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October 21, 2014

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Teams are up to the challenge: Developing an app in 24 hours

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Steve Marcus

Silvie Hibdon, left, and Sandra Persing, of Blueprint Fit, listen to a presentation during a 26-hour innovation Hackathon at the Palms Saturday, January 5, 2013. Blueprint Fit develops corporate wellness programs. More than 200 innovators competed for $125,000 in cash and prizes as they tried to develop the mobile apps of tomorrow. The event is a prelude to the annual AT&T Developer Summit .

AT&T Developer Hackathon

Max Katz gives a presentation on Tiggzi during a 26-hour innovation Hackathon at the Palms Saturday, January 5, 2013. Tiggzi is a cloud-based platform for building mobile Apps. More than 200 innovators competed for $125,000 in cash and prizes as they tried to develop the mobile apps of tomorrow. The event is a prelude to the annual AT&T Developer Summit . Launch slideshow »

Hearts pounded, adrenaline flowed and voices wavered with nerves Sunday as teams stepped before a panel of judges to present their car or phone app at the AT&T Developer Summit.

More than 70 teams entered the “Hackathon” event at the Palms. Entrants had 24 hours to develop an app and 90 seconds to pitch it. Presentations had to be like perfectly constructed tweets, with nary a word or moment wasted.

Judges graded each team on a scale of one to 10 in four categories — design, business model, functionality and originality — with the grand prize of $30,000. A nervous "uh" or a slow-loading screen could mean one less valuable second to showcase their apps.

In this competition, every second matters.

“Nobody anticipates just how little time you have,” said Matthew Drake, a developer who presented an in-car texting app. “You have to just hit the ground running.”

Teams presented a variety of apps that could be used for phones or an in-car touch screen. Ideas included programs that help a person locate street parking and that allow a person to broadcast a voice message from wherever they check in.

The rapid ticking of the timer was punctuated by a judge giving contestants 30-second warnings. Some teams ran out of time in the middle of their presentations, while others highlighted all of their apps' features without a moment to spare.

Oscar Salguero struggled with the time limit. He ran out of time to demonstrate the rest of his “Let’s Save Gas” app that assists drivers in locating the cheapest gas stations. Salguero said that as soon as the judge warned him that he had 30 seconds left, his thoughts became jumbled.

“I was caught off guard,” Salguero said. “I was like, ‘I still have more to show.’”

Drake decided to take a risk and use an audience member to show his app. His in-car app allows a driver to receive a phone text on their dashboard and respond with a variety of options.

His risk paid off, as he received loud applause and even a few chuckles as he teased the participant sending texts to his app. He said the key in this type of competition is to show the app at work; overexplaining or becoming discouraged if there is a malfunction are costly mistakes.

“People like working products,” said Drake, of Atlanta. “The best way to (gain interest) is to toss (the app) out into the wild and have people try it.”

Las Vegas game app developers Jason Hurt and Jen Wilhelm were competing for their second year. They said this year has been tougher with twice as many competitors and half the time to present compared with last year.

Wilhelm said they were nervous right before the presentation, but once they were in front of the crowd, they relaxed. The crowd melted away, and it became just them and their app, which locates coupons for the user based on their location and interests.

After the presentation, Hurt and Wilhelm weren’t sure how they fared. They had some awkward pauses, but otherwise everything went smoothly.

“Jen’s design abilities always help us, and the other thing was we wanted to keep it simple ... so the judges and users know what the app does,” Hurt said.

Still, winning is only part of the allure of these events, they said. The event introduces developers to new technology and networking possibilities, and the ticking clock helps fight procrastination.

“It makes you a better developer. Taking an idea to implementation is difficult,” Hurt said. “This helps you focus on the things a user might use. You have to quickly get the app out instead of focusing on features you’re two years out from developing.”

The winners will be chosen to present on Monday during the AT&T Developer Summit keynote. The top five finalists for best overall phone app win cash.

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