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The City That Codes, Wires, Geeks-out: Welcome to the Hackathon, Hon.

Mark Houston works on a project during Hackathon - Arianne Teeple
Mark Houston works on a project during Hackathon - Arianne Teeple
"Is it weird that my body gives off a sine wave?" says Rob Miller, an engineer. He's testing a piece of electronics equipment in a conference room at the Emerging Technology Center in Canton, where seventy-odd geeks are working on projects in the first ever Baltimore Hackathon. It's a sort of sped-up, high-tech science fair for adults. With cash prizes.

From six p.m. Friday to six p.m. Sunday, November 1921, attendees known as "hackers" are trying to bring a technological creation from idea to prototype or as close as they can. At the end of the weekend, a panel of judges will pick the winners.

Mostly twenty and thirty-somethings, the hackers are gadget-building hobbyists, professional programmers, and students. They're spread out on tables covered by six-packs and coffee cups, laptops, wires, and tools, knocking around project ideas and sharing their expertise. The atmosphere is decidedly Baltimore; computer-speak t-shirts reference local tech events ("Bmore on Rails") and someone has covered the "t" on the Hackathon banner so it reads "Hacka-hon."

Instead of staying open for forty-eight hours as originally planned, by midnight on Friday the crowd is tired and a decision is made to close up and reopen at eight in the morning, a process that repeats on Saturday. The free food, provided all weekend from local restaurant Puffs & Pastries, is incentive to make it back in time for breakfast.

Miller, who came alone, has set up a small workshop in the middle of what has become the hardware room. Nearby, someone solders above an empty pizza box, dropping liquid solder until the box starts smoking. A hacker at the next table lends him a stand to keep the solder iron off the cardboard. Open to spontaneous collaboration, Miller has taped a paper plate to his tool box that reads in black marker: Spare meat: will work on cool projects. He claims the T.V. show "Battlebots" is what got him "into this stuff."

He's in good company. The others represent sundry eclectic interests. Ted O'Meara is writing a program to turn output from brain waves into visual art. Adam Bachman and Zach Waugh are making the "laterlist," a way for a person surfing the web to keep track of items he or she wants to remember. Brent Frederick is working with a few representatives of the Hackathon's largest sponsor, Tropo, to develop a blog transcription service that works via phone the caller simply dials a number, says "I want to post this to my blog," speaks, and the service posts the words.

Two had met only on Twitter before the event. They spend the weekend working on their iPhone and iPad projects side by side. Neither has had time to work on their ideas until now.

Indeed, the opportunity to set everything aside and focus on a pet project seems to be a big draw. Many hackers consider continuing work after this weekend, but most agree that they'll be satisfied simply by making progress. "It's kind of like itch-scratching," says Bachman.

And then Sunday afternoon arrives. Each group has five minutes to present to the judges and a crowd of friends and family. At the last minute, sponsor Millenial Media doubles the prizes, making the biggest awards, for group projects, $700 each. The results?

For individuals, the hardware prize goes to Miller, who has created an elaborate circuit board of guitar effects, which he demonstrates while playing Iggy Pop. Ray Wenderlich's project, an interactive book for the iPad, wins in software. As he reads aloud the fable of "The Crow and the Pitcher," he moves the illustrations around with his fingers. Two children in the front row sit entranced.

A team from the Harford Hackerspace takes the group prize in hardware. Their RotoFoto project uses a regular digital camera and a lazy Susan built from spare wood and a JC Penney cutting board to take pictures of an object from all sides. Then the images are put together so that it can be turned and viewed in all 360 degrees on a computer screen, all at a fraction of the usual cost. The group software prize goes to the "Headline Split Test," a WordPress plugin that picks the best headline for a blog post. During a trial period, two choices flip-flop and the one with the most clicks becomes the permanent title.

The last award, "Audience Favorite," goes to a project that uses a camera, a nickel, and a 3D printer, which is a box-like robot that spits out plastic, layer by layer, to form a particular shape. In this case,  Amy Hurst and Marty McGuire wrote software that looks at a picture of a hand with a nickel on it and compares the relative widths of the nickel and finger to size a ring. Then the printer makes it. The duo even included options to embellish the rings with miniature hats or mustaches.

Excitement over, the hackers and volunteers begin cleaning up. A few lament about the task of sorting out whose tools are whose in the chaos left in the hardware room. They are exhausted some estimate that the event used over 1,500 hours of manpower.

But still, as the final beers are finished and trash bags filled, talk is already in the air about the next Baltimore Hackathon.


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Photos by Arianne Teeple

- Mark Houston works on a project during Hackathon
- Hackathon co-organizers Matthew Forr and Jonathon Julian
- A makeshift sign at Hackathon
- Brent Frederick, John Dyer, and Mark Headd work on a web application software
- Rob Miller works on building a synthesizer
- Hackathon was held at beehive Baltimore
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