What is a ‘Hackathon’?
The idea behind a hackathon is to work with other developers to code/hack new digital features or product prototypes in a short (and intense) period of time. Hackathons will often run overnight and developers work together to maintain their focus and momentum with the help of caffeinated and alcoholic drinks! Not all that healthy but strangely productive. After a night of coding all teams present their hacks the next morning.
Parse By The Sea
Parse By The Sea was organised and hosted by Facebook and took place inside the Brighton Dome last Thursday and Friday. The event was sponsored by Parse, Unity, Pusher, Deezer and Withings. There was no fixed brief for the hack apart from a mobile theme. But all of the sponsors were offering great tech prizes to the best hacks that used their APIs with an overall winners prize from Facebook and Parse.
I’ve never attended a hackathon before but have recently discovered just how popular they are. Internally Facebook hosts a hackathon every 6 weeks and gives it’s in-house software engineers a chance to hack away on new ideas that apparently often end up becoming fully fledged features on Facebook.com or in their various mobile apps.
With Parse By The Sea Facebook decided to open up their regular hack to external Developers: Developers from all around the UK and Europe, Computer Science Students and in-house Facebook Software Engineers.
There was a fairly even mix of iOS, Android, Unity, Web and Server-Side Developers. In advance of the Hackathon Facebook setup a group for us all where we could start to share ideas and build teams. The ideas started to flow in and initial teams started to form.
An Idea and a Team
Initially I had an idea to build a multiplayer iOS word game using Parse and Pusher where four players would all compete with the same set of letters to form the longest words. All players would see each others game points in realtime creating a very competitive and fun multiplayer game. I was initially quite fixed on this idea. But you’ve only got about 14 hours of code time so an idea like this was optimistic/ambitious.
After the various sponsors had presented their APIs it was 7pm and dinner was served. I started to mingle with other developers at the Hack and met fellow iOS Developer Ben and Android Whizz Jose – also a big thanks to Adam from Pusher who knocked up a simple Node.js server-side for us in about 5 minutes!
We were chatting about our various hack ideas and one of Ben’s ideas was to create a photo app where multiple users could contribute photos to shared albums. This idea really resonated with me. I’m half American and every few years I travel the the US to catch up with my extensive US family. At these family reunions there are often 50 or more family members. Everyone is taking snaps on their smart phones and capturing these special moments. But then what? How do we share these photos just with the family members? There are a number of ways to do this with tools like Dropbox or uploading the photos to Facebook and assigning access permissions. But both of these methods requires all members of the family to sign up to the respective service and both methods require a certain amount of effort by all the photographers to share.
So the idea then developed into an app that would work on both iOS and Android. An app which would connect multiple users and enable them to create and contribute to multiple shared photo albums. As users took photos those photos would update across all connected user’s devices in realtime (instantly).
And that’s just what we built in 14 hours. 2 native apps (iOS and Android) that shared data via Parse and hooked into a simple Pusher backend to instantly stream in new photos as soon as they were saved to Parse. We initially named the app Shared Photos which then became Frictionless Photo Sharing – neither were particularly inspiring names but hey it was 5am FFS!
I’d never met Ben and Jose before the Facebook Hack but we really connected and gelled as a team. It was amazing to work with such talented Developers and the enthusiasm for our product stayed alive throughout the night. None of us got a wink of sleep! There were beds to sleep in and as we passed 4am, 5am, 6am the urge to sleep got greater. But there was a communal sense that we were building something super cool and we all wanted to make it as good as it could be by day break. So we just kept on ploughing on, beer, Redbull and jokes aflowing
At one point Jose chucked some tenuous(!) link to the Deezer API into the Android version of the app – connecting a music track to each photo just for kicks – well anything to add a shot at more API prizes! The guys next to us were building something in Unity and we considered adding a few pics of their app into ours just to make the Unity connection… lol
There were some really cool hacks and such a variety of ideas. Here are a few examples:
- Too uber geeks decided they’d write a compiler – well why not!
- The team next to ours created a 3D sound game in Unity for blind users.
- One developer created a drag’n’drop music game that split Deezer tracks into multiple segments, randomised the order and players had to rearrange and rebuild the tune – awesome idea!
- Flapdoodle was another memorable hack – an app for party hosts that used Facebook and Deezer APIs to auto-build party playlists from your friend’s music tastes. An especially nice touch was the friend’s face rotating on a record during playback – so that everyone would know just who was responsible for choosing Justin Bieber!
Each team only had just 2 minutes to present. With our hack it was all about the demo. The idea was simple but seeing as we’d used Frictionless in the title of our app I was hoping that the presentation would follow suit!
While Ben and Jose presented the idea and UI on screen I wondered around taking snaps of the audience on my iPhone which instantly streamed into Ben’s version of the app hooked up to the monitor. It’s not that tricky to implement this sort of thing but it makes for a really cool live demo
Initially we were a bit gutted not to pick up any of the sponsor prizes but our dissapointment was short-lived when Jim announced that the overall hack winners were Frictionless Photo Sharing! It took us a minute or 2 to remember that was us!!
We won Parse and Pusher Pro accounts which is super-cool as it ultimately means that we can potentially develop our prototype into a product and ship it without incurring hosting costs for the foreseeable future.
Hacking the Future
I had such an amazing first hackathon experience and working with such talented and enthusiastic teammates enhanced the experience even further. Bring on the next one!