Hundreds of college-age computer programmers, builders, and enthusiasts gathered at Virginia Tech for VTHacks, a 36-hour coding marathon. 

The gathering last weekend was organized by students from the university's computer science department and pitched across the East Coast to college students, all dedicated to the idea of building both hardware and software, and entrepreneurship. 

And having fun.

The project that created the most buzz came from three computer science students at Georgia Tech: a software application built for smart watches that can tell if a person is intoxicated if they stumble or sway while walking. If so, the watch will send an automatic alert for a requested ride to a pre-chosen emergency contact. 

The result: Likely one less drunk driver on the road. The group hopes to refine the project in the coming weeks and make it available at web-based app stores for a free download.

As for the type of cyber “hacks,” like those involving Target Corp, Sony Pictures and Anthem Insurance that have been in news headlines, none of that was found here. The term “hacking” now used so negatively once was used by technology enthusiasts who would form groups during the 1960s and 1970s and build their own computers from kits.

VTHacks founder and event organizer Ben Johnston of Louisville, Kentucky, and a senior in computer science, part of the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, said events such as his are dedicated to “reclaiming the name” of hacking.

“If the general public or media became aware of hackathon expos and came to see the projects, a lot of the negative perception around the word ‘hack’ would begin to disappear,” said Johnston.

Students arrived at Torgersen Hall Friday evening by chartered bus or car, paid for by VTHacks and event sponsors. Dozens of teams quickly took on challenges created by VTHacks event sponsors 1901G, Bloomberg, Capital One, CustomLink, Ford, Microsoft, RackSpace, and Techpad, while some teams formed their own task. (Among the estimated 450 participants were a few dozen Virginia high school students.)

One group attempted to send Web-based data over a canned string telephone, the kind you see 10-year-olds using during play. The effort didn’t work, so the team attempted to send an image of the Mona Lisa over the air via numeric data passed as sound phone tones.

“It started out as a half-joke, and then became a why not idea,” said participant Ishaan Gulrajani.

Nearby, Hokie Luke Wolff of Poquoson, Virginia, and a freshmen engineer, was part of a team of childhood friends building a first-person virtual reality boxing game. Wearing virtual reality goggles, the player can see their own “body” in the ring, with images from screen matching the user’s movement.

Another team built a robotic hand from cardboard, soda pop straws, fishing wire, and some electronic components. An attached motion sensor allowed the faux hand to mimic the user, including a bit of “air” piano. “I’ve been working with mechanics all my life,” said Virginia Tech mechanical engineering student Joseph Rogers of Chesapeake, Virginia. His team was comprised of all Hokies, and included a newly 3D printed hand they built on their own prior to the event.

One team from the University of Georgia built a prototype low-cost telescope they hope to bring to market for hobbyists and children in the form of a model. Team member Caleb Adams said his team built the scope in one night and took it outside to film Jupiter and the moon for the next day’s expo.

“We thought the weekend was great,” added Adams. “The environment was really awesome and helpful. Our team also loved Virginia Tech’s campus. The open spaces were really helpful for astronomical imaging.”

The telescope was among Johnston’s favorites at the event. “The telescope has a lot of potential to spark interest in science for children as the team noted it could be made significantly cheaper than telescopes with similar features,” he said.

VT Hacks through its sponsors paid for travel of participants to the event. Registration was not only free, but required no proof or skill or application. 

“The attitude of our community and our culture is we are able to afford it far more than they are,” Johnston said of attendees. “We wanted to be inclusive.”

The event cost roughly $45,000 to put on, with a majority of the budget going toward transportation of participants as well as food, which came from local restaurants in the New River Valley. Johnston, who graduates this year, hopes to have VTHacks again work with the local eateries as more events are hosted on campus. One idea is a mini-hackathon where the food draw for participants will be cookies.

The VTHacks community was founded by Johnston in January 2014 and within two weeks had 100 members. By April, inspired by attending similar hacker events, Johnston organized and hosted a three-day marathon that brought 450 people to Cassell Coliseum. The move this year to Torgersen was many fold: large lecture halls, computer labs, easy access to and off campus, and good Internet connection.

Aaron Andrews, a freshman at Georgia Tech, said his team came up with the idea for the smart watch application in conversation on Friday night.

“This is our first time at a hackathon ever,” he said. “We thought we’d test the waters a bit.”

Johnston and Rogers called the app among the best projects they saw at the Feb. 6-8 event. “That helps the world out a lot by preventing drivers from driving drunk and contacts friends, I liked the whole concept,” Rogers said.

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