What do you get when you take 1,200 hackers from across the country, crowd them into a small space, give them access to cutting-edge technology, and set a 48-hour deadline to design something brilliant? You get PennApps, the country’s premier college "hackathon," which recently took place in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania.
The cool thing about hackathons is that it they bring together competition, new technology, and a ticking clock to drive innovation and creativity. This is similar to the environment we often find ourselves operating in at Comcast, as we continue to develop and evolve our products and services.
We also get excited about hackathons because, as a sponsor, we have the opportunity to meet the next-generation of engineering and design talent and turn them onto some of the cool things we are working on here at Comcast.
The output of a hackathon can sometimes turn into the "next big thing" in the tech world, and this year’s PennApps was no different. Wearables were the hot topic, with Google Glass-sporting hackers instantly achieving celebrity status. Pebble watches, which have Bluetooth connections to smartphones, were also a coveted item, and many hackers did their best to bring new functionality to the tiny e-ink screens.
The emerging "Internet of Things" also loomed large at PennApps, with several hackers working with Philips Hue connected light bulbs, which wirelessly change the color and intensity of the light they cast. Others experimented with the Bluetooth beacons, which narrow the location finding properties of smartphones from the area of a city block to a space defined by inches. The opportunities inherent in the combination of technologies like these are nearly unlimited, and the hackers explored as many avenues as possible in the limited time.
However the hallmark of this PennApps session was the seamless blend between media and technology, and the blurring of the lines between the digital and physical world. This trend is of special interest to Comcast as we pioneer our own strategies of content integration with NBCUniversal’s brands, as well as the continued growth and investment in Xfinity Home. Many of the student hackers gravitated toward digital platforms and tools that helped to measure, navigate, and control the physical world around us. They made hacks in nearly everything, from how to measure your brainwaves and send alerts to a caregiver when you experience a seizure, to a Google Glass-based teleprompter to help bolster your confidence in public speaking.
The overall winner of the hackathon, "Homework Machine," took the digital/physical crossover to a comical extreme. The ultimate student's dream, it can scan a math worksheet you might find in middle-school homework, instantly calculate all the answers, and then fill in the answers with a pen- even using your own handwriting! The figurative term ‘duct tape and bailing wire’ came alive in this case; the contraption was built using servo motors and dinner knives held together with duct tape.
Want to see the what else PennApps produced? Check out videos of the top hacks developed at PennApps here: