If you had 40 hours, were plied with food, and told to let your imagination run away with you, do you think you could come up with something awesome? Adam Yabroudi and Hansen Qian, a pair of Princeton University students, bet you could. They are already betting that the 600 people coming to Hack Princeton’s spring incarnation will come up with plenty of awesome things. And if they don’t, well, hey, at least there’s food.
Hack Princeton is the university’s version of an increasingly popular trend at technologically oriented colleges in North America. Twice a year Princeton hosts the event, which, like its brethren at campuses elsewhere, puts student teams in front of hardware and software and asks them to come up with something. And by something, Yabroudi and Qian, the coordinators of the spring iteration, mean anything. New hardware idea? Fine. New app? New software program? It’s all good. Your limits are what you can imagine and what you can technically accomplish by Sunday morning.
Hack Princeton, now in its fifth year, begins Friday, March 28, at 5 p.m. at Jadwin Gym with a welcome gathering. The hacking itself starts at 9 p.m. and continues through Sunday, March 30, until 9 a.m. The science fair, during which participants see what everyone has done, begins Sunday at 10 a.m., and the demonstrations and judging begins at 1 p.m. The event is free, but is only open to college students (any college, any major). Visit http://hackprinceton.com.
The event, says Qian, a junior, is meant to be fun, welcoming, and creative. Yabroudi, a senior, says the whole thing is meant to take students “from scratch to a finished product” in an environment bristling with creative competition.
What exactly have some past hacks yielded? Well, there’s practical stuff like the Password ID Replacer that transfers all your passwords and sensitive data to your fingerprint. There’s fun stuff like Piano Stairs, which uses sensors and acoustics to play piano notes as you walk up and down steps. And there’s the potentially far-reaching, such as Fintoil, a program that lets Internet users browse in a layer of privacy that even the National Security Agency couldn’t get through.
Yabroudi and Qian, members of the hack’s overseer, the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, will not be hacking themselves. Both say that with the amount of work they are putting in coordinating the event and acting as the event’s supervisors, they will have no time to hack.
One reason Yabroudi and Qian are so busy is the sheer number of participants. Since hacks started a few years ago, they have typically drawn only a few dozen people. When Princeton ran its first hack — originally held only once a year — about 100 people entered. Since 2012, Qian says, Princeton has hosted twice a year, and the biggest turnouts were about 150 people.
Then these hack things started catching on at campuses everywhere, he says. Suddenly Princeton is hosting 600 people, a number large enough for the school to move the event out of its computer science labs and into Jadwin Gym.
Beyond the idea of having fun, the hack is supposed to generate interest in creativity and practical thinking, Yabroudi says. A lot of people think that developing programs is something beyond their capabilities, he says, but anyone with a general understanding of computer science should be able to at least help to devise and design something interesting.
These events, Yabroudi says, are supposed to teach how the theoretical becomes the practical. “They’re supposed to show people the potential they have; how easy it is to be creative.”
“It can be anything,” Qian says. “A new iPhone app. It can be a robot that mimics handwriting. It’s just about getting your hands dirty and being creative.”
One of the main components of the hack is the presence of teams. Teams come in all sizes, but they share an important set of characteristics. “For one thing, you can’t get anything meaningful done without teams,” Qian says. Yabroudi says the diversity of skills teams bring is about getting things done. “With a diversity of skills, you can have one person build the back end, one person build the user interface, you can have somebody working on the hardware, somebody who writes code, somebody who does the website, someone to do the design,” he says.
An important thing to remember is that all majors and all types of thinkers should be part of something like a hack, Yabroudi says. Hack coordinators give tech talks and lessons on how to use the equipment, the basic logistics. Qian says they are focusing more on the non-technical, non-computer people in an effort to show how diverse talents can enhance a technical product or achievement. If you are a designer or artist, for example, think of what you could bring to the esthetics of the product, Yabroudi says. After all, people buy and use based on emotion. They can be blown away by the tech, but if the package isn’t pretty, the appeal might be limited.
Yabroudi is already a seasoned entrepreneur. In 2009, while in high school, the then 16-year-old started a business called Buttons Express, which he still runs. He started selling Arab pride buttons at Arab fairs and heritage events where, despite the theme of the days, had a dearth of items that let people express pride in their culture and heritage.
The electrical engineering major from Brooklyn still sells at these events, but has evolved to also sell flags, scarves, key rings, and other small items. “Over three days in the summer, I can make quite a large amount of money,” he says. He credits part of his business brain to his father, a career restaurant manager, who taught him about leadership and management, he says.
Qian, a computer science major from California, takes more directly after his parents’ careers in the Bay Area. Qian’s father is an electrical engineer who “loves to tinker on the side,” he says. His mother is a software engineer. He credits his geography with helping steer him toward a future in computers as well. “I grew up surrounded by technology,” he says.
As for who owns the technology that comes from these types of hack events, Yabroudi says it all belongs to the students. Princeton merely hosts the attendees, it lays no claim to the technologies developed. And as for whether these inventions will be commercialized, in most cases they aren’t, Qian says. Between school and life, most people just don’t have the interest to make their products the next big thing.
It could happen, of course. But for now it’s more about having fun and opening your mind to the possibilities and potential. Which is, after all, what college is supposed to do.