Logo: University of Southern California

Hack SC Unites Hacking Community

Hacking marathon at USC provides a gathering space for both beginning and expert hackers
By: Erin Rode
November 20, 2014 —

Hundreds of hackers participated in the HackSC hackathon, which ran Nov. 7 to Nov. 9
Energy drinks, sleeping bags and the latest technology hardware littered the Annenberg Building from Nov. 7 to 9, a 36-hour hackathon that attracted hundreds of students.

HackSC, aimed to provide USC Viterbi and other computer science students from around Southern California with the hands-on experience that they may not receive in the classroom. Another goal was to encourage hacking in the Los Angeles area, since the Silicon Valley is usually regarded as the mecca for hacking and technology.

“We hope that the event helps instill ‘hacker culture’ into USC and the greater area around it,” said Brian Kim, the USC Viterbi junior who helped organize the event. “We want to have people inspire themselves when they see what can be done with code in a short period of time while giving them the support they need to follow through and continue building after the event.”

Half crazy middle school sleepover, half high-pressure competition, HackSC encouraged collaboration between members of the hacking community.

USC Viterbi alumna Pamela Fox, who works as a “developer advocate” for Google, provided the event’s commencement speech. Noting the friendly atmosphere, she told attendees that HackSC would be “basically like summer camp, it’s an intense bonding experience.”

The event marked the third, and largest, hackathon held at USC to date. Only about 40 people attended USC’s inaugural hackathon last fall. HackSC grew rapidly over the past year, with 300 attendees last spring and over 750 this fall. Students from USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford constituted approximately 300 of this year’s attendees.

For those outside of the hacking community, the term “hacker” may conjure images of an evil-genius type - an individual breaking into websites and stealing data.

But according to USC Viterbi computer science major and frequent hackathon attendee, Jon Koehmstedt, “traditionally, hacking meant someone who hacked into a computer network intentionally to break it. . . But more now, especially in the hacking community, the word hacker simply means someone who can take a technology and use it to just make something work.”

For HackSC attendees, hacking isn’t characterized by stealing information from the web, but by innovating new ideas, in the form of phone applications, video games and other technologies.

“Hacking is taking something that already exists, and tweaking it to do something new,” said USC Viterbi junior Gary Chen.

HackSC provided myriad opportunities for hackers of all experience levels to collaborate and learn from each other. Participants could attend five HackSchools that focused on the Web, games, iOS, Android and hardware, where they learned the basics of building applications.

At each HackSchool, mentors offered support and instruction to aspiring hackers. These mentors ranged from engineers from sponsoring companies, to fellow students eager to share their hacking expertise.

Experienced hackers formed teams, and competed to create a successful hack, or new technological innovation, within the 36-hour time limit. An abundance of available hardware and development kits, such as Arduinos, Oculus Rift Virtual Reality Kits, Leap Motions and Myo Armbands, were available to spur creativity. Additionally, big-name sponsors Microsoft and Apple lent out digital devices, including Surfaces and iPads.

The event culminated on Nov. 9 with an expo and awards ceremony, which rewarded hackers for innovation across diverse finalist categories. The winner for best “Renaissance Hack,” a hack that spans multiple disciplines, went to Dreadmill, a virtual reality game that used an actual treadmill connected to Adruino hardware and a Myo armband to stimulate a zombie apocalypse scenario.

Other finalist categories included Newbie Hackers, Virtual Reality Games, Internet of Things, and Hack for Social Good. A combination of industry leaders and students with extensive hackathon experience served as the judging panel.

And the prizes for winning hackers? More tools to hack with, including some of the ones used during the event. However, most attendees weren’t there for a sense of competition, but for a sense of camaraderie.

USC Viterbi junior Ryan Zhou, who also attended HackSC in the spring, said, “It’s just fun to be up for two days straight, and to be together with everyone while trying to make something really cool.”