Science & Technology

Annual hackathon abounds with creativity, camaraderie, and caffeine

There are many ways to get an adrenaline rush. For some, skydiving, horror movie jump-scares, or kickboxing does the trick. For others, it’s McHacks

McHacks is an annual hackathon that a team of McGill students organizes, where teams of hackers have just 24 hours—from Saturday noon until Sunday noon—to design a project showcasing their coding prowess to the judges. Now in its 11th year, the competition took place on the weekend of Jan. 26 and 27 in the University Centre and attracted nearly 500 competitors. 

The competition’s short time limit often guarantees a nearly sleepless night for participants as they rush to complete their projects. The organizers even converted the ballroom into a sleeping area for competitors, complete with mattresses sprawled out on the floor. 

Co-directors Judy Yun, U4 Science, and Juliette Xu, U3 Science, oversaw the event’s organization. In an interview with The Tribune, Yun explained that there are a variety of features that judges look for when evaluating projects.

“The main thing is functionality, especially for the top five. It’s generally like, ‘how complete [is this] as a project?’” Yun said. “We also judge on creativity a lot, something super innovative, really different than we’ve ever seen before. And I think design, usability, accessibility, that type of stuff is also a really big category.”

Yun also expressed that the thrill of the busy weekend is one of her favourite aspects of the event each year.

“It’s kind of like a really long adrenaline rush for like, 36 hours,” Yun explained. “And then it’s over and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, my life is like, stopped.’ But it’s super rewarding.”

This year, Tessa Davis, U3 Science, Gabrielle Lavoie, U2 Engineering, and Gabrielle MacInnes, U2 Science, won the first place prize with their project, Danstrument. During the team’s demo of Danstrument during the closing ceremonies, Lavoie explained that the web application allows users “to meet with your friends and to dance, which will generate music.” 

Danstrument accomplishes this goal by scanning users’ movements during video calls using computer vision artificial intelligence (AI), which triggers audio cues associated with different sounds depending on the selected musical instrument. For example, on the application’s sine wave setting, the frequency of the continuous sine wave playing over the call increases or decreases as the user raises or lowers their hand, respectively. 

One challenge the team encountered was accurately mapping movement to sound using the programming language JavaScript. 

“One of the issues that we ran into was that the library that we were using in the JavaScript back end wasn’t necessarily the best at tracking continuous hand movements,” Davis said during the closing ceremonies demo. “We have another version that if we had more time, we would integrate into the back end of the web app that you just saw, which is better able to recognize movements.”

The judges awarded second prize to Gülce Apaydin, U1 Science, Negar Akbarpouran Badr, U1 Engineering, Dany Makhoul, Dawson College, and Ida Su Ozdemir, U1 Engineering, for their project, Melo-N, which uses AI to allow users to change the genre of songs. During their demo at the closing ceremonies, the team explained that the application uses AI and software library FFmpeg to separate the vocals from the instrumentals of the original songs. The application then uses MusicGen API to change the genre of the instrumentals before recombining them with the original vocals to create the final product.

In a group interview with The Tribune, the creators of Melo-N highlighted their strong collaboration with one another as a key factor in their win, emphasizing how much fun they had working as a team.

“For me, I didn’t know anything about AI or anything about machine learning,” Makhoul said. “And so we were cooperating with each other, collecting information and everything so we could build our project. So having this final project at the end is something phenomenal.” 

Badr and Ozdemir also expressed surprise at how smoothly the competition went, as it was both team members’ first ever hackathon. 

“Everyone told me, ‘you’re not going to enjoy your first [hackathon]. Like, it’s gonna be difficult,’” Badr said. “But it was so good. Brainstorming ideas, getting to do different stuff, actually implementing what I knew, it was amazing.”

Mohamad Addasi, Concordia University, Aden Bessam, Champlain College, Garance Danvin, U3 Desautels and Andrew Rowe, Concordia Engineering, claimed third prize with their project FluentFingers. The app is designed to teach users sign language by using AI to analyze photos users upload of their signs, and indicating whether the user’s sign is correct for the desired word. Disaster struck on Sunday morning when the team lost all their unsaved training on the AI—which was responsible for mapping hand signs—due to a wifi interruption. This setback meant the team was unable to demo their project at judging or during closing ceremonies.

In an interview with The Tribune, Bessam emphasized that although the team was unable to present the functional version of their project, the concept behind FluentFingers was crucial to their success.

“It was really the implementation of the ideas,” Bessam said. “Because we took a lot of time just asking ourselves, what could help the community and not only the hackathon [….] So when we came up with the Duolingo hand sign idea, it was really great.”

In addition to first, second, and third place prizes, hackers compete for a variety of awards from sponsors, as well as superlative prizes such as “Best Useless Hack.” According to Yun, something that makes McHacks unique is that it caters to participants of multiple skill levels, including beginners. Yun explained that superlative prizes play a role in keeping the competition engaging for beginner programmers.

“I think it’s much more encouraging to have all these different prizes, because you don’t necessarily have to have the best product and the most innovative idea,” Yun said. “You can still have lots of fun and get rewarded for the time that you put into all of [your] work.”

Enkai Liu and Jason He won the “Best Design” superlative award for their project Rizzmo, an application that allows users to explore a coral reef to learn more about the ecosystem. For Liu and He, first time McHacks competitors and Grade 11 students from Waterloo, Ontario, a highlight of the event was the opportunity to speak to McHacks mentors—volunteers who circulate and offer assistance to Hackers during the competition. 

“I think for us, the mentors were emotional support,” Liu told The Tribune after closing ceremonies. 

Team members Annaliese Bissel, U1 ArtSci, and Guan Xi Liu, U1 Science, acknowledged the stressful nature of the competition, but also spoke to a feeling of camaraderie that comes from the experience. 

“For me, I think it’s actually just being able to be part of a large community of people trying to work towards the same thing,” Liu said in an interview with The Tribune.

“Yeah, all the RedBull on the table and the chargers everywhere, it’s like the same as an exam season,” Bissel added. “You know, we’re just among all the other people in Redpath at 12 a.m.” 

The same sentiment was echoed by the team of Mohammad Shaheer Bilal, U4 Engineering, and Filip Snítil, U2 Science, and Daniel Blackburn, U1 Engineering. Like many teams, at the time of their interview with The Tribune they were encountering issues getting their project up and running. Despite their setbacks, the team expressed that they enjoyed the event and learned from the experience—encapsulating an attitude that many hackers shared over the course of this long, eventful weekend.

“We’re probably not going to win, because we haven’t figured it out by now,” Snítil said. “And nothing works. But it’s fine. It’s a good experience. I had way too much caffeine.”

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