On a whim at 2 am in the morning, I walked up to the registration booth for Hacktech. I signed up for the event, got my free pink T shirt and wandered into the event areas, full of people still buzzing with energy and an insane number of laptops.
So what is Hacktech? This event is part of Major Hacking League (MLH)'s schedule of college-hosted hackathons.
Despite what the name sounds like, students don't hack into super secret government servers. In fact, students from all over the world come and build a technology-related project within the 36 hour event, sometimes by modifying and thus "hacking" existing products like Roombas. Advith Chelakani, the head organizer, says that about 80% of the participants this year were from California, 15% from other US states, and 5% were international, hailing from Canada, Dubai, and several European countries. Advith even had to write visa letters for a couple people from Egypt and India to come. However, despite all the effort the 9 months of planning took, Advith says he didn't have much trouble balancing school and Hacktech, since this was the second year he had run it.
He says: "Hackathons are unique in that everything is free for the participants. We provide them with buses, reimbursed airfare, WiFi, food, swag, a place to work, sleep, and shower, and everything else for a whole weekend."
"We raised over 100K from corporate sponsors over the past year and we’ve been planning this year’s Hacktech for about nine months . In exchange for sponsorships, we give companies a chance to come to Caltech for Hacktech and get access to tons of young engineering talent as well as a chance to get their products and services in the hands of people who love to developing applications with them. On top of the basic necessities, we also provided hackers with fun activities for the whole weekend like a bunch house and lawn games as well as a bunch of technical workshops ranging from iOS app development to SSH tunneling to how to start a startup."
Lots of projects this year featured hardware hacks. There was an abundance of gadgets for loan: Alienware desktops, Amazon Echos and Fire Phones, Arduino boards, Pebble Time watches, Leap Motion, Occulus Rift and Samsung Gear VR head sets for virtual reality and more. We also had Caltech volunteers who worked a 3D printer on site.
I was really impressed at the dedication some teams had. One team brought their own 3D printer all the way to Caltech to make little brackets that they put together to make wearable spinal cord-like prosthetic. They used a combination of sensors to get statistics about the user's posture.
Another team I talked to had actually met each other through the Facebook page for this event. Tonight was the first time they had met, but they've already prepared their own giant monitors and computer tower to create a virtual reality Minecraft-esque game.
It was really exciting to have so many new, like-minded people gathered together on a campus that could sometimes feel insular. From crazy 36 hour hacks to bringing hundreds of individuals together, Hacktech really emphasized the power we all have to make a difference.