had proposed.

“That was a great idea,” Engineering sophomore James Kotzian said, surprised. “I thought it was a sweet idea.”

The team went along with it and by Saturday afternoon, they had built a functioning three-dimensional Quidditch simulator.

“You can get motion sickness pretty easy doing some barrel rolls,” Kula said. “It’s crazy.”

To play the game, the Quidditch player puts on a pair of 3D goggles hooked up to the computer and straddles a stick with a Wii remote taped to its end, twisting and leaning to fly their broomstick in a recreation of the stadium made famous by the “Harry Potter” book series.

Kula said it was a good thing his teammates didn’t pick up on his original sarcasm.

“We really expected to take this much longer,” he said. “Anything we do now is kinda a plus.”

The group acknowledged that there are some pretty competitive hackers at these events, but most students, including them, come to learn and try new things. DePaul doesn’t have the large hacking scene that the University does, Kula said, meaning hackathons can be a time of immersive learning.

Nonetheless, the team knows they’ve built something good.

“I still wanna win, but ... ” Kula said, trailing off. There’s more than just winning and losing, he explained.