Scenes From Penn State’s Startup Week Hackathon

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For the past week or so I’ve been hanging out at Penn State University for its second annual Startup Week, an educational get-together of startup founders and entrepreneurs spearheaded by Weebly CEO (and Penn State alum) David Rusenko. The idea is simple enough: to give students some crucial insight into what it means to be a startup founder, and hopefully inspire some to take a chance on an idea they believe in.

Those Penn State students have been on the receiving end of startup wisdom from the likes of Weebly’s Rusenko, Reddit/Hipmunk co-founder Steve Huffman, Exec founder Justin Kan, and Scribd/Parse co-founder Tikhon Bernstam just to name a few, but there’s only so much fun to be had by just listening to tales of startup glory. That’s why Innoblue, Penn State’s student-run entrepreneurship group, invited local (and not so local) nerds to cook up their own pizza-and-caffeine-fueled ventures for 24 hours on a Friday night. Now I’m a sucker for a good hackathon, so I sat down with a few of the would-be founder teams to get a feel for what they were trying to accomplish in a mere 24 hours.

dashtag-hackOf all the teams present (Innoblue’s Kathleen Warner told me this has been their biggest hackathon yet), only a few dabbled with hardware. Penn Staters Sujay Patel, Houston Hunt, Katya Greene, and Andrew Greene were among that small subset with a project they call Dashtag.

Long story short: Dashtag is meant to help retailers, businesses and organizations push information to visitors’ mobile devices with NFC tags. “Let’s say you’re walking through the mall and GameStop has a tablet app demo,” the team explains during its two-minute pitch. “You tap your device to the node and the download starts.” They figure it can also be used for painless Wi-Fi network setup (say, at a coffee shop), and to authenticate Bluetooth transmissions without the need for users to fish their phones out of their pockets.

hack-presentPenn State juniors Jimmy Zelinskie, Dan Scanlon and Drew Oros, as well as Justin Makaila from West Chester University, stayed up all night to whip up a multi-person, Django-powered video chat web app they call Present. Video conference calls are par for the course these days, but the idea here is that users can stream from webcams or iPhones thanks to a native app.

The team baked Twitter support into Present so viewers can more easily communicate with broadcasters. They’ve also managed to coax the thing into work on Roku and Google TV boxes. Here’s the kicker, though — all video streams are tagged with GPS data by default, so users will eventually be able to manipulate a map interface to view videos from certain areas.

hmj-hackAnd then I came across a familiar face: David Fontenot from the University of Michigan (also known as one of the guys behind the super-sketchy Playbook app) is at it again with another dubious concept.

I can’t really repeat the name in polite company but HackMyJ*zz wants to connect people eager to start families with famous or noteworthy sperm donors. Fontenot’s tongue was planted firmly in cheek for this one, but he maintains that this is still a market that’s worth tapping — reluctant teammates Pulak Mittal (University of Pennsylvania) and Tess Rinearson (Carnegie Mellon University) didn’t seem convinced. Good luck with that, I guess.

hologram-hackBut the most impressive thing to come out of this group was a project called Hologram, created by Zain Shah (University of Pittsburgh ’15) and Ishaan Gulrajani (MIT ’16). Simply put, Hologram creates 3D images from 2D ones by analyzing and assigning depth values to certain areas based on how the objects depicted are lit.

According to Gulrajani, “areas of the photo which are dimmer without flash and brighter with flash are closer, and areas of the photo that aren’t affected by the flash are farther away. The resulting 3D image could stand a bit of polish but it works remarkably well considering the pair knocked it out in 24 hours. Judges actually had to confirm that they didn’t start working ahead of time before awarding them the grand prize: an all-expenses paid trip to San Francisco.