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HackOHI/O winners showcase problem-solving and persistence

The two teams who earned top honors at HackOHI/O 2019, Ohio State’s largest annual hackathon, proved that persistence pays off.

The Ohio Union ballroom is filled with students working on laptops and other devices.More than 800 students worked to create something amazing at HackOHI/O 2019.

First-place winners Chris Yao, John Kim (first-year computer science and engineering) and Wilson Wu (first-year chemical engineering) of team BLND felt intimidated at the start of the event.

“Everyone around us was really into their app,” said Kim. “It seemed like they were already experienced in coding and hackathons.”

The nerves are understandable. More than 800 students participated in this year’s HackOHI/O competition on November 2-3, working for 24 hours straight to develop a solution and build a prototype. With almost 100 industry professionals attending the event, over $12,000 in donated prizes and a reputation as the state’s largest hackathon, HackOHI/O is a formidable challenge for new and experienced participants alike.

For the first hours of the hackathon, Yao, Kim and Wu taught themselves the skills and programs needed to bring their app to fruition. Then, they worked to train the artificial intelligence (AI), write the code, develop the user interface (UI) and build a working—and winning—mockup of WeCycle, an app that gamifies recycling.

WeCycle users can take photos of their potentially recyclable waste, earn points for logging recyclable items, compete against friends, try for daily challenges and use points to enter into raffles for rewards. The app incentivizes those who are environmentally conscious and motivates users to be more sustainable.

The team faced unexpected challenges throughout the hackathon. They needed to match a machine learning library with an AI program that could distinguish between a recyclable and a non-recyclable material effectively, but not take too long to train. And, the team had to fend off exhaustion while working through the night.

“I’m just someone who doesn’t want to quit during a project,” said Kim. “Overnight I took 10-minute naps because I did not want to stop coding.”

Another team in the room, //todo, can relate to BLND’s experience. Third-year computer science and engineering majors Pranav Kamra, Sam Stevens, Anmol Takiar and Jason Guo also battled exhaustion during their first time competing in HackOHI/O in 2017, but managed to win best software hack. Armed with more experience, they won first place this year with LUMEN, an app to aid those with visibility impairments.

LUMEN aims to help the more than 217 million people worldwide that experience moderate to severe vision impairment. The app takes physical text, such as menus or signs, and converts the image into audible speech, a non-dyslexic font, a larger font size and other accessible formats. The app also connects to a website for even easier viewing.

The challenges for //todo came when members started putting together individual parts—the code, the website, coordinating with servers and more—into a working prototype. The team also needed to keep accessibility in mind every step of the way.

“Sam and Jason worked on the dyslexic fonts and that’s not just computer science,” said Takiar. “It’s asking if you understand accessibility.”

Students holding their prizes and presenters pose for a photo on stage.First-place winners (from left) John Kim, Wilson Wu and Chris Yao from BLND, and ///todo’s Pranav Kamra, Anmol Takiar, Sam Stevens and Jason Guo were presented with prizes by Microsoft’s Mike Taylor and Ohio State Director of Learning Programs Cory Tressler.Both teams were selected to present their final project in front of a panel of judges and spectators after the 24-hour problem-solving sprint. Stevens notes that being selected as a finalist is, of course, an honor, but another challenge unto itself.

“You so desperately want to show your work off and give a complete presentation that makes sense, and you’re not thinking clearly because you’re tired,” said Stevens. “It can be tough to balance.”

Despite the mutual exhaustion, the teams earned first-place honors—and their choice of a Nintendo Switch or Microsoft Surface laptop—at the event.

Team BLND plans to continue developing WeCycle. The next step is to add functionality, animations and security, among other improvements. More specifically, they want to continue training the AI to recognize if a recyclable material has food in it, thus making it unrecyclable.

With managing TicketBay, an app for Ohio State students to buy and sell football tickets, at the top of team //todo’s priority list, they have no immediate plans to continue developing LUMEN. For them, hackathon projects are a chance to forgo the finer details, like a forgotten password function, and instead test their skills under unique and challenging constraints.

Both teams are looking forward to future hackathons, HackOHI/O included.

“Hackathons are a chance to play around, get familiar with new technologies and grow personally,” said Pranav.

Stevens added, “Hackathons ask, ‘Can you do something cool in 24 hours?’”

HackOHI/O is one component of the OHI/O Informal Learning Program under the direction of Julia Armstrong.798. Visit hack.osu.edu for more information.

by Brianna Long, College of Engineering student communications assistant