Courtesy of BigRed Hacks' Facebook page

September 19, 2016

Students Come Together to Code, Solve Problems at BigRed Hacks

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Have you ever found yourself with friends, in need of a stereo system to play music, but with none in sight? Problem solved. A group of University of Buffalo students took up their weekend to design Goofy, an app which creates a loudspeaker system from your phones, syncing the same song across a number of devices and thus amplifying the sound.  All you have to do is take a picture, wait for the system to randomly choose a song based on your mood, and sync it across your friends’ phones.

Where was this and so many other cool apps and websites designed?

You guessed right: BigRed Hacks, the student-run hackathon right here at Cornell.

While most regular students were out Friday night at 8 p.m., a group of several hundred undergraduates from all over the country gathered at Call Auditorium for the opening ceremony of the annual BigRed Hacks Hackathon, getting ready for 36 sleepless hours of designing, coding, building, testing, and re-working.

BigRed Hacks was organized as part of the student hackathon league, Major League Hacking, and was sponsored by companies such as Microsoft, Dell, Bloomberg, and Wayfair. These companies presented their Application Program Interfaces — pieces of code their companies developed — which hackathon participants can use in their own code. Capital One, for example, offered a wide array of APIs related to online banking and shopping. Microsoft provided APIs related to facial emotion detection.

Most sponsors also offered prizes for the team that best uses their API which were sure to leave participants drooling. Microsoft, for one, promised to give each winning team member a Surface Pro 4 Tablet.

The opening ceremony featured Prof. Carla Gomes, computer science and director of the Institute of Computational Sustainability. Gomes’ presentation, called “Computational Methods for Balancing Environmental, Economic, and Societal Needs,” related to the overall theme of hacking for sustainability at this year’s event.

However exciting Gomes’ talk was, it was evident that the participants, many of whom travelled a long way to participate, were eager to begin coding.

Chatter, shuffling of suitcases, and laptop clicking prevalent during most of the opening ceremony were all silenced in sleep mode, however, when aspiring computer science rapper Jared Wong ’18 performed lines like, “It all looks better in the tech,” “Most rappers use base 10; I speak base 2” and “took bits of a sandwich because I needed a byte.” Wong, known as JWong and FloCaml, received the most rambunctious and enthusiastic applause of the night, leaving the crowd buzzing and even more jittery than before.

The hackathon itself took place at the Physical Sciences Building. Laptops, Oculus Rifts, monitors, backpacks, and water bottles were strewn across the tables in the lobby of the building, company booths packed to the brim with people gathering tech swag — company t-shirts, selfie sticks, yoyos, and other goodies — and there was a hardware rental station where one could find all sorts of devices to use. Most of all, there was an evident air of excitement and not just the sort of buzz that surrounds cool technology: it was the creative energy, the endless possibilities that coding and design provide which electrified the air.

Despite 36 hours without sleep, not a single team member gave any sign of weariness. Adrenaline flowing, eyes glowing, participants rushed to tell me about their products, already planning out further improvements and changes they can make.

The creators of Goofy — Parag Jayant Datar,  Melvin Philips, Kushal Bhandari, and Nishant Ravichandran, all second year graduate students in the Computer Science and Engineering Departments at the University at Buffalo — said their biggest challenge in developing the app was reducing the syncing latency, or delay, across devices to a minimum. They say they managed to get the latency down to 60-70 milliseconds.

One Cornell team – Sophia Yan ‘17, John Draikiwicz ‘17, and James Cassell ‘17 – developed a product called Life Alert for Turtles, envisioning a safer environment for turtles and better tracking of the reptiles. Their plan attached electrodes to the turtle’s shell, which alert a devoted turtle rescue team in a given area when a turtle flips over onto its shell and is helpless. The system also involves a tracking system, detailing where the turtle is and which direction it is heading at any given time, which the team suggested could be useful for turtle tracking in wildlife refuges.

Another Cornell team developed a sustainability-themed product called Fridge Buddy. Fridge Buddy tracks the expiration dates for food in your fridge, marking food that needs to be urgently eaten in red and the other food in green.

“Did you know that 35 million tons of food waste is produced each year?” Amanda Chen Cornell ‘19 asked.

The app also suggests recipes for food already in your fridge, weighing food with more urgent expiration dates more heavily. Chen, and her teammates — Michael Velez ‘19  Swathi Chakrapani ‘19, Michelle O’Bryan ‘19  — hope that Fridge Buddy will cut household grocery costs and reduce food waste.

Nikhil Verma and Alvin Lin, a second year graduate student and a freshman, respectively, at Rochester Institute of Technology, along with Cindy Wang ‘19, developed a phone game called Recycle Rampage, which is meant to educate people about which items are recyclable and which are not. Its simple, intuitive design won the team the Best UI/UX,  meaning user interface and user experience design.

SwearJar, which listens for profanity in speech and charges the user after a certain amount of times it hears profanities, won the Goofiest prize. The app was developed by Hope Jin (Columbia University senior), Arian Moslem (Rutgers sophomore), Darpan Tanna (Purdue University freshman,) and Alan Cha (Columbia University junior.)

The prize for the best business prospect went to Jonathan Grant, Maia Mirchandani ‘19, and Eric Stermer, from University of Southern California, Cornell University,  and Liberty University, respectively. Their product,, allows a user to follow another person on multiple social media platforms at once, simply by scanning a QR code.

Binghamton student, Jack Fischer, working with Nik Vanderhoof and Ethan Schoen took on the challenge of making a web browser in 36 hours, and succeeded. Named Andreesen after Marc Andreesen — the author of the very early Mosaic web browser which popularized the internet — this project’s creator won the team the Best Technical Feat prize.

Other projects included intElect, which generates candidates for senate when a user enters a zip code, and Kalories, which splits pictures of food into their individual components, such as identifying the ingredients in a soup, and lists the ingredients’ nutritional value.

The list of amazing projects goes on. It was certainly inspirational to see so much accomplished in just 36 hours.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Binghamton student Jack Fischer built  a web browser in 36 hours by himself. In fact, he was also working with students Nik Vanderhoof and Ethan Schoen.