On a beautiful, seasonably warm April Saturday in Madison, about 250 college students were packed inside an office building on the west side of town, hacking.
The student hackers -- computer programmers and/or designers -- were gathered for MadHacks 2015, the UW-Madison’s first ever large-scale, public hackathon. Collegiate hackathons, competitions in which college students get together to design and build new computer programs over a set time frame, have become increasingly popular in recent years.
“Just this last season, January through now, there have been more Major League Hacking sanctioned events than in the last decade combined,” said Nick Quinlan, commissioner of the league, which bills itself as “the official student hackathon league.”
According to Major League Hacking, every semester more 15,000 students participate in more than 100 of their sanctioned events in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe.
To become a Major League Hacking sanctioned event, organizers have to meet certain specifications and requirements. When they meet the bar, MLH signs on to provide support at the event, and to help facilitate contacts with potential corporate sponsors and prize donors.
The UW-Madison event is officially sanctioned.
“More than a year ago, [UW students] went to Purdue’s hackathon, Boilermake, started talking about hosting our own,” said Leo Rudberg, student organizer for MadHacks. “We saw [hackathons] as being an awesome thing that we wanted to bring to students at UW.”
At the UW hackathon, students have from noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday to work in teams of one to four students to build an app, website, software or hardware hack. Students are judged by a panel of their peers at the end of the competition, and can win prizes like an all expenses paid trip to a hackathon in Korea or free use of a coworking space in Chicago for the summer.
Teams also win points for their school when they get one of the top prizes. Points go toward a semester-long championship, awarded by Major League Hacking.
About 12 schools from around the Midwest were expected to participate at MadHacks.
In one corner of the largest room of hackers, an alliance formed between UW-Madison hackers and a student from Iowa State University.
The team members had never met before, but struck up a conversation during the morning opening ceremonies and decided to hack together.
“The events are pretty social,” said Sean Wilson, one of the UW student hackers on the team.
“You come in and understand there’s a bunch of people who need team members,” said Jason Herzog, the Iowa State student.
The team, which also includes UW students Kathryn Age and Jack Boehrer, is hacking on a piece of hardware, a Myo armband, a device that reads electrical activity in your muscles, making it possible for the motion of your arm to wirelessly control other tech devices.
“One of our ideas was completely useless… it was to do Morse code with the armband,” Wilson said.
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, the team still hadn’t settled on a definite game plan. And they were a little nervous.
The room they were hacking in, filled with long tables flanked by students and covered with computers, cords and gadgets, was buzzing with other teams seemingly well on their way.
Across the room, UW hackers Wendy Sun and Ricardo Lopez were working silently. They were building a computer game that Lopez likened to “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” But much more high-tech. Obviously.
Sun isn’t a programmer, she’s in charge of the graphic design for the project.
“I just do this as a hobby,” she said. “My friends are programmers and they invited me to join along with them. It’s an area of creativity, and an opportunity to hang out with people who are interested in the same things you are.”
Lopez, who is a computer science major, has been to several hackathons, where he’s built things like an augmented reality simulator that used a camera and Google Cardboard, a cardboard device you can mount on your smartphone and tweak with tools and apps to create virtual reality experiences.
Lopez says he’s really pleased UW-Madison is hosting its first big event.
“It gives me a chance to work on projects that are not really academic,” he said. “All of our projects that we get for our classes tend to be something that you wouldn’t normally use everyday. We get to work on projects [at hackathons] that are more realistic, things that we find more interesting.”
As the afternoon wore on, the hackers programmed, sketched, troubleshot, joked and chatted. It may be a competition, but the environment seems much more about sharing a passion than shooting for a prize.
“It’s friendly competition at the most,” student organizer Rudberg said. “Everyone wants to see what everyone else is building, and push to their personal goals.”
He said the volume in the hacking room will likely lessen as the day wears on.
“Hackers are very high energy at first, when they start having fun, that’s when they get quiet,” he said. “They start getting in the zone. It’s a really interesting mix of very high energy and a kind of Zen-like energy.”
And the hackers are settling in for a very long, very Zen-like night.