CalHacks 2014: The Future of Tech, Here and Now

Last Saturday was a perfect autumn day on the UC Berkeley campus: the sky was a deep blue, the air was lovely and warm and the grounds were bathed in radiant sunshine. However, inside Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium, thousands of young coders, creators, hackers and visionaries eschewed the beautiful weather, choosing instead to put themselves and their skills to the test as they coded, planned, talked, and mapped out their visions for the future at CalHacks, the Bay Area’s first and most prestigious collegiate hackathon. This year, first place went to MindDrone, second place to TransliterateMe, and third prize was awarded to Multipass. You can view demos and the awards ceremony here.

Upon entering the stadium, the most viscerally striking aspect of the event was the sheer number of t-shirt–clad young men and women, many of them seated side by side at long tables, others up, milling about, stopping at the sponsor booths to ask questions and chat with representatives, picking up schwag like company t-shirts, stickers, water bottles and everything in between (Quixey, the sponsor of App360, was also an event sponsor). The scene was soundtracked by a steady stream of talking and laughing, punctuated by moments of intense concentration and focus. Space on the tabletops was scarce, with almost every inch of real estate occupied by laptops, paper for sketching out ideas, spare hardware and paper plates bearing half-eaten burritos. In between the sponsor-provided meals, participants fortified themselves with can after can of Red Bull, Pepsi and Mountain Dew, bottles of water, and snacks of pretty much every variety.

Some teams actually took advantage of the glorious weather: on the lawn just outside the doors, one team erected a yellow camping tent, and another set up something of a living room in the shade, complete with blow-up couches, a few inflatable chairs and an air mattress. Students were draped across the couches, eyes intently on their laptops, milking those 36 hours for all they were worth. However, CalHacks is not an all-work and no play event, and although each participant had a specific agenda for weekend (whether it was to build the next great app, or to get noticed by sponsors, or just to build up their hackathon chops), there was plenty of time for banter and laughter and general merriment.

Throughout the event, mentors floated around, offering advice and moral support, and at the hub of the space was a hardware station with abundant resources, like soldering irons, 3D printers, wires, Arduinos, and more. Liz Klinger, a designer helping out on behalf of the Foundry@Citris (UC Berkeley’s tech incubator), manned the 3D printing station. Klinger explained some of the components that she had printed: “Different enclosures for different hardware, a fan, gears. There’s also some other things, we’re not quite sure what they are, they tell us that it’s a part of the project. There’s a snowflake, a Pokemon. If they have a good reason for it, we’ll print it.”

A team of students from the National University of Singapore (on a one year exchange program at Stanford) were working on a project they called Quiqui (pronounced Quick-key), which Allen Teng, the designated project manager, described as “a speed dating app, but for conferences.” The app is designed to help the user quickly network (in 5-minute intervals) at conferences and events.

A pair of young developers who were sitting together looked like a two-person team, but turned out to be working individually. Cal student Alex McKinney was hacking away at an “iOS app similar to Yo, more group and context-based, so you’d send a word (like ‘gym’) so the person knows what you’re talking about.” Andy Schmidt, also a Cal student, seated with McKinney, said that he was “not super competing in the hackathon, I’m just here for the experience, trying to learn Objective-C,” an iOS language. Both students said they had indeed slept during CalHacks, claiming they were not in fact “super hardcore.”

Team MindDrone, First Place finishers for CalHacks 2014

Team MindDrone won first place at CalHacks 2014

Outside, on the patio, half of the MindDrone team (and first place winners!), Casey Spencer (from Los Angeles), Jesse Hsu (from Duke) and Yiran Tong (from Berkeley) were huddled around a grounded drone. Tong had a Myo armband strapped around his upper arm, which the team intended to use to control the drone. They said the rest of their team was inside, working on crafting some cranial diodes capable of reading brain waves that could map to electronic signals, rendering the drone into a “mind-controlled drone” – the Myo band was just a backup in case the team failed to work out the mind-control part.

“If you put on the first person goggles, it’ll be like you are flying, it’ll be like an out-of-body experience,” Spencer said. Explaining the rationale for the project, Hsu added: “We’re growing up in a time where we have cool things like this, so…”

Why not?