International hackers come to campus for PennApps

Each semester, top collegiate hackers from around the world convene in Penn’s Engineering quad for a weekend of nonstop coding. PennApps, the nation’s largest and most prestigious student-run hackathon, marked its 10th edition on Sept. 12-14, with more than 1,200 student hackers.

“It was an incredible turnout,” says Pranav Vishnu Ramabhadran, a member of the executive board of PennApps and a sophomore in the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology. “This year, we could only accept 30 percent of the hackers that applied. The quality of hacks was correspondingly very high.”

With support from industry leaders, including Apple and Intel, coders had 36 hours to design, build, and present the best software and hardware hacks. At the weekend’s end, the top teams were awarded cash prizes and tech products provided by company sponsors.

Hardware hacks were featured prominently this year, with companies sharing the latest innovative products, including Intel’s recently announced Edison chip, a postage-stamp-sized processor with built-in wireless capabilities, and a new developer kit for Oculus Rift’s virtual reality headset.

“It was probably the best availability of new hardware products any hackathon has ever had,” says Ramabhadran.

Winning hardware hacks included Magic Board, which uses the gesture-controlled armband Thalmic Myo to steer a skateboard, and ClimbAssist, a wristband that acts as a wireless communicator, allowing rock climbers to relay commands to each other.

As a new addition to PennApps this year, the Perelman School of Medicine sponsored hacks designed to solve challenges in the health care industry. Doctors, nurses, and medical researchers were on hand to provide teams with insight into the challenges they face in the workplace.

The health care track also yielded innovative wearable products. These include Quitli, a device that uses accelerometers to monitor bad health and fitness habits, from cigarette smoking to knuckle-cracking, and Body Sense, a wearable, touch-sensitive pad designed to pinpoint the precise location of an impact for improved sports injuries diagnoses.

This year’s grand prize—$5,000 plus countless new tech products—was awarded to the makers of Fuji, a hack of Apple’s development environment that allows coders to build iOS apps from any operating system.

For many students, the rewards of attending PennApps extend beyond the weekend. Some see it as a crash course in coding skills that they will continue to refine and use throughout their careers, while others use it as a networking opportunity for tech industry jobs after working closely with company insiders.

“It’s a huge deal for the students to be able to build professional relationships here,” says Ramabhadran. “Since we get best hackers from across the world, PennApps is an opportunity for companies to find some incredible talent.”