Collegiate hackers compete in first 24-hour VCU hackathon

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

Half-eaten pizza, candy wrappers and cans of Mountain Dew are strewn around notepads and laptops. Fingers furiously attack keyboards as they enter code into a program. Spirits were high this Saturday afternoon, but within a couple hours, these student-hackers would require more pizza, candy and Dew — their life-sustaining “mana” in the 18th hour.

The first 24-hour hackathon at VCU, Ram Hacks, was held at the School of Engineering earlier this month. The event brought more than 200 programmers, coders and hackers from VCU and other regional colleges and universities to Richmond for the event. The hackers competed using state-of-the-art technology to design and create innovative programs, apps and games.

Students from across the region came to VCU to participate in Ram Hacks, a hacking event sponsored by the School of Engineering earlier this month. photo by Julie Tripp

Sponsored by Major League Hacking, Dell Intel and regional tech companies such as ALB Tech, AMC Technology and Royall & Company, students competed for prizes while working with professional mentors to develop software and hardware applications. Event-sponsor representatives also delivered “Tech Talks” discussing the future of computer science, information technology and hacking throughout the hackathon.

“A hacker is a representation of today’s person,” said Major League Hacking Creative Director Aziz Ramos. “We don’t like to use things that are bigger than ourselves. (Programmers) take all the resources around and find the quickest and easiest way to do things. The act of hacking is doing that with limited resources.”

At the end of the weekend, mentors critiqued and voted on group projects for awards and points toward their university’s standing in Major League Hacking for the year.

Bruce Robinson, a Ram Hacks co-organizer and sophomore engineering student at VCU, said he and the event founders, Mark Kolev and Sean Mirabile, became interested in bringing a hackathon to VCU after attending regional events such as HackNC at the University of North Carolina last October.

“I thought this would be awesome to bring to VCU,” Robinson said. “Richmond is awesome and I want to show it off. VCU’s computer science program is growing and expanding. I’m just trying to bring as many events and attention to the department and school. Great things are happening here.”

Robinson said he imagines future hackathon events will continue in the following semesters. Co-founders Kolev and Mirabile will be graduating next May, but Robinson said he thinks the amount of support from the School of Engineering and local businesses will allow hackers a place to grow, develop and innovate at VCU.

Robert Breckenridge, a junior computer science major, said he learned of the event from the Association for Computing Machinery club, a VCU chapter of a national student-led organization. Breckenridge quickly organized a team for the event with friends from the computer science department and mathematics graduate student Kakim Fung.

The team convened shortly after the event began to start work on an Android application that would let users take a photo of text which would then be transcribed into a text file.

“If you wanted to take a picture of something on a whiteboard, for example, you could run it through our program and upload it to a text document for you to easily use,” Fung said.

The program transcribed TIFF files into PDF text files.

“I like programming and coming up with ideas to get things done,” Breckenridge said. “I do it for the fun, it gets my mind off school work and other stuff, as ironic as that sounds.”

Students in the competition were eligible for several prizes with unique challenges, like “Most Innovative Hack” or “Best Wearable App.” During the second day of the competition, groups could demonstrate their creations to visitors and judges during a 90-minute expo event.

Jin Lee and Minh Nguyen, two students from the University of Virginia, traveled from Charlottesville to participate in the competition. Both said this was their third hackathon and the most exciting they’ve competed in so far.

During the expo, the pair demonstrated a cross-platform engine using development kits for the virtual reality headset, called “Oculus Rift,” and gesture control armbands, called “Myo.”

Users were allowed to don both the headset and armbands, entering a virtual world they could walk through by pumping their arms. The armbands pick up muscle movement and EMG signals to relay commands to the interface, Lee and Nguyen explained.

“My first hackathon, I had no idea what I was doing,” Nguyen said. “It was mostly me exploring. The second hackathon, I was software focused — it was fun, but nothing unique. This hackathon, when I saw we could use this hardware, I jumped at it. We had a really fun time.”

Several event mentors said they also get excited for events like the hackathon because they provide opportunities to find highly engaged and passionate students who show an active interest in using contemporary and emerging technology in a creative way.

Royall & Company, a local marketing business that attempts to help connect businesses with young professionals fresh out of college, sponsored the event and recruited for potential  interns and hires.

“We’re a big believer of local talent and have been involved with VCU for a long time,” said Alan Williamson, Royall & Company’s Chief Technical Officer and a VCU assistant professor.

Williamson, who teaches the Java programing course, Object Orientation, said the event provides an opportunity for Royall & Company to recruit students directly into their own company to create software and manage information systems. He said the experience of working with others on an unfamiliar team under a looming deadline shows true personality and work ethic.

“It’s a wonderful training ground to show how our industry works,” Williamson said.

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