Hacking competition draws 1,200 participants to Ann Arbor

Robert Dunne/Daily
Washington University student Rohan Khopkar works on his teams project with Purdue University student Andrew Xia as part of the MHacks event that took over the Bob and Betty Beyster building this weekend. Buy this photo

By Tanya Madhani, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 19, 2015

When the clock struck midnight on Friday, 1,200 people rushed to begin 36 hours of living and breathing one thing: programming.

Over the weekend, MHacks, a hackathon competition organized by University students, held its fifth hacking competition.

Saturday morning, 11 hours into the competition, teams filed into the nooks and crannies of the Bob and Betty Beyster building on North Campus to work on their projects. Rooms called “hacking spaces,” labeled with famous programmers such as Alan Turing, were filled to the brim with teams.

Throughout the event, some hackers wore pajamas, others remained in the clothes they had arrived in. A few participants slept on benches outside of rooms or at their desks as the night wore on. Several sleeping bags were scattered in the hallways and on the floors, but a few resisted sleep through the entirety of the event.

“There are people who haven’t gone to sleep yet from the (organizing) team,” said MHacks Director John Zwick, an Engineering junior. “And I really appreciate that.”

Started in 2013 by MPowered, a student organization that encourages entrepreneurship among college students, MHacks promotes programming innovation and encourages students to build both software and hardware they can continue to develop in the future.

The closing ceremony of MHacks was held at Rackham Auditorium where family members and observers sat patiently for the top 10 teams to present the fruits of their labors.

After each presentation, Zwick read off special prizes given out by sponsors of the event. One of the prizes, sponsored by Thiel Audio Products, offered NetworkedIn, FoodCompass and Snooze You Lose, three different teams, $1,000 to continue developing their hacks. If the winners were to continue pursuing their projects, representatives from Thiel said their cash prize could increase to $5,000.

The top three winners, selected by a panel of judges, were Draw Anything, which placed first, DataWave, which placed second, and Haptic Feedback Suit, which placed third.

Rackham students Olivia Walch and Matt Jacobs, developers of Draw Anything, used the Wolfram Programming Cloud to program an application that allows an individual to snap a picture of any object and configure a step-by-step instruction on how to draw it.

Walch said her MHacks victory was unexpected, particularly because her app was more algorithm-based.

“I also love designing iOS apps, so that was the software part of it, and I just figured these awesome people are doing amazing hardware things that I could never do,” Walch said. “So I thought when you do something more theoretical — I mean they’ve got a Nerf gun — we don’t have a chance.”

MHacks is the first competition of its kind in the nation and has inspired several other college-based hackathons in recent years. Representatives from a similar hacking competition at Stanford University called TreeHacks were in attendance and planned to fly the winning team from MHacks to their hackathon at Stanford.

This is a common practice at hackathons, and MHacks practices a similar method to draw students, both national and international, according Zwick.

“We bring in talent from around the country and even outside of the country,” Zwick said. “We have people from as far as South Africa this time around. It’s a building marathon so they can build whatever they want. Most use computer science and others engineering, but it’s more about making connections and, you know, learning how to think in the hacking way.”

Individuals don’t necessarily have to have their teams fixed or even their projects planned out; organizers of MHacks provide a networking session for those still looking to join or build a team.

Chris Bradfield, a graduate student from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was one of these students that just showed up. He said, aside from convenience, he came to MHacks because he wanted to experience programming. He did not have a team three hours before the hacking began, but said he was willing to work by himself or loosely with another team.

“I just want to do something back-end web development,” he said. “When you go to a website you see the front end, everything behind it, that makes it work. Really, I just hope I get a team I can work with. That’s what I’m here for, the other people. But I’m not just going to ditch it if I don’t get a team, though.”

Zwick said people without a set group or people with no coding or hackathon experience can still find MHacks to be a valuable event to attend, as the aim of MHacks is to teach and inspire.

“Individuals leave here knowing a lot more than what they came in with,” Zwick said. “I’ve known people who’ve come here never ever coding before in their life and leaving having made an iOS app, and I think that’s pretty incredible.”

Jacobs and Walch, members of the winning team, said their next plan is to continue developing their app and participate in other hackathons, including TreeHacks and Seoul Global Hackathon, which fully sponsored the three winning teams’ trips to the international competition.

“No expectations going into this, so all these things that are now on the table are on the table,” Walch said.

Conrad Kramer, a previous winner, gave a short speech at the closing encouraging participants to continue working on their ideas. Kramer and his team, who had won MHacks III, further developed their now best-selling iOS app, WorkFlow. The app now has over 100,000 downloads and won the Editor’s Choice in the Apple App Store.

“Do not drop your projects,” Kramer said. “Build an awesome product.”

Correction appended: A previous version of the article misstated the type of program used to code Draw Anything. It is the Wolfram Programming Cloud, not Wolfram Alpha.