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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 1:06 pm | Fair 64º


Collegiate Programmers ‘Stretch Their Brains’ During SB Hacks Competition at UCSB

For 36 hours straight, student teams gather to hammer out innovative projects designed to help solve challenges in programming and technology

A participant tries out thermal-imaging goggles from Flir Systems using the company’s NovaVision app at the second annual SB Hacks over the weekend in UC Santa Barbara’s Corwin Pavilion.
A participant tries out thermal-imaging goggles from Flir Systems using the company’s NovaVision app at the second annual SB Hacks over the weekend in UC Santa Barbara’s Corwin Pavilion. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

The foyer of UC Santa Barbara’s​ Corwin Pavilion was littered with empty Red Bull crates. Inside the pavilion, bundles of wires and extension cords connected scores of laptops set up along rows of tables. Behind them sat caffeinated teams of college students. A couple of sleeping bags lay crumpled in one corner.

For 36 straight hours — Friday night through Sunday morning — hackers focused on projects intended to creatively solve problems in programming and technology.

Student programmers from across the University of California system, Santa Barbara City College, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Stanford and even a few from New York and Canada converged on UCSB over the weekend for the university’s second annual SB Hacks.

Granted free access to proprietary technology from sponsors that included Citrix, IBM and Wolfram, hackers competed for various prizes, awarded by the sponsors for accomplishments such as best use of their technology and wackiest use of their technology, according to Benji Lampel, the hackathon’s lead director and organizer.

“At the end of the event, we’re not necessarily looking for something that works or would be a viable product,” he told Noozhawk. “We’re just looking for, ‘Did you learn something at this event? Did you try and make something? How much did you stretch your brain?’”

The event was the latest stop in the 2016 spring hackathon season of Major League Hacking, a collegiate hacking league that puts on more than 200 weekend hackathons a year with more than 65,000 student participants.

MLH provided a “hardware lab” for the competition, which included laptops and wearables such as Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets.

Lampel said there is no one umbrella under which the student projects can be categorized.

“A lot of the idea of the hackathon is that people get to make what they want,” he said. “There are hacks based around sponsorship technology, and there are hacks based around what people think is interesting.”

One project utilized virtual-reality headsets. The students set up two cameras in opposite corners of their programming area, creating a virtual-reality room in which a student puts on a headset and operates two controls. As the student looks around and interacts with his environment, the two cameras operating at different angles must correctly orient the person in the virtual reality space by accurately tracking him and recognizing his body and controls.

“If you get these things wrong — even a little bit sometimes — it can cause people to get really nauseous when they’re trying to use the virtual reality,” Lampel explained. “It’s a pretty challenging computer vision problem there.”

The hackathon kicked off with a meet-and-great session and an opening ceremony with keynote speaker Jay Freeman, a local software engineer and businessman known for creating the Cydia software application that allows consumers to “​jailbreak”​ Apple iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches.

During the 36-hour programming session, students hammered away at their projects, slept in the designated “napathon room” and took their three allotted meals at the University Center lawn overlooking the UCSB lagoon.

On Sunday morning, the rows of programming spaces were transformed into what looked like a science fair, with competition judges wandering through the projects, listening to the groups’ pitches and recording their scores.

The top scorers advanced to the final round Sunday afternoon in Isla Vista Theater, where they presented another round of five-minute pitches to three judges, who examined three criteria: the intuitiveness of the project design, the technical difficulty of the problem it tackled, and, as Lampel put it, the project’s “wow” factor.

The grand prize was awarded to Secretary, made up of students from different universities, including UCSB, for a “natural language processing” app, similar to the iPhone’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.

Hackathons like this also make for prime recruiting opportunities for the tech companies that sponsor them.

“The idea is we’re going to embrace the developers, or the hackers, who are playing with software,” said Cal Loo, developer relations manager at Flir Systems, a thermal-imaging technology company with a major facility in Goleta.

“And the idea is to put all of this stuff in the hands of the most creative people out there and let them create something really cool with it.”

Among the technology Flir brought to the hackathon was a miniaturized thermal-imaging device that, when attached to a smartphone, turns it into a thermal-imaging camera.

For many people, the concept of “hacking” evokes an image of shady figure sitting in a dark room and attempting to illicitly access a person’s private information through a computer.

“They still are in kind of a dark room, but they’re not trying to break into anything,” Lampel said. “The hacking that we refer to is more like putting together a project very quickly and sometimes very frantically.

“The idea is that you start from pretty much nothing — maybe you’re using (a software development kit) or an (application programming interface) — and you’re just trying to build off of that. You’re trying to create a brand-new project in this coding period. That’s what you’re trying to hack together.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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