California Coders Flock to Second Annual Hackathon

Albert Shu/TBL Photography

Madeleine Lee
Staff Reporter

Four hundred coders gathered in Corwin Pavilion for the second annual Santa Barbara Hackathon last weekend, a 36-hour coding marathon hosted by University of California, Santa Barbara group SB Hacks. The competition began on Friday, April 22 at 5 p.m. and ended early Sunday morning.

The collaboration-based coding event attracted 17 sponsors this year, including HP, Microsoft and IBM, as well as local businesses such as Invoca and ShipHawk. Those sponsors presented hackathon participants with themed challenges incorporating their products, awarding prize money to the most innovative programs.

ShipHawk offered a $500 gift card to those who created programs with the company’s own Application Programming Interface (API), while FLIR Systems asked the hackers to work with its thermal imaging technology in exchange for $1000 and $500 prizes.

UCSB alumnus Jay Freeman, creator of Cydia software, and Lisa Riolo, a local entrepreneur and managing consultant, judged over 28 projects submitted before naming winners early Sunday morning. Third-year biochemistry major Hayden Christensen, third-year computer science major John Clow and third-year applied mathematics major Jake Rosenbaum took home the top prize in the FLIR challenge for their project, an Android app for beachgoers.

The grand prize, which included over $1,000 in gift cards and merchandise, was awarded to the Secretary team, a University of California student collaboration that devised an SMS (text message)-based system to control any device with internet capabilities. The official winners’ list, including honorees for various sponsor challenges, can be found on the SB Hacks website within the next week.

But for many of the participating UC, California State University and community college students, the prizes came second to an interest in learning and developing their skills.

“There are prizes, but we don’t really do it competitively,” said second-year computer science major Connor Smith, whose UC San Diego-based team focuses on virtual reality. “We’re just trying to do something that has impact beyond this space.”

The four-person virtual reality club arrived at the competition equipped with the HTC Vive, which Smith described as, “a new room-scale virtual reality, where you can actually walk, move and duck, all within the given boundaries.”

The Vive user, outfitted with a headset, headphones and two handheld controllers, interacts with a programmable interface that allows free movement between two lighthouse motion trackers that define a 16-square-foot space.

Early Saturday evening, Smith’s team was in the process of creating a virtual reality system to be used in chemistry classrooms — one that would simulate the steps of a lab procedure in a virtual space, free from the risks of harmful chemicals. At a prior hackathon, the team successfully created a similar program to teach cell biology.

Elsewhere in the venue, amid rows of glowing screens, modems and bleary-eyed students, other teams implemented their own innovative concepts. Above the soft snores of several students tucked into sleeping bags alongside him, Santa Barbara City College student John Sealsmith and his team designed a home security system controlled by a mobile app using FLIR’s thermal imaging technology. Another team of four second-year UCSB students worked on a program for GoodRX to electronically sort and identify prescription pills based on their size, color and inscription.

Even though many arrived at the hackathon with projects already in mind, all groups held off on starting the work until the marathon officially began Friday evening.

“That’s part of the challenge, and part of the fun,” said Lauren Dumapias, a third-year computer science major.

SB Hacks Marketing Team Member Anna Lee said the application process was especially selective this year. The organization pared down last year’s 500-participant limit to ensure a high-quality event.

“It’s just a really supportive environment,” Smith said. “There’s mentors, there’s free food, great energy and just a lot of people working on something really cool. These events output so many cool projects as well, things that maybe people wouldn’t have time to do otherwise.”