Friday, October 28, 2011

App Dev Hackathon

I met a bunch of Android developers at the AT&T Mobile Hackathon SF, who told me about the App Dev Hackathon at Santa Clara today. Since I had such a great experience at the AT&T one, I decided to attend.

Sponsors and Prizes

Same as last time, there was a list of sponsors and prizes:

  • Tropo: Amazon Kindle for all members of a winning team that uses the Tropo API in their application.
  • Pioneer: $1000 cash for the best mobile app using the Zypr API.
  • appMobi: Amazon gift cards to the most interesting apps using appMobi's SDK. $150 for 3rd place, $350 for 2nd place, $500 for 1st place.
  • iPad2 for the best use of the Box API.
  • immersion: 5 $100 gift cards awarded to the team that makes the best use of the appMobi plugin.
  • Rovi: Two $500 Amex gift cards for best apps using Rovi APIs.
  • Sierra Trading Post: Use the Sierra Trading Post API. $1000 cash + 5x$100 Sierra Trading Post gift cards for best app, $250 cash + 5x$50 Sierra Trading Post gift cards for most creativ app.
  • Crittercism: Use Crittercism SDK. Top prize: Kindle Fire. Runner up: Automatic Nerf Gun.
  • HTC: Best app with the pen api wins the AT&T Jetstream tablet.

Guess I got lucky, since I have two existing apps that play very well with two of these APIs.

Dr Mila

A few months ago I went to SuperHappDevHouse and wrote an email gateway to Freebase. The idea was that when I travel, I often need to look up something when I don't have internet: an artist from the magazine on the plane, a signpost on the road to a tourist spot, etc. I wanted a way to queue up my queries to run when I got to a wifi spot, and it occurred to me that my email outbox is the perfect solution. All I need is a server that can read email, search the internet, and reply with the results. The email client will take care of the queuing, fetching, and offline storage. So I coded that up in an afternoon, and named it Dr Mila, with Mila being an anagram of mail.

The email gateway works this way: you send an email to with your query as the subject line, and Dr Mila replies with information from Freebase, sending images as attachments. I wanted to use Tropo to add an SMS gateway to the service.

At the presentation Tropo mentioned that if all I needed was SMS, I should use some other service instead. I didn't catch the name, so I went to their table right away. The "other service" is Smsified, also provided by Voxeo, the parent company of Tropo.

I managed to receive SMS pretty easily, but sending didn't work. Back to the table, and Adam from Tropo debugged it with me, using curl. And it didn't work because I did not provide any authentication. I was wondering about that when I was following the instructions from the message sending documentation. Turns out authentication was covered in Overview, but of course I jumped right into the section that interested me, and missed it. Not a big deal, it was very easy to fix once I knew what I needed to do.

In my first test I just sent the whole article from freebase, and got maybe 12 SMS as a result, because it exceeded the 140 character limit. As a quick workaround I took the first sentence from the description. Most articles have the first sentence as the summary, so that worked pretty well.

Movie Jot

I finished adding SMS to Dr Mila around 1:30pm, so I decided to work on my second app, Movie Jot. The idea is that I want to take advantage of html5 offline storage to quickly record something, and look it up on the internet later. The keen reader will notice that both Movie Jot and Dr Mila share the same offline theme, which is not a co-incidence. I am rather frustrated that most apps assume that my device is always connected to the internet. I decided to target specifically for movies since my friends often mention interesting movies at dinner, and I just want to quickly jot that down instead of spend 3 minutes looking it up on the internet right away.

I had a working version of Movie Jot, powered once again by Freebase. Since rovi has a nice DVD database, I thought I would change the backend to point to it instead.

As I was loading up the rovi documentation, someone tapped on my shoulder. He saw my screen, and wanted to introduce himself since he was from rovi. I took the opportunity to tell him what I wanted to do, and he gave me a quick rundown of generating md5 signatures for the API, and how to fetch images and synopsis. That saved me quite some documentation searching time. I put everything together, and was rather pleased to see that the synopsis quality from rovi was quite a bit higher than freebase.

Sierra Shake

I was done with Movie Jot at around 4pm, and took a break to talk to people around the hall. We had until 6:30pm to enter our apps for demo, and since I heard so much about quick development on appMobi, I decided to give it a shot. I tried to get the XDK, but made the mistake of clicking "Deny" when it wanted to access my hard disk. I went to the appMobi table and they helped me by running javaws -viewer and deleting the appMobi entry so I could restart.

Once I had the XDK up and running, I just stared at it, looking for a place to type my code. Finally realized that the XDK was like the browser, and you use a separate editor to write the html and javascript. Once I realized that I was able to code up my app pretty quickly. Since I didn't have a lot of time, all I did was use the Sierra Trading Post API to display a random product when you shake the phone. Actually I didn't even have time to implement the shake detection, so I just hooked a click event on an empty area to trigger the fetch.

Even though I wrote a rather silly app, I got a chance to see the whole appMobi tool chain, which was quite interesting. It was a Chrome extension that uses Java to access your local file. To test on the device, you download an Android app called applab, and use the mobile browser to authenticate and load the app you want to test. Pretty neat.


The organizers did not set up a projector for demoing on the device, so it was a little bit tricky. I used the Google Voice interface to show the SMS messages for Dr Mila, and passed my phone around for the judges to test. One of them entered "tears" as the query, and Dr Mila replied with "Tears are the secretions of the glands that clean and lubricate the eyes." Not bad. Movie Jot is an html5 app, so I just demoed it on Chrome on my laptop. For Sierra Shake, I used the XDK, which sufficed.


Turns out Movie Jot was the only app using rovi, so I won the prize. It wasn't really a competition when there were no competitors, but hey, I am not complaining. I also won a iPod nano from Tropo, which I didn't even know was on the prize list. Again, not complaining at all.

The only complaint I have for the event was that the tables were way too high for a small person like me. Maybe I should bring a cushion next time. But that's going a bit overboard, no? I already brought a salad for dinner since last time I was starving at the SF hackathon. At this rate I would be lugging along my whole house!

Further reading: See all the winners at the official blog post

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