Fourth annual ‘Hack the U’ hackathon draws big crowds for big prizes

SALT LAKE CITY — Computer science students from across the country took part in the fourth annual "Hack the U" hackathon on Saturday and Sunday.

More than 400 students from about 60 colleges, including ones in Utah, were all crammed into a room with the same mission — to dream big and win bigger.

All of those taking part entered as teams, with some being first-timers and others having previous hackathon experience.

Together, each team comes up with a project that they have to bring to life and present to the judges to see if it’s worthy of the grand prizes.

They include a high-end gaming system and four Oculus Quest virtual reality (VR) devices for the winning teams.

The ideas range from apps, virtual reality-based games, and improvements to existing technology.

Here are the results of the hackathon:

  • 1st place - SAR Coordinator: A search and rescue coordinator app.
  • 2nd place - Beethoven: Live transcription software for the deaf & hard-of-hearing.
  • 3rd place - Parle: An interface that sends and receives text messages between users, translating the messages into the preferred language of those who receive them.

Last year, the winning team came up with something called "Pay with your face" — an app that would scan the user's face and use facial recognition to authenticate the payment.

Prince Mugisha was just one of the many hackathon participants. He moved from Zambia to the U.S. in 2008 and says this experience means a lot to him.

“Thinking back 10 years ago coming to the United States, I never really had a computer, never really had experience with anything that, to me, only happens in the movies," he said. "Now I get to build things from the ground up."

Clay Wilkes, the CEO and founder of the Utah-based tech company Galileo, says it's about more than just prizes.

“The demand for technology jobs is outstripping our ability to educate right now. We see technology companies moving in from California and we need more [as well as] a better ability to educate for the demand because it’s not slowing down,” Wilkes said.

There's potential for the computer science students to get picked up by tech companies and even offered jobs, all because of the talents they showcased at the hackathon.

There's also a chance that what the students came up with at the event becomes the next big thing.

“It all starts with an idea. We have all the tools to enact it. The next Venmo, the next Chime, the next Varo is in this room,” Mugisha said.

More information about the event can be found at hacktheu.org.

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