A weekend to remember – HackCambridge 2017

Literally, one of the most exciting experience I have ever had since I came in the United Kingdom!

It was 2 am on the 28th January 2017! I was intensively packing my bag for the trip to Cambridge because I couldn’t wait more time – I wanted to get on the train and be there! While I was reviewing the list with essential items to pick, I noticed that I don’t have a sleeping bag 😟… But who needs a sleeping bag when you will be coding all night, so, without wasting more time, I called an Uber cab and went to the Birmingham train station.

……… I will skip the explanation of the tiring trip and all the waiting on London Euston and London Kings Cross 😂 and just show what I accidently came across on – Platform 9 3/4. I was extremely surprised when I saw it.

After this brief background explanation around my journey, let’s focus on the actual event — HackCambridge 2017!

From my first step into the building, I was happily surprised with the whole environment – everyone was so cheerful, the organisation was on a top level and it seemed like that it would be an amazing experience.

When I entered the lobby, I registered my attendance. Surprisingly, the one who was checking the candidates asked about my nationality. I said that I am a Bulgarian and the exact same time I heard “Здрасти“ (“Hello” in English). The guy I met is Boyko Vodenicharski – a really nice and intelligent student from Cambridge who was part of the voluntary staff of the event. All these students did a great job during the weekend and without them, the hackathon wouldn’t be that successful.

My second destination was the main hall. I grabbed a bottle of water and started looking for a free table to save seats for my team. While I was walking around, someone came to me and said: “Simeon?” It was Mark, one of my teammates. The interesting thing was that our team was randomly selected and I wasn’t expecting anyone to recognise me 😄. Eventually, we found a table and sat there to wait for the other two members. Meanwhile, we were chatting, discussing the APIs, talking with the other teams and having lots of fun. Literally, everyone asked us whether the seats in front of us were free and every time when we said “No” (because they were saved for out teammates), they understood that the seats are vacant 😂 (Idk).

It was 12.30pm and our third teammate (Federico) came. The exact same time, the fourth one wrote us that he couldn’t make it so we were 3 warriors against the problem of building a cool and exciting project.

The opening presentation was really relaxed and well organised, it gave us a better understanding of the sponsors’ APIs and challenges. We started pondering what should we build and after a while we came up with the idea to make a real-time human’s emotions analyses using Microsoft Cognitive API. When we set up the server and some basic front-end, we decided to go and ask the guys from Microsoft for some help.

When we went to the other building, where the sponsors were, we found out that the lunch was over and we have totally forgotten about it 😞 NO PAIN, NO GAIN 😎!

Then, we briefly explained our idea to the Microsoft team but during our passionate conversation, they showed us exactly the same project implemented by some guys duringOxfordHack. Wow 😳 At first, we were a bit confused because we didn’t want to show something that the sponsors had already seen. So we decided to extend the project and add different features and functionalities.

Just after our conversation, I attended a game where teams of 2 people compete to build the highest possible tower only using plastic cups. My participation wasn’t so spectacular and we lost even the first round 😂 But I had so much fun, I met new and interesting people, we took so many slow-motion videos of the falling towers and, in the end, I even took a picture with the winner 😎

When the game finished I was about to go back and continue working on the project. But, at this moment, Mark came to me and told me that Federico didn’t want to participate anymore and build the project with us 😳. I was a bit frustrated in the beginning but then Mark and I decided to continue the project alone. We knew that we could build it on our own but wanted to work in a bigger team, split the tasks and collaborate with more teammates. So we decided to look for someone who was working alone and was passionate about building something cool. We texted the group in Slack and, almost immediately, we received a response from a guy who has started working on his idea but needed some help to finish the project.

We decided to give it a go and went to see him. The moment he started talking I was so impressed by the detailed and complete way he was explaining. It really seemed like he knew the subject extremely well. And that was right. The guy was Cristian Axenie – holding a Ph.D. from TUM (Munich), excellent scientist, specialised in the area of robotics and neuroscience. Wow 😳, I have never met anyone so deeply passionate and highly educated in this kind of subjects…until now. I was so happy that I could spend a couple of hours with such kind of person and try to learn from his way of thinking and executing.

Let’s get back to the project explanation. The core idea was to build a simple system using two light sensors and a frameless camera to detect whether an elderly person has fallen or not. On its background, the system was going to use a neural network to determinate this prediction. It sounds complicated…Yes, it is! 😂

Cristian had already integrated the camera and the lights, so our task (Mark’s and mine) was to set up the neural network and connect it to the existing system.

The late hours came and more and more people went to sleep. I have been awake for the last 24 hours and this was Cristian’s third hackathon in about a week, but we didn’t want to stop working until we were ready. It is a pain in the ass when you are trying to debug and calibrate a super noisy camera and diodes 😂😂😂 but we were on fire 🔥

The event was well-prepared for the night – many RedBulls and sweets were provided but the one thing, that made everyone waking up, was the PIZZA 🍕 Who doesn’t like it? 😄 Literally 5 minutes ago the room was empty, but then:

Computer scientists love Dominos!

After the quick break, we continued working on the project up to 10 am when we needed to submit our work. We were extremely happy that we managed to finish it, even tough there was a bit of inaccuracy in the light detection. But this is not of such a big importance. The fact that we managed to form a team, collaborate, exchange knowledge and have fun was the key to our delightedness. During this night we were chatting a lot, had fun, got to know each other and managed to build something unusual and creative. Of course, most of the credits for the project went to Cristian because he knew way more about the technology behind the system than us, but what impressed me was that he wanted to learn from us as well and we still managed to show him some techniques that he hadn’t known before. This is the power of the hackathons – learn, teach and enjoy!

The presenting time came and we were allocated to one of the tables in the main hall where we waited for the judges to come and be impressed by this:

And this T-shirt:

A lot of people came to see the project. Some of them were excited 😜, some just liked it 😊 and there were a couple who weren’t interested at all 😞 But we were extremely delighted when someone wanted more detailed information around the project’s technology.

Eventually, the judges announced which teams were the finalists and we weren’t among them.

So we decided to sit down, relax and enjoy the upcoming exciting presentations. Each one of them was really impressive. Some of the projects grabbed my attention a lot and I even checked their source code, played around with it and learned some useful techniques.

The winner was announced and the event finished. I didn’t want to come to this point but I needed to pack my stuff and catch the train from Cambridge to Birmingham.

I arrived home and immediately went to my soft bed!

P.S. I came to this event with only one task – to learn! And I learnt a lot, so I am pretty excited about my next hackathon (let’s see what I will face this time 😂)

HackCambridge page: https://hackcambridge.com/

HackCambridge Devpost profile (view all projects): https://recurse.devpost.com/?ref_content=default&ref_feature=challenge&ref_medium=discover

The University of Birmingham has its own student hackathon as well, so everyone is welcome to come. Keep an eye on it to see when the tickets are out: https://www.brumhack.co.uk/index.html

All Hackathons: https://mlh.io/

Any feedback is welcome — positive or negative :) !

Thank you for the reading. Like and share if you enjoyed my story — see you next time!