36 hours of unbridled creativity

This weekend, participants in Hack Illinois will try to show off high-tech prowess for bragging rights, as well as some cash, prizes

Laptops: Check.

Backpacks: Check.

4,300 cans of Red Bull: Check.

This weekend, hundreds of college students and a few high schoolers have set up camp in the Siebel Center for Computer Science at the University of Illinois for Hack Illinois.

"It's like a giant sleepover, except instead of watching movies, we code," said organizer Matt Dierker, a junior in computer science at the UI.

Hackathons are not about illegally hacking into computer networks. They're about students building apps, writing programs and creating other tech-related devices over a 36-hour period. Companies like Facebook and Yahoo have sponsored hackathons, and schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have hosted them.

Final products can be useful or purely for fun, Dierker said. At the PennApps hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this year, the winning team developed a homework machine that writes answers in the user's own handwriting.

About 750 students are expected at Hack Illinois. They come from the UI, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and more than a dozen other schools.

More than twice that many students applied, but organizers had to limit the number of participants. They'll have teams in every single classroom and conference room in Siebel and some in the nearby Digital Computing Laboratory.

The hacking began at 10 p.m. Friday and will continue until 10 a.m. Sunday.

"One night (of staying up) is OK, but two days without sleep is pretty hard. Most will plan to sleep or they will just pass out," Dierker said.

Organizers have purchased about 65 air mattresses, and participants will receive a "Hack Illinois"-branded pillow. A "sleep room" comes with a star projector.

As at other hackathons, participants this weekend will compete for thousands of dollars of prizes. There are cash awards (the Hack Illinois first prize is $1,500), gadgets from companies (like Samsung tablets) and some more unusual ones (Skype time with UI graduate and YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim).

Sponsors include the software company Interactive Intelligence, IMO (Intelligent Medical Objects), the smartwatch maker pebble, Bloomberg, Groupon, nuestar and many more. Companies also will be giving away prizes.

Plus, students "can also get a job out of it," Dierker said.

Some sponsors will have staff attending the event and interviewing possible job candidates onsite.

A "preposterous amount" of food and drinks will be handed out, including 2,300 cookies to be delivered from Insomnia Cookies.

And as a respite from the mad code writing expected to take place over the 36 hours, organizers have planned several events. There will be a Nerf gun war, a hologram workshop, a tour of the Blue Waters supercomputer and a "hacksure the flag" game. Service dogs will visit, allowing participants to de-stress by petting the animals.

"It's been a blast to prepare," Dierker said.

Around mid-day on Sunday, there will be a science fair type of expo, and the judges, which include UI faculty and alumni, will review the final products and present the awards.

The event is entirely run by two student groups at the UI — ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, and WCS, Women in Computer Science. It's their first time putting on such an event, Dierker said.

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