Hopeful hackers compete to make app magic at Outside Lands

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on August 5, 2013

From The News Desk

The secret is out. I love hackathons. I might need to make hackathons my beat. Now thus far in my time as a journalist, I've only attended two, but there's something about stressed out, perspiring geeks pulling all-nighters under fluorescent lighting that does it for me. I meant to come for just a few hours to the Outside Hacks competition this weekend, but before I knew it, it was midnight, and I was ditching my Saturday night plans to hang with the hackers.

In case you didn't read my preview story on Outside Hacks, here's the summary. It's the first ever hackathon happening at the SF Outside Lands music festival next week. Basically, coders will hang out on festival grounds, develop apps that festival goers can use, and beta test said apps live on the attendees.

To be the chosen "in-the-fest" testers, teams took part in a 24-hour pre-hackathon this past Saturday-Sunday. The winners, which will be picked this upcoming Wednesday, will get VIP tickets to Outside Lands where they'll hack and hone their products at the festival.

When I arrived at the competition Saturday afternoon, I was immediately drunk off the frenetic energy. One hundred-plus developers bustled around Eventbrite's headquarters, which was hosting the hack. Everyone had split off into teams and staked out spots on the formica kitchen tables or in humid, sticky conference rooms. Unlimited Peet's coffee fueled the early efforts, as did the free-flowing beer on tap. In one corner of the space a laptop blasted music from the speakers. In another room, coders shook their heads in frustration at a set of spinning stage lights.

Travis Laurendine, Outside Hacks organizer Travis Laurendine, Outside Hacks organizer

Amidst the chatter and movement strolled Travis Laurendine, mastermind behind Outside Hacks. He founded the New Orleans based developer group CODEMKRS, and has been pioneering the "in-the-fest" hack idea for a few years now, hosting hackathons at Tennessee's Bonnaroo music festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Laurendine's trademark ginger afro bobbed and weaved through the  crowded kitchen, as he brainstormed ideas with people and matchmade teams with people who hadn't found a group yet. He spoke to a cluster of high school students and walked away smiling. "They were about to leave the hackathon because they couldn't come up with an idea," he says. "But I helped them out. They're going to develop an app for SF residents to rent out parking spaces for festival attendees."

Parking space apps are just one of the many ideas developed in the hubbub. Another team was working on a live schedule that would show what band and song was currently playing on each stage, using Gracenote's live music recognition software. Another group was developing a density map of the festival grounds, so that people could see which areas would be the most crowded at certain times of the day. A third group created an app for crowd-sourcing information about lengths of porta-potty lines. A fourth focused on an easy way to schedule which shows you'd see at the festival and then coordinate with your friends. The list goes on.

At some point, a few engineers from Facebook showed up to take questions. Facebook is sponsoring a prize for the hackers that code the best app using Facebook's API -- the winners will get to visit Facebook headquarters to discuss developing their app further. The visiting engineers gave a short presentation telling coders to focus on social and sharing, but not many people paid attention because they were too busy coding. Everyone did, however, rapidly empty the box of tee shirt swag the engineers brought. The two reps hung out in the corner for awhile, speaking with a few inquisitive souls who ventured forth to ask questions. Eventually Vietnamese food arrived, bowls and bowls of fresh vermicelli covering four tabletops.

In one conference room a few hackers didn't stir from their work to grab food -- they were working on the stage hack, a particularly inspired idea of Laurendine's.

He envisions a live stage hack connecting the crowd's smart phones to the stage screen and lighting. There's a couple forms this could take: coders could develop an app allowing audience members to collectively control the light show through the movement of their phones. If people jump up and down, the lights go crazy. If it's a softer ballad and people sway their phones back and forth, the lights will follow them. Another possibility is that the DJ or musician could control the colors of everyone's phones from the stage -- people would open the app and lift their phones above their heads and the performer could turn all the phones red or green.

There's a lot of possibilities, but in the early hours of the hackathon the developers were struggling to make the lights do much of anything. Hunter Pipes, who does sound and lighting design at The Independent, had set up the switch board in the conference room and demonstrated how the system worked. After he left, the teams were scratching their heads in befuddlement.

It took them a few hours to figure out how to hack it, but eventually developer Eden Sherry solved the puzzle. Holding his phone, he could tilt the lights in the direction of his hand. The small room filled up with people who wanted to see what was happening. "He's got a good chance at winning," Laurendine said. "Can you imagine what a great demo that will be for the judges?"

I stole away around midnight, soon after stacks and stacks of pizza arrived. A few people were already curled up on beanbags napping, while others were hard at work.

The next day, I showed up 30 minutes before the deadline, and the stress was palpable in the air. Chatter filled the room, and most of the coders I glanced at had furrowed brows and foreheads crinkled in concentration.

At 1 pm sharp, the demos kicked off with a performance from Catherine Rose Smith -- a folk singer with an acoustic guitar and a haunting voice. The music set the mood, and the singer crooned into a mike jimmy-rigged to the top of a camera, since Laurendine couldn't find a mike stand. Fitting hardware hack for a hackathon. While she sang, images appeared behind her with a note that said "to see your pictures up here, instagram your photos using #outsidehacks." As more audience members starting interacting, pictures popped up from the hackathon, creating a portrait collage that would then zoom into individual photos, and zoom back out to the portrait as a transition between images.

Smith wrapped up and the demos began. Each group stood up and presented a three minute demo. Ideas shown ranged from "outside pants," an app for getting lost and found notifications when items are turned in, to "boogles," an augmented reality layer for finding beer when you get a little tipsy.

Fifteen finalists were chosen out of the 24 teams, and they'll go on to the next judging round on Wednesday. They've got a few days extra now to polish their products. I personally wouldn't want to be the person who has to pick the best teams -- there were too many weird, fabulous ideas.

The winners will head to Outside Lands next weekend in style, where they'll test these apps on festival goers live.

Image credit: Jay Blakesberg