By  Eric Williamson
Hoo Hacks 2024 sign-in
An overhead view at check-in Saturday shows the strong turnout for HooHacks 2024. A record 744 participants from colleges across the nation entered. HooHacks is Virginia's largest hackathon, and it is ranked among the top 50 biggest collegiate hackathons nationwide. (Photo by Tom Daly)

Imagine an artificially intelligent piano tutor that beams a glowing light on the individual keys you should strike, then follows along with your fingers as you play. 

Or, consider AI that conducts mock interviews based on your resume and the description of the jobs for which you’re applying.

Sound like products you’d buy if anyone ever dreamed them up?

Well, two teams of University of Virginia students won top honors for these very inventions Sunday at HooHacks, the prestigious hackathon that takes place each year at the UVA School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

A "hackathon" is a time-constrained social coding event that unites computer programmers and others interested in building new software programs or upgrading older ones. HooHacks is Virginia's largest hackathon, and it is ranked among the top 50 biggest collegiate hackathons nationwide. Major employers such as Intel, Leidos, Capital One, Appian, Google Cloud and Pinnacle all had representatives at HooHacks during the weekend, ready to discuss careers with talented attendees.

What makes the two UVA projects even more impressive is that they were created, like all the entries, within just 24 hours. 

Focusing on Key Features 

Second-year students Alexander Halpern, from Weston, Connecticut, teamed up with pals Tao Groves of Charlottesville and Ryland Birchmeier of San Diego, California. They met through UVA Engineering’s Rodman Scholars program.

KeyGlow teammates
Second-year UVA students Alexander Halpern, Tao Groves and Ryland Birchmeier celebrate their category win. (Submitted photo)

The trio created KeyGlow, a sort of “Simon Says” observe-and-repeat approach to learning piano. For their efforts, they landed first place in the Best Art and Gaming category. 

“The 24-hour deadline was definitely intense,” Halpern said. “Our team had a ton of different ideas for features that would make KeyGlow awesome, but we made sure to start by building out the most essential features of our project before moving on to more complicated bonus features.”

The basics included about five hours figuring out how to display colored light on a keyboard so the AI could process which keys a student was playing.

“We finally were able to move on to implementing luxuries like having our virtual instructor be able to speak out loud to the student and give them feedback on their playing,” Halpern said.

To Sleep, or Not To Sleep?

Ronish Dua, a McLean, Virginia, native, joined forces with Herndon, Virginia, natives Alec McCue, Tommy Qu and Vishal Kamalakrishnan. Their first-time entry won them Best Beginners. 

They called their mock interview tool Chiron, for the Greek mentor.

Chiron teammates
Third-years Alec McCue, Tommy Qu, Ronish Dua and Vishal Kamalakrishnan display their mock interview tool Chiron. (Submitted photo)

Since the Chiron crew had local digs, they weren’t among the participants who had to crash in the basement of Rice Hall if they wanted to rest. Not that they tried. They were extremely focused.

“All four of us spent all 24 hours working in my living room with zero sleep,” Dua said.

But zoning out and getting some Zs actually turned out to do the KeyGlow group some good, Halpern said.

“At around 2 a.m., we ran into this annoying bug where our software kept crashing every time we tried to check if the timing of what the user played was accurate,” he said. “After multiple hours of debugging, we were very tired and hungry, so we decided to order some food and take a break. We had some great laughs sitting on the fifth floor of Rice Hall, typing random things into our text-to-speech function. 

“Eventually, we decided to go to bed, and after recharging from a few hours of sleep, we fixed the bug in less than half an hour.”

Building Community

This year, a Virginia Tech team took best overall from among the 170 projects submitted. (See complete winners’ list below.) With more entrants than ever before, competition was tight.  

Yet friendship and hospitality were in evidence all around. HooHacks even provided free transportation for those coming from Northern Virginia Community College, Howard University, George Washington University, George Mason University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, North Carolina State University and Virginia Tech.

Halpern and Dua praised the event’s organizers, including HooHacks co-presidents Ankisha Singh and William Mueller, and UVA computer science professor N. Rich Nguyen.

“I was able to make some new friends, ran into some current friends, and was quite amazed at some of these student's project ideas and execution,” Dua said. 

He took a selfie with Nguyen as he collected his prize. Each member of his team won a Holy Stone HS440 drone and received winner pins.

“I will 100% enter again next year,” he said.

Professor Nguyen and HooHacks co-presidents
HooHacks 2024 co-presidents William Mueller and Ankisha Singh flank computer science professor and faculty sponsor N. Rich Nguyen. "Hoohacks was a huge success!" Nguyen said. "I'd also would like to thank Associate Dean William Guilford for his oversight of the staff and facility crew, which made the event safe and secure." (Photo by Tom Daly)


HooHacks 2024 Winners

Best Overall 

3Dera - Mikhail Sannikov, Andrew Kim, Noah Provenzano, and Rituraj Sharma

Best Beginner 

Chiron - Alec McCue, Vishal Kamalakrishnan, Ronish Dua, Tommy Qu

Best Accessibility and Empowerment

1st Place: Bytes - Elias Lahrim, Dhruv Varshney, Mallory Beemus, Modusami

2nd Place: Raven - Siddharth Lakkoju, Saahith Janapati

Best Art and Gaming

1st Place: KeyGlow - Ryland Birchmeier, Alexander Halpern, Tao Groves

2nd Place: Murality - Waleed Raza, Pete Pongpeauk, Feng Guo, Zhang Baiyi

Best Data Science

1st Place: Crime-Aid - Saketh Chintalapati, Anthony VR, Hemang Vasu, Jonathan Vu

2nd Place: Fake News Detector - Shekhar Kumar, Laxman Muthe

Best Education

1st Place: Canvas CoPilot - Matthew Nguyen, Saadi-Fay Fayyaz, Steven Qian, Tiara Allard

2nd Place: ProficioAI - Lucas Kohler, Milo Schwartz, Mohammed Akinbayo, Barrett Ruth

Best Finance

1st Place: Stock Options Calculator - Alexander Zhou, David Hu, Michael Martinez

2nd Place: Five Nights at Wall Street - Ratik Mathur, Kunsh Singh, Sooren Ghodsi, Kenny Zhang

Best Health

1st Place: Doctor Hoo - Jealmonte Almonte, Frank Hyun, Kareem Fenaish, Ayan Rasulova

2nd Place: InspireHealth - Ahnaf Talukder, Lilly M, Matthew Shipe

Best Sustainability

1st Place: Green Threads - Peter Do, Youssef Cherrat, Ethan Do, Alan Chai

2nd Place: EcoEats - Amanda Xiao, Lydia Moore, Nupur Joshi

Learn more about the HooHacks and the winning projects.