HackPSU Spawns Phone-Tracking Flying Robots And More In Just 24 Hours

One would think that it takes an extensive amount of time to build a mobile application or a robot that searches for your electronic devices. From hardware to software, students from Penn State and elsewhere gathered on campus this weekend for HackPSU, a 24-hour hacking marathon. Hundreds participated in the marathon, developing ideas and using computer coding in order to create a finished product in just one short day. In the end, one team stood out above all the others, and it may have come as a surprise.

Mihir Garimella and Stephen Polcyn, 15 and 16 years old respectively, took the top prize with the Presto Findo, a flying robot that can hunt down your lost electronic devices. The concept for the drone came from research on mapping fruit fly movements. Garimella and Polcyn have experience programming and working with robots. They felt like their talents could be used to create a natural solution for a problem that just about everyone faces.

“I’ve been working with flying robots for a long time. Obviously losing things is a big problem, so we had a concept where we would make a flying robot that could locate things,” Garimella said. “We thought about how we can use this innovative technology and leverage it into a real world application.”

Garimella and Polcyn are a sophomore and junior, respectively, at Fox Chapel High School in Pittsburgh. They had never attended a hack-a-thon before and will head home with a perfect record, taking the top prize for their innovative creation. Garimella said that the project could have some more serious applications as well, including use for search-and-rescue.

“We could, for example, use it after an earthquake or fire when somebody is trapped in a building,” he said. “It can locate their cell phones and track them down and apply this concept to search-and-rescue, so that’s where I see this going next.”

For Polcyn, the hack-a-thon was an enjoyable event because of his interest in computer sciences. He has been programming seriously for just a few years, and loves how accessible that type of work is for anyone with a computer.

“You can do anything you want. You can make a tangible product that you can look at and use,” he said. “If there’s something you want to be done, you can make that happen. You don’t need a million dollars, a machine shop, and an engineer team. You just need your computer in your hands and you can do anything you want.”

The second place prize went to a project called BeatCoin, which allows users to pay for music without actually spending any money. They would give up some computer resources to mine bitcoins, which are a form of alternative currency. The bitcoins would go to the artist in return for their music. Third place went to Autobahn, a team of Drexel students that was able to develop an application that streams video to other people’s web browsers live. This would allow users to share videos with friends without having to send them a massive file or upload the video to a site like YouTube.

While it didn’t place as a finalist, one of the more interesting projects to come out of HackPSU this year is Vado, a mobile application that could enhance student engagement at Penn State. The app’s name means “I go” in Italian, and it attempts to centralize information on student organizations and events/workshops taking place on campus. Ron Guillen, one of the students who worked on Vado, said that the app could be very useful at any university in order to increase involvement within student organizations.

“There’s so many opportunities out there in organizations and they try to inform students through social media. I feel that there are so many angles of information on these platforms that students don’t really get their attention captured, especially when there are over a thousand organizations at the university,” Guillen said. “We felt that if there was an app that specifically focuses on extracurricular activities offered at Penn State, it will enhance attendance, involvement, and retention for organizations at Penn State. Coming to college is not just about attending classes, but also exposing yourself and exploring new things, and that’s a crucial part of the college experience.”

Another innovative idea that arose at HackPSU is a more efficient video chat protocol called KonnectMe. The service could eliminate many of the problems with pixellated video, audio issues, and call drops that users experience using a program like Skype or FaceTime. Utilizing the Xbox Kinect’s camera, joints and movements in the face are tracked and your face is recreated on the other end in three dimensions. It might not be an actual video, but it will look like you and move along with your face. KonnectMe eliminates the massive amounts of information that need to travel from one point to another in a typical video chat.

“When you have a video call over Skype, it compresses the data and there’s a lot of drop-outs and the audio quality isn’t all that great. The Kinect tracks your face and sends that data along with audio over the network where it reconstructs your face and you can live chat that way,” saidMax Marze, a member of the KonnectMe team. “It’s a lot less data to send. Video over the Internet is a pretty rich stream of information, so instead we just have to send a few points and it can build your face on the other side.”

And on top of all that, there were some pretty fun creations that were born at HackPSU, like a game of pong that’s played on a bunch of LED lights in a piece of cardboard. It sounds rudimentary, but the team essentially coded its own pong game from scratch and programmed the lighting over the course of just one day to form a working, and visually appealing, arcade game. Another team, called Tweet Your Coffee, hacked a coffee pot to be able brew on command with a tweet. RE:morse made a glove that can be used to tap morse code, allowing disabled people to communicate more easily.

While I went in expecting a bunch of hackers breaking in to the White House computer network to track down the nuclear launch codes, I wasn’t let down when I realized that it was a different kind of hacking taking place over at the IST Building. Instead of hacking for personal gain, these teams were hacking problems to create innovative solutions using their computer skills. HackPSU is just one example among many of the incredible work that students are capable of doing at this university.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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