HackMIT: Hack to the Future

In the past couple of months, UnifyID has been busy attending university hackathons at MIT and UC Berkeley. What this means is hours and hours of non-stop hacking, but it also means unlimited snacks, mini midnight workouts, and lots of young, passionate coders working to create impactful projects.

On September 16, John Whaley flew to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend HackMIT: Hack to the Future where he had the opportunity to meet more than 1500 students from all different universities. Representing a16z, John participated in a fireside chat where he covered a variety of topics including what it’s like to work in a startup, choosing industry versus graduate school, and building a company on machine learning. He discussed the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, team-building, fundraising, and more, as students picked his brain about technical topics and career advice. Later, John was able to speak more in depth during his tech talk about UnifyID and identifying individuals based on gait. Students were deeply interested in the problem UnifyID is trying to solve as well as the impact and intellectual aspect of UnifyID’s approach to the issue.

John poses with a16z representative Nigel at HackMIT.

Aside from his fireside chat and tech talk, John had the opportunity to mentor hackers in their own projects. His favorite part was meeting and interacting with all of the students, seeing their ambition, passion, and genuine interest in the projects that they were working on. He also enjoyed the intense energy in the arena, choosing to stay and mentor hackers until 3am.

After 24 hours of hard work and non stop hacking at MIT, many groups of students presented their projects. Projects covered a wide range of topics from virtual reality games to homework-help mobile applications. Even though John had been to plenty of hackathons in the past, he was still amazed by the caliber and level of innovation that the students were able to reach in their projects. The first place prize ended up going to a group of students who created Pixelator, “a simple product that sharpens blurry images without a lot of code.”

Cal Hacks 4.0

A few weeks later, on October 6, Andres Castaneda crossed the Bay to attend Cal Hacks 4.0 at the UC Berkeley Stadium. With nearly 1500 students listening, he gave a presentation about UnifyID’s Android SDK and API, receiving a positive response from students who believed it was a revolutionary idea. Similar to John at MIT, Andres also had the opportunity to mentor up-and-coming hackers. For 36 hours, he helped students solve technical challenges as they competed for over $100,000 in prizes, including UnifyID’s contribution: a $300 Amazon giftcard and a Rick and Morty card game.

Based on the level of positive impact, innovation, and technical difficulty, the winning hack for UnifyID’s prize was Safescape, a mobile application that analyzes real-time news articles and alerts people in areas of “non-safe” events. It uses UnifyID’s Android SDK to validate individuals on the application. Inspired by the recent natural and terror crises occurring globally, Safescape also provides those in danger with potential escape routes, allows them to alert others around them, and contains a simple way to contact loved ones.

Andres’ favorite part about participating in Cal Hacks was “seeing people build a product from 0 to 1 in 36 hours.” He also found it hilarious that many students brought sleeping bags and threw them on the floor for intermittent opportunities to take naps.

Andres poses with mentees and previous UnifyID interns Aditya and Michael.

UnifyID is a strong supporter of hackathons because they provide great opportunities to connect with university students. Witnessing the high caliber of work accomplished at these events, UnifyID is inspired by young hackers who are truly passionate about making an impact in the world. These students represent a large diversity of talent from all different schools and backgrounds and are able to demonstrate what students are interested in nowadays. Additionally, hackathons allow UnifyID the chance to give back to the community. They are not only learning opportunities for up-and-coming hackers, but they also help UnifyID to understand how to cater to students’ interests and needs. After 2 hackathons in the span of one month, UnifyID is channeling its focus back to the day-to-day for now; however, we cannot wait for the next one!

UnifyID @ HackMIT

I just got back from HackMIT, and what a crazy, intense experience it was. For those who don’t know, HackMIT is a 24-hour hackathon with over 1,000 students from all over the country and the world, all hacking on some very cool stuff. I was on the judging panel as well as acted as a mentor, helping students debug issues with a wide variety of technologies like node.js/Express, cocoapods and Swift 3, Ethereum smart contracts, Angular and Javascript, 502 errors on HTTP requests, and a bunch of other issues. A few students came up to me after they recognized UnifyID from our TechCrunch video and wanted to take photos together.

I met a lot of great students from all over the US, Europe, and South America. I also gave a tech talk where we demonstrated our implicit authentication technology in action with a volunteer from the audience. Being a technical crowd, I was able to dive deep into the technical aspects with some of the actual data in a Jupyter notebook. People were amazed by some of the unique aspects to human movement and how much information you can get from the accelerometer and gyroscope in your phone!

HackMIT had tons of free food/drinks/activities. They had no soft drinks because they were encouraged to avoid unhealthy drinks, but they had plenty of Red Bull (?). And unlimited Soylent, too. Plus food/snacks at all hours of the day and night, like fresh smoothies at midnight and hot waffles with chocolate in the morning. And crazy activities like the 2am shakedown and the 7 minute workout outside in the wee hours of the morning.

Many/most teams stayed up all night hacking. There was a wide variance in hacking ability but the top teams were truly astonishing in what they were able to build in 24 hours. All of the top ten were amazing and it was hard to choose.


The ultimate winner was “WindowShare”. They built an awesome cross-platform tool where you can drag any window between computers and it seamlessly copies the program’s file and opens it on the other machine. Like if you open a text file in TextEdit on a Mac, you can drag the window over and the contents appear in a Notepad window on the Windows machine. Likewise for images and Chrome windows/tabs. They also implemented remote mouse so you could move your mouse on the other screen as well and control it without messing up the original mouse. They implemented in Java with JNI and socket communication.

The runner-up was a book-reading bot that used the phone, OCR, and text-to-speech to read (physical) books aloud. It also used a motorized mechanism including a computer fan to reliably turn pages.

We also added a honorable mention: “Fretless”, an MIT team that built a Guitar Hero like contraption that hooks to your violin. It takes a MIDI file and lights up where you are supposed to press your fingers so you can learn how to play real songs.

All of the top ten projects were amazing and the teams got a ton done in 24 hours! To everyone who participated, I say “Hack on!”