Student Life | Nov. 10

HackPrinceton draws over 500, offers students chance to work on real-world projects

HackPrinceton, the semiannual hackathon hosted by the Entrepreneurship Club, experienced a jump in participation this past weekend, drawing over 500 Princeton and non-University students who spent 48 hours creating a hardware or software project of their choice. Previous HackPrinceton hackathons hosted just over 100 students.

The weekend included presentations on a range of subjects from open-source licensing to web development, as well as lectures by HuffingtonPost Chief Technology Officer John Pavley and Director of Center for Information Technology Policy Edward Felten. Groups of student hackers spent this time spread throughout the Friend Center working on their projects.

Hansen Qian ’16 and Stephanie He ’15, the directors of HackPrinceton, said they saw the growth in attendance as a reflection of the hackathon’s past success.

“We’ve always had a lot of companies work with us, and it’s kind of been a thing where once we work a little bit more, we’ll get a better hackathon and a better turnout, which in turn encourages more companies to work with us,” He said. “It’s a beneficial cycle, so we’re definitely getting more participants and sponsors each year.”

The event, now in its fourth year, drew sponsorship from major companies like Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon and Microsoft, according to the HackPrinceton website.

Qian said the higher attendance was matched by organizational growth behind the scenes and a larger national focus on hacking.

“Last year we had one director and three organizers, and this year we have two directors and a larger team of five organizers,” Qian said. “We are focusing more on making the hackathon really great, and at the same time, hackathons are becoming a household name.”

John Graham, a representative from HackPrinceton’s main sponsor, e-commerce company Venmo, acknowledged the event’s rapid growth at the final awards ceremony. “Venmo was here two years ago,” Graham told the audience, “and it was just a handful of people in a room.”

While many hackathons are often solely for software development using a specific programming language or a specific client like Twitter or Facebook, HackPrinceton did not limit participants to programming in a specific language or even to software hacks, as a significant minority of hackers built hardware hacks.

Bonnie Eisenman ’14, who has been to HackPrinceton once before as well as other hackathons, said that she noticed more programmers than hardware hackers, but overall, thought HackPrinceton was one of the biggest hackathons she’d seen. Eisenman was a member of a team of hardware hackers that turned a staircase into a keyboard that played notes when someone stepped on each stair.

Eisenman’s piano stairs hack, which was accomplished using laser pointers and light sensors, won the second place prize for hardware hacks.

“We aren’t angling to win a prize,” Eisenman said. “We just want to have fun. I was like, ‘what silly things can I do for fun at HackPrinceton?’ so that’s what this [project] is.”

HackPrinceton awarded prizes to hardware and software hacks separately, along with a number of sponsored prizes. One award, titled “Biggest Fail,” went to a group who accidentally deleted its program 20 minutes before their demo.

Michael Iberkleid Szainrok ’15, Adam Klosowiak ’15 and Max Shatkhin ’15 won the hardware competition with Dorm Control, a hack that combined hardware and software expertise. Dorm Control was a power strip where each individual outlet could be switched on and off from a phone, giving users remote control of the appliances in their dorm rooms.

David Bieber ’14 and Harvest Zhang ’14 were awarded the first place prize for software for their hack, Teach Everyone. The hack, which Bieber said was a lot harder than it looked, allows teachers to make instructional videos in the style of Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational website. The prize comes with a $20,000 Start Engine opportunity, which is a chance to work with a start-up accelerator, and a $3,000 in Amazon credit.

Bieber said the idea for Teach Everyone came from a real problem he faced. “For a couple of weeks I’ve been saying I want to make videos teaching computer vision,” he said. “So Harvest and I, two weeks ago, had this idea to make it easier to make these types of videos. So, we made the app, and now I’m going to actually make my computer vision lessons.”

Zhang said one of the most appealing things about the hackathon was being able to use the hack he had made.

Bieber agreed, commenting that “one of the coolest things is not just creating the app, but getting to use it in the future.”

The appeal of working on a useful project outside of class is one of the reasons He said she organized HackPrinceton.

“You do a lot of projects in class, but on a day-to-day basis, you don’t have much time to work on side projects,” He said. “So HackPrinceton gives students the time because it is 48 hours blocked out in their schedule where everyone else is doing the same thing, so there’s motivation to work on something different that you normally do. That’s the big draw.”

Qian said he thought a hackathon was particularly suited to the University’s curriculum.

“It’s a good supplement to Princeton’s computer science program because Princeton is a largely theoretical school and hackathons give you a chance to apply the knowledge they have and get a cool portfolio,” he said.

Despite its growth, HackPrinceton still offered an enjoyable experience for hackers, Pat Fogarty, a senior at the University of Rhode Island said.

“HackPrinceton is a great hackathon,” Fogarty said. “I’m really enjoying it.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the name and class year of Harvest Zhang ’14. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error. 

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