Creativity is Key at HackSC

Here, the terms “azure” and “machine learning” can be used in the same sentence

HackSC participants gather around a laptop with an Apple engineer (left). This area was a designated space for consulting Apple employees for help with coding. Apple also provided test hardware for HackSC participants to test their ideas on. (James Tyner/Neon Tommy)

When HackSC began on the night of November 13, the rooms of USC’s Annenberg building were abuzz with chatter. About 700 college students from various schools were brainstorming and embarking on a journey to create something new at the hackathon.

One group — who called themselves the “Soylent homies,” after the nutritional beverage — thought to build “machine learning for restaurants.” Then they realized that such a service already exists. They changed their idea to an app to scan a user’s photos and then recommend what activities to do next. But that wasn’t feasible, so they finally settled on an app to recommend what hashtags to use for the most Instagram likes. On that first night, team member Kelly Lampotang said, “I don’t think any of us have used machine learning before, so this should be fun.”

The “Soylent homies” [from left to right: Nick Terrile, Vincent Mei, Jerry Tsui, and William Wang] discuss their idea on Friday, November 13 in the west lobby of the Annenberg building. “You can come up with something really cool, and over a weekend start with nothing and end up with something, and feel this sense of accomplishment at the end,” Tsui said. “And then you realize a weekend is a lot of time. People working together can be powerful.” (James Tyner/Neon Tommy)

Before the “Soylent homies” could get to work, they were interrupted by a representative from Generation XYZ offering free domain names. HackSC, it turns out, was backed by major sponsors, including Microsoft, Apple, Disney, and Two Sigma. Each of these companies offered its help and expertise to the event’s participants for their projects. Microsoft and Apple additionally offered hardware to work with, including Surface tablets, iPads, and Apple Watches.

“Why don’t you guys make an Uber for dogs?” — the question that inspired Dogish, an app created at HackSC

The hackathon lasted 36 hours, from Friday night to Sunday morning. Students could create anything they wanted and had the opportunity to show off their work at a science fair of sorts on Sunday. Ideas varied wildly, from an Uber-style dog-sharing app (its creators called it Dogish) to a compiler program and from an Apple Watch drumset to an Instagram “like” optimizer.

Tim Reilly, a technical evangelist from Microsoft, was there to aid the creative process. “When you give all these people the opportunity to create, you can encourage them to learn and play at the same time, and in the end they get to make something they can show off,” Reilly said. “You start with students who come in here and they’re a little bleary-eyed and they want stickers and you talk to them about their ideas. At the end, you get to see them present onstage. I really enjoy being part of that journey.”

HackSC participants work through the night of Friday, November 13 in the main lobby of the Annenberg building. (James Tyner/Neon Tommy)

A lot of what happens at hackathons stems from skills that participants learn while at the actual event. As USC student William Wang put it, “Google’s your best friend. Most of us are learning on the fly right now. But it’s all part of the experience.”

UC San Diego student Phuong Nguyen explained another benefit of working at a hackathon: in an environment like this, “I’m less likely to go to YouTube and watch Buzzfeed videos.”

That experience — coming in with an idea and leaving with skills learned through their application — is something many primary and secondary schools have tried to replicate through project-based learning programs. At HackSC, learning was the norm.

Drew Okenfuss, a USC Computer Science (Games) major, built a color-guessing game with two friends. “We had a collective zero experience with Android. We had no experience creating a server,” Okenfuss said. “And we conquered both of those. We had no idea how to do anything when we started, but we just read tutorials and APIs and figured it out.”

As for the “Soylent homies,” they didn’t manage to finish their project by the end of the hackathon due to a technical issue. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a great experience.

“This was absolutely an amazing hackathon experience for me,” team member Jerry Tsui said. “Working on something cool, a bunch of free swag, lots of really good free food, learning with a bunch of talented people around you — it’s great. I would 10/10 do it again.”

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