With free food, caffeine and 36 hours to unleash their creativity in code and hardware, more than 2,000 participants gathered in the bowels of Memorial Stadium this weekend for Cal Hacks’ 2015 hackathon.
Participants made the second annual hackathon at UC Berkeley the largest day of student hacking ever recorded, according to Cal Hacks organizer and UC Berkeley sophomore Canzhi Ye. They used existing hardware and databases to create entirely original projects, many of which go head to head in friendly competition, judged by Cal Hacks officials and corporate sponsors.
“We are huge believers in learning by doing,” said Li Chen, a member of Major League Hacking, the organization that partnered with Cal Hacks to host this weekend’s hackathon and more than 150 others around the world each year.
Chen was working at the hardware checkout table, where participants use a library checkout system to borrow free hardware — provided by CITRIS Invention Lab as well as companies such as Dell, Intel, Alienware, Pebble, Microsoft and others — for their projects.
Everything for the participants is free, including food and transportation, which the event provides to students from across the state.
Companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Chevrolet, Uber, YikYak and Here set up booths at the hackathon, giving out free promotional material to attendants as well as sponsored prizes. Participants enjoyed free boba tea, churros, bagels and Sliver pizza while accepting sponsors’ T-shirts, memorabilia and sticker-cutouts of rapper Drake’s face.
The event hosted workshops held by companies such as General Motors, Capital One and Illumio, and a keynote speaker — James Whittaker from Microsoft — urged hackers to “find their edge” in a highly competitive field.
“Every hackathon has its own sort of environment,” said Anish Kannan, a UC San Diego student who attended Cal Hacks after attending SDHack last weekend. “Berkeley’s hackathon is a little more isolated and a little more relaxed than others.”
For UC Santa Cruz junior Vanessa Putnam, Cal Hacks was her first hackathon but likely not her last.
“I was very excited to learn new things from other people,” Putnam said. “It has been really easy to come into this as a beginner and not understanding what a hackathon is and still have a good time.”
Projects ranged from Web apps similar to Tinder for finding a partner to “Netflix and chill” with to a gesture-identification program that unlocks devices with hand gestures instead of a password. One team of UC Berkeley seniors described the music-management interface they created as “like Netflix but for bitTorrent.”
Ye said the hackathon is a chance to practice computer science outside the classroom environment.
“Don’t be afraid to go in full of questions,” he said to students who might be interested. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and at the end of the day, have fun.”
Staff writer Michelle Leung contributed to this report.