Every year, mobile-development firm Bottle Rocket does what sounds at first like some sort of reality show: The Dallas-based company hosts a 24-hour hackathon. Teams from every discipline of the company, including engineering, quality assurance, finance, and business development, gather to brainstorm, collaborate, and implement ideas for projects that reach beyond the scope of its normal client work. Energy drinks and a steady stream of snacks, not to mention a 2 a.m. taco run, fuel the Rocketeers through the night. After a full calendar day, the sleepy but passionate and enthused group of makers presents and votes on the projects.
What could possibly come out of such an event?
For starters, one group this year built a peer-challenge fitness app that allows users to challenge each other to a race, a burpee challenge, or any number of other customized contests.
Others followed even more playful instincts. One team ordered a Philips Hue starter kit—a set of smart light bulbs—to fiddle with the system’s capabilities and explore the product’s potential. The result: an app that allows to the user to turn lights on and off by voice, and to preset colors for different moods. Another team built 24 mini-games in the 24 hours. And yet another built a fully functional, app-enabled “kegerator”—a device that not only dispenses two half-barrel kegs of beer while giving off a light show, it also provides the user with metadata on the beer being dispensed and gamifies the pouring with a flow meter and leaderboard.
But the overall winner of the hackathon had nobler ambitions. On team was formed to do some good after hearing Dr. Rupal Patel of Northeastern University deliver a talk on her foundation, VocaliD. That organization works on behalf of people who need devices to communicate; the idea is to literally provide them with a voice by combining patterns from a patient’s vocal cords with a donor’s pre-recorded voice.
At the time of Patel’s presentation, VocaliD had 17,000 people signed up to donate their voices, but no easy way to connect them with people in need. It needed a databank for collecting donated recordings or a dedicated platform from which to funnel the donations. Osburn and his team of designers, developers, and quality-assurance experts worked to build an app that lets users read, record, and upload over 1,000 sentences to donate to VocaliD.
For providing a tool that carries the potential to improve the lives of millions of voiceless people, their effort—the Human Voicebank—won the Rocket Science overall prize for “Magnificent Success.”