Los Altos Hacks hands out hardware to students

Courtesy of Selynna Sun
Local students compete against one another at a hackathon held at Microsoft Corp.’s Mountain View campus last month.

High school students from throughout Silicon Valley built everything from a virtual-reality system to a virtual-coding assistant at the inaugural Los Altos Hacks, held last month in Mountain View.

The hackathon, organized by Los Altos High School students, was open to aspiring programmers of all levels. The goal of the event was not only to encourage students to build their own projects, according to Los Altos High senior Selynna Sun, but also to teach beginner coders basic programming skills.

Sun served as sponsorship director of the event, which took place Jan. 30 and 31 at Microsoft Corp.’s Mountain View campus. She organized Los Altos Hacks with sophomore classmates and event tech directors Justin Yu and Dan Appel, along with outreach director Aashia Mehta, a junior.

The team had to find sponsors to fund the hackathon, which proved challenging.

“(It was hard because) there is not the same amount of benefits we can offer, compared to some of the collegiate hackathons,” said Sun, who still managed to land Microsoft, Google Inc., Samsung Group, LinkedIn Corp. and GitHub Inc. as sponsors.

Software giant Microsoft and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers were among the companies that donated prizes to the winning teams at the hackathon.

The first-place team won Dell Venue tablets for its project, KinectVR. The coders combined the Kinect, a motion sensor device, and the Occulus, a virtual-reality mechanism, to create an immersive virtual-reality experience. The winning team included Los Altos High students Cole Brinsfield, Ankith Uppunda and Nathan Larson.

The team behind Reizoko, a project that generates recipes based off of pictures of items in a refrigerator, placed second and received Octocat figurines from GitHub.

Coders who developed Stats- Engine, a search engine for statistics, placed third.

The hackathon judges, comprising engineers from several high-tech companies, also handed out four specialty awards: Best Use of Microsoft Technologies, Best Social Good Hack, Best Use of Amazon Web Services and Best Use of

Bitcoin Benefactor – a project created by Los Altos High students Bianca Champenois, Jim Hollingworth and Brad Guesman – won the Best Social Good Hack award, making them an automatic finalist in the 2016 Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Fellows Program. Bitcoin Benefactor allows the user to role-play as a philanthropist in an effort to show the user that giving is just as good as getting.

Learning experience

In addition to the competition, Los Altos Hacks provided a learning experience for many of the participants by offering workshops that ranged from beginner to advanced difficulty.

“There was one (workshop) that taught how to program a game using machine learning,” said Sun, who added that it’s an advanced topic.

Los Altos Hacks also provided mentors to help teams facing technical difficulties.

“We had a lot of people from a giant Facebook group called Hackathon Hackers,” Sun said. “We also had some organizers from previous hackathons come in and help.”

The hackathon aimed to embody the hack culture by featuring several quirky activities, including a lightsaber fight that Yu called “the coolest part of the event.”

Planning for Los Altos Hacks began in August, as organizers met once a week – at least in the beginning.

“Once we got closer to the hackathon, it became twice a week – and we met for four hours the night before,” Mehta said.

The team hopes to organize another Los Altos Hacks next year, with the ultimate goal of making it an annual event.

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