Nick Brown sat amidst the crowd at Davis Hall’s Agrusa Auditorium on Sunday, eyes weary and drumming his hands in anticipation.
His gaze caught those around him, fixed on Rebecca Ramhap, a sophomore in computer science and co-director of UB Hacking, as she prepared to crown the winner of the UB Hacking 2022 contest.
The drum roll rumbled to a crescendo. Then Ramhap spoke. The entire room seemed to turn its gaze to Brown, and erupted in applause and congratulations as the computer science student’s expression morphed into a delighted, if weary, smile.
UB Hacking 2022, an annual 24-hour computer engineering competition hosted by the UB Hacking Club, ran from last Saturday through this Sunday. Teams of up to four participants were tasked with writing code based on a computer concept or problem of their choice and had to submit it to an open-source public repository in less than a day. The event – sponsored by M&T Bank, Stark & Wayne LLC and Blackstone Launchpad – included the hackathon and the preceding career fair.
A total of 46 projects had been submitted by the Sunday noon closing date, all of which are vying for a $6,500 prize pool cut and other individual honors. After the submissions were completed, the participants presented their projects to a jury made up of organizers. Each project was judged on creativity, usefulness, technical challenge, and polish.
“I’m very tired. I’ve only got two hours of sleep left,” Brown said after accepting his award. “It’s unreal. I’m very happy. I had to do everything I wanted to do, to the tee.”
Brown’s major work, niceCream, won first place, earning him an accompanying check for $1,500. As a one-man team, Brown developed a “proof of concept” for cryogenically freezing system memory to read stored data on another system. Before his experiment, the phenomenon had only been observed in a laboratory-controlled setting.
“Water Gun Fill-Up Game,” an interactive game parodying the water gun shooter race designed by leading computer engineering majors Dean Radlauer, Gabriel Yengle, Avi Tombak and Austin Reichert, snatched the $1,000 prize -dollars for second place. Instead of a jet of water, players shoot a laser from a Nerf gun at a phototransistor embedded in a hole target.
“HappyMeal,” an AI-powered food preservation application, won third place and a $500 prize from computer science students Saj Maru and Tanuja Joshi. The couple cited their shock at the amount of leftover food waste at UB and across the country following the recent CDS outbreak. Their solution was to build an app that connects restaurants with leftovers to people who need a meal.
The remaining prize pool was split among several additional sponsored prizes, including the UB Hacking Best Freshman Hack, UB Hacking Failure to Launch Prize, and UB Hacking Spirit of the Hackathon Prize, each worth $500.
Max Farrington, co-director of UB Hacking and junior computer scientist, says the event is a worthwhile opportunity for all UB students.
“There are people signing up for the hackathon from all sorts of majors, and not all of them are in STEM, no matter what you might think,” Farrington said. “As long as you have an idea, you can use that time to figure out how to make it a reality.”
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Prior to the event, attendees also had the opportunity to network with representatives from sponsoring companies and other industry experts during a careers fair. Lecturers and hackathon alumni floated through the workspace to help attendees and hold informational workshops while they worked.
Two canisters of liquid nitrogen, a stick of RAM, two motherboards, and some basic ice cream ingredients were all it took to probe a potential cybersecurity flaw in established notions of data erasure, says Brown, who is eerily aware of the potentially nefarious uses his program promotes could.
“You basically do what I showed you [freezing data], or you’re a malicious attacker trying to get an encryption key for a storage device from running memory,” he said. “So unfortunately the place where this would be implemented is not the best.”
But Brown claims the concept itself is still intriguing enough to pursue.
“It [RAM] works like a capacitor where you have to fill up a charge and keep updating it to keep the data as you expect it to be,” Brown said. “My hypothesis was that if you cryogenically freeze it, you could turn off the power, physically remove the RAM, put it in another system and read it back and get most of all the data back out of it.”
Brown says he owes a debt of gratitude to the organizers of the event, who made the experience as special as it was.
“I’m very grateful, especially for the event staff who have been more than accommodating of me, like the fact that I could bring liquid nitrogen – it’s great, I’m very pleased,” said Brown.
First semester computer science major and spectrum Echoing the sentiment, staff writer Shreyas Sridhar called the event a positive experience.
“This is my second time [entering the competition] and it’s the first time in spring, so it’s a little different experience,” Sridhar said. “But it’s a very welcoming group and it’s quite a lot of fun. It’s very challenging.”
Sridhar teamed up with Ria Gupta, another freshman computer science student spectrum Staff Writer and Eric Xie to develop Rate My Courses, a website designed to streamline course selection specifically for UB computer science majors.
“I think the most important thing is that you can work as a team,” Sridhar said. “Most software development involves working with other people. We learn how to adapt to other people, how we work together.”
Many contestants, like Brown, chose to compete alone. William Krasnov, a computer scientist major, worked alone on Media Mogul, a scanner or submission-based index that identifies media content such as movies and TV shows. This was his second hackathon, but it was his first time doing it alone.
“It’s a lot more stressful than being on a team. You have to do all the work,” Krasnov said of his lonely night’s sleep — barring a 7am nap. “I mean, it was really fun. But it was stressful. After midnight it’s just work and it gets exhausting. But it’s a good experience.”
Krasnov says that working solo doesn’t have to mean missing out on the benefits of attending the hackathon, and he gave UB students some advice for next semester’s competition:
“Honestly, there’s no idea that’s too small, no matter what [projects] come to the hackathon,” said Krasnov. “There’s always amazing conferences and stuff for presentations, you get the chance to network and talk to so many others, like teams and groups and companies.”
Sridhar echoed this sentiment and also advised the students not to be intimidated by their expectations.
“There are people who know absolutely everything about extremely complicated subjects, and they build really complicated programs, and there will be people who build pretty basic things like me,” Sridhar said. “Nobody judges you by that; it’s about having fun and learning.”
Krasnov says there’s no harm in auditing the experience either.
“Personally, I would recommend most students to just go to one. You don’t have to commit 24/7,” Krasnov said. “Check it out and maybe if you feel like it, do something cool.”
Planning for the fall iteration of the UB Hacking 2022 event is underway, according to Farrington.
For a full gallery of award winners and project submissions, see UB Hacking Spring 2022 Devpost Site.
For the latest event updates, visit the https://www.ubhacking.com/ or on Instagram (@ubhacking).
Kyle Nguyen is Assistant News/Features Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kyle Nguyen is Associate News/Features Editor at The Spectrum.
Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Oliva