The hackers brought computer monitors and power cords, of course — but also pillows, toys, boxes of doughnuts, cases of energy drinks and at least one crockpot.
If Ohio Union was going to be their home for the next 24 hours, they would need all kinds of supplies.
From Saturday morning until Sunday morning, more than 650 university students from across the region clacked away on keyboards and hunched over screens to develop programs — from idea to prototype — as part of Ohio State University’s annual hackathon.
Computer science and engineering sophomore Marie Pendley’s team brought a virtual reality headset, hand controllers and camera sensors to the programming marathon. She knew from the get-go they needed to spend their 24 hours wisely in order to create a virtual reality game from scratch.
“Problem is, you can’t step away and come back,” Pendley said, “which is actually important to programming: taking a break from the screen.”
HackOHI/O started in 2013 with 100 students in a campus library basement. Now, its student organizers see it as a key to making Ohio State a powerhouse in Columbus’ growing tech community as well as a necessary opportunity for fledgling software developers to throw skills at a real-life problems.
“There’s no exams, no homework. They get to step out of academics and do something creative,” said Caitlyn Horne, a computer science and engineering senior and event organizer. “It’s 24 hours to work on a project of their own.”
Among last year’s winning hacks: a mixed reality chess game, an app to help drivers find parking near their destination and a program for Amazon’s voice service app, Alexa, to brew a cup of coffee.
On Sunday, judges will award prizes to eight teams based on criteria such as technical difficulty, creativity, usefulness and presentation.
But in the frantic brainstorming of HackOHI/O’s opening hours, the finish line felt very far to participants.
“It definitely feels like there’s more time toward the start of it,” said Saajan Patel, a computer science and engineering junior whose team planned to hack a Donkey Kong bongo controller to create rhythm-based passwords.
In a similar game-rigging mission, a nearby team began pulling apart a children’s Leapfrog spelling toy to transform it into a cryptex that wipes a USB drive inside it in the case of an incorrect password. Nearby, a foursome wrote code for software that connects startups to investors, photographers, interns and other human resources.
Across the hall, McKenzie Kennelly and her teammates hit snags early on while building a web tool to rate classes and professors. For the computer science and engineering sophomores, Saturday’s hackathon was a first chance to apply fundamentals coursework.
“This project would never happen in class,” she said.
Luckily for them, mentors eagerly circulated the room offering technical and practical advice.
“It’s so stressful,” said mentor and hackathon veteran Austen Madden. “You need sleep. A single line can throw you off. Ideas get too big.”
Developers in the professional world typically have weeks to finish a project, said Madden, a software developer for CoverMyMeds.
But he’s noticed companies have begun using mini-hackathons while recruiting to test how job applicants respond to team challenges, time crunches and creative problem solving.
“Those are the things that are hard to teach and expensive to train,” Madden said.
Hackathons can also coax newbie developers or the coding curious into the field.
Pendley said that at her first hacking marathon, she learned enough of the Java programming language to make a functional weather app.
“It’s what convinced me to go into computer science,” she said.