A Look Inside TreeHacks: Free Redbull & 124 Projects from Hack-Warriors

Written by Kameron Riley Butler

On the evening of February 28th, the opening ceremony of TreeHacks kicked off as hackers from more than 80 high schools and universities across the nation piled into CEMEX auditorium. The crows gave a warm welcome to keynote speaker Jeff Dean, and after describing his notably impressive work at Google, he left the eager hackers with a valuable inspiration: “Have fun, build something cool, and don’t stop learning, this weekend and beyond.” As the opening ceremony concluded, the hacker herd made its way back to the Arrillaga Alumni Center to embark upon the thirty-six hour endeavor that lay ahead. As the doors closed behind the last few stragglers, day one was upon us.

Day One:

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Photo Caption: The Treehacks community spares no time,diving straight into the hacking

Hackers and tinkerers from Stanford and beyond had claimed their thrones for the next three days and quickly set out to begin their masterpieces. If it was not the massive amounts of computers and hardware that was impressive, it was most definitely the plethora of food available to the 600+ coding crusaders (Seriously, unlimited free RedBull? Kind bars? Donuts? Yes please). Additionally, whether it was a cohort of students straight from The Farm or a last minute coalition of Harvard, Brown, and high school students, every group was seeping with energy and excitement. However, hacking was not the only highlight of this inaugural event. Nearly every hour, one of the 85 sponsors hosted a tech talk or workshop teaching some unmistakably valuable knowledge and tools to propel their ideas forward. It was dangerously easy to get caught up in the awe of the event with everything that the sponsors were offering (API’s, hardware for hacking, swag upon swag), however many teams were making headway by the midnight of the first night.

Day Two:

As the early morning light permeated the windows, it glistened upon the weary and worn. Those who managed to catch an inkling of rest slowly rose from their cocoons and wiped the drool from their cheeks. For the ambitious that sought rejuvenation departed to hike the Dish while the rest returned to their computers to join those most dedicated who had powered straight on through the night. Empty RedBulls rolled across the floor as the hackers climbed back into their seats, pushed away the scraps and wrappers that once contained the essentials of hacker-fuel, and dove back into their brilliant projects. The excitement and energy had sustained itself throughout the night; websites, apps, hardware hacks, and robotic devices were deep in development. As the tinkering continued, endless amounts of food came and went (The hackers were unbelievably well fed and nourished thanks to the amazing Treehacks team). Yoga and mobile workshops throughout the day gave Hackers room to stretch their limbs. As day two came to a close, the anticipation began to build as the remaining hours were ticking away.

Day 3

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Photo caption: The creators of DisTrac display their real-time disease epidemic tracker

The last morning of Treehacks brought a bittersweet feeling. It was a promise of long awaited sleep combined with the bleak disappointment that the event would all be over soon.It was the most important moment of the event as teams frantically made the finishing touches to their creations as the deadline grew nearer. As the clock reached 11:00 am, a synchronized sigh was released throughout the building, and 124 different projects were successfully submitted to be judged. At 12:00 pm, the 124 competing hacks displayed their creations to be seen by hackers and sponsors alike. The variety of projects was overwhelming and frankly, very humbling.

Projects ranged from the artistic to the ambitious: drones controlled by human gestures, 3D holographic visualizers using Microsoft’s Kinect, mood-driven music players, and so many more innovative ideas leveraging cutting edge technology. One team (MetricD) was in the process of creating an app that allowed for “an efficient way for doctors to monitor patient symptoms and recovery after surgery.” With a sleek and easy to use design, MetricD seemed to be a promising advancement in doctor-patient communication. Turn the corner and another team was engineering an interactive game that utilized the Oculus Rift to place the user in an animated world. To sum it up from its creators, it is essentially “Mazerunner meets Minecraft in the world of Oculus.”

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Photo caption: MAKKMat creators demo their smart workout mat that relays workout data directly to the user’s phone

Hacker Perspectives

Participants ranged from first-time hackers to the weekend hack-warriors, both male and female. Experienced hacker Chen Ye of Brown University (and coincidentally the Director of Design for HackatBrown) was very impressed, stating that the event was  “well run, fairly polished, and full of nice and friendly volunteers.” Chen was particularly impressed by the mentorship program offered during the event, regularly referred to as “the Uber of mentorship”. The effective mentor dispatch program made it easy for participants to receive rapid assistance on any topic, and majority of participants felt very well-supported.

Offering another perspective, Angela Kong and her team of female hackers admitted that they now “feel spoiled for future hackathons”. When asked for their opinion regarding the common gender imbalance of hackathon events, Angela and her team responded, “Being a female hacker is not a big deal. We feel very much a part of the TreeHacks community.” The TreeHacks team made a very clear initiative to shift this imbalance, and the diverse inclusivity of TreeHacks was a major step forward.

From the sponsor side, Tim Robinson and Barbara Castro of IBM were equally impressed with how interactive the students were. They were also especially excited to bring their technology to the students of all experience levels. “The event was very positive, and the students had a great energy level. We loved seeing all the sponsors come out, and we could not help notice the great cross section of students represented,” said Robinson.

First time hacker Patrick O’Grady found himself inspired by all of the innovative technology and expressed his desire to return next year. His most useful advice? “The potential of what you can create depends heavily on how sleepy you are.” So if you see someone walking around campus this week seeming a little low on energy, give them a hug to show that you understand.

TreeHacks Last Thoughts 

As the demo exo began to wind down and the top eight hacks were chosen for final judging  (Click here to read more about the top hacks of the event), it was safe to say that TreeHacks had delivered far more than promised. The record breaking event presented an endless variety of experiences for every make and model of hackers, but these experiences cannot be fully expressed in this blog. In order to truly understand the powerful environment of a hackathon, be sure to dive in next year!

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