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Students participate in three-day hackathon

By PAIGE FRANK | February 23, 2017

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Courtesy of Simon enagonio The SpeechPortal team won first place at HopHacks for creating an app that helps users memorize speeches.

This past Friday, 300 entrepreneurs, coders and engineers marched into Hodson Hall to begin a weekend-long event called HopHacks. HopHacks is a semesterly event at which students work on a team to create, or hack, a new app, device or idea. Attendees came not only from within the Hopkins community, but also from other universities.

The event involves workshops, a keynote speaker and then hours and hours of hacking. Students must work within the three-day time period to complete their project. At the end, first, second and third place prizes are given out to the top three projects produced. Students from any university are eligible to participate. For those coming from outside of Hopkins, food is provided throughout the event as well as places to sleep.

The event culminates with presentations and demonstrations from the top 10 projects as well as the recognition of the first, second and third place winners. Some of the projects in the top 10 included devices like MAVI, a mobile assistant for the visually impaired that helps its user with everyday tasks such as knowing when to cross the road.

Adaptive Aud.io and Viano were two other top-10 devices. Adaptive Aud.io is an app that turns down the volume of music playing when people are speaking and then returns the volume to normal level when conversation stops.

Viano was awarded an honorable mention. The app generates new classical music for the user. Other devices included a text translator to convert foreign comics into English and EyeSee, a device that can identify objects and read text.

Prize money was awarded to the first, second and third place winners. Third place went to Threatsync, an app designed to compile threatening Internet security information for companies to enable cooperation in the battle against malicious internet IPs.

The second-place winner was Nexus, an app that helps to find mutual connections among entities such as companies or influential people. The app analyzes large data sets to find as many common connections as possible.

First place went to an app called SpeechPortal. The app is designed to aid those hoping to memorize speeches by utilizing a virtual world, memory cues and occasional reminders, and it won the grand prize of $1,024.

SpeechPortal was created by a team of four students. In total, the team spent almost 60 hours coding, testing and creating their final device. The device creates a virtual world based around items in the user’s speech. As the user practices giving their speech they are taken throughout the virtual world. Visual cues become associated with lines of the speech expediting the memorization process.

Inspiration for the device came from the team’s personal experiences.

“As a college student who has had to give speeches in the past to defend school programs and spread awareness about causes that were meaningful to me, I strongly believe that everyone should have the essential human ability to be able to speak to others,” Kevin Chen, SpeechPortal team member, said.

He recognized that memorizing a speech is often difficult, tedious and boring and thus set out to create a better method.

“The app uses a novel webVR speech training platform that operates around the concept of a memory palace (a technique that takes advantage of spatial memory), to make learning a speech easy, efficient and accessible for anyone with a smartphone,” Chen said.

This was not Chen’s first hackathon. He had participated in MedHacks, the Hopkins medical hackathon in the fall, as well as one other prior to the event, so he was well prepared for the circumstances.

Students participating in hackathons are at the location for the entire weekend, sometimes without leaving. Areas in the building are thus provided for sleeping throughout the event. Chen, however, has his own solution to find rest during the chaotic weekend.

“Bring a sleeping pad. Also, dedicated sleeping rooms can be hard to sleep in because of loud snorers, so my preferred solution is to just sleep in the room you’re hacking in and then find some cardboard box to put around your head (to block out light and sound),” Chen said.

Chen and his team hope to continue their project as they move forward. Plans include expanding the breadth of what the device can help with from memorizing speeches to memorizing molecules for a chemistry class or learning a new language.

Lastly, Chen has some advice for new hackers.

“Don’t limit your creativity just because you don’t have the right equipment or because you think you don’t know enough to make it.”

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