Irvine Auditorium looks like the Quad at Fling when I arrive at 6 p.m. on Friday — if sunglasses were replaced with Google Glass and hip flasks with SodaStream bottles.
I’m here to shadow last year’s returning champs from University of California, Berkeley. Their plane, which is flying in from California, hasn’t landed yet. When they arrive, they will be thrown into a frenzied 38-hour competition for over $17,000 worth of prizes, not including sponsored prizes like SoundCloud’s all-expense-paid Berlin trip.
Richie Zeng, one of the hackers, texts me on Friday evening to come to the classroom they’re sharing with teams from UCLA. Pizza plates are everywhere. Someone has written “Go Bears!” in huge letters on the chalkboard.
Zeng introduces me to the team — Jian Wei Leong, Nikita Kitaev, and Nelson Zhang, all juniors at Berkeley.
“We don’t know what we’re doing yet,” Zeng admits. Leong is gunning for his synthetic mustache idea — facial hair that lets you control when the beat “drops” in a song. Zhang wants to build a smart belt that has built-in wifi and a phone charger.
“My crotch is a Wi-Fi hotspot, baby,” someone says in response to the idea.
They finally decide to build a tabletop assistant which responds to voice commands, displays messages, finds objects and takes photos of documents and uploads them to Dropbox.
At once the atmosphere turns intense. Kitaev scribbles schematics on the board while ideas are rapidly suggested and thrown out. Zhang’s specialty is hardware, and he lugs a huge black case filled with robotic parts out of nowhere as they argue over what features they will have time to build.
From here on, they have less than 35 hours to make “something awesome.”
I return early the next morning to see people slumped over everywhere — under tables, curled up on chairs, shivering next to unopened cans of Red Bull. The air conditioning is brutal, and only a prescient few brought sleeping bags. Kitaev and Leong are still awake from the previous night. They have propped a webcam on a tower of salvaged cardboard boxes and are typing furiously.
After about an hour, Nikita stands up and stretches. “I’m going to sleep,” he says. It’s 8:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Some time later, the webcam was eventually removed from its tower of cardboard and attached to a lamp — inspired by the iconic Pixar mascot. It also gained a name, “Spot.” Leong and Zeng work to teach object recognition by placing trash and office supplies under the webcam.
By the end of second night, Spot is still missing voice recognition and a host of other abilities. No one’s slept for more than a few hours or taken a shower or eaten anything other than pizza, but they agree to push through until time runs out.
I come back the next morning to find that Spot has sprouted colorful wires, 3D printed hinges and a text display. Leong begins filming the demo, but Spot is refusing to play along. “Where’s my Arduino [chip]?” Kitaev asks, first calmly, then nervously as Spot does not respond.
“I created you!” Richie half-jokes, shaking his fist. Spot still does not respond.
Spot finally responds to Nikita’s plea, “Where’s my pen?” but still refuses to find the Arduino chip.
The team submits their demo at the last minute on Sunday morning. The tension in the room, palpable since the competition began, lifts. However, the outcome is still uncertain.
Sunday afternoon, I hear back from Leong. They didn’t make the top 20 this year.
But they’re not going home empty-handed, as Leong reminds me with a bit of humor. “At least we walk home with what is possibly the world’s most high tech table lamp.”
A previous version of the article had Berkley in the headline. It has been changed to reflect the name Berkeley.
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