Behold the Future of TV
It's Hour 27 of Hackday.tv, a two-day contest organized by Shelby.tv to develop a new wave of video and TV technology, yet the contestants remain calm, chipper, and awake. Even though they submitted their “hacks,” or prototypes, two hours earlier, many still sit behind computers. Others nibble grilled cheese sandwiches prepared on griddles in the office’s kitchen. And there are only three with cups of coffee.
Chris Kurdziel, the event’s organizer, is discussing last-minute details for the demo presentations with Reece Pacheco, a founder of Shelby.tv, a 5-month-old video social-networking start-up. Someone hands Kurdziel—who is technically just a Shelby.tv intern—a toasted white-cheese-and-bacon sandwich, while he explains the event’s premise: Bring in 80 developers and designers, give them 24 hours to create new technology, and provide space and a bundle of APIs. The grand-prize winner gets $2,000 and a trailer for their creation playing on the NASDAQ jumbotron in Times Square. It all got underway on Saturday at 11 a.m.
So far, everything has gone well, Kurdziel says, even though neither he nor Pacheco slept much on the black sofas. “You’ve got to see the Terminator app,” he says. “It works just like the Terminator in the movies—[with] that red screen. And it can identify the person on the screen.” He’s so excited about the new app that he bites down so hard on his sandwich that a bit of cheese oozes from a corner of his mouth. Kurdziel’s enthusiasm is infectious as everyone waits for the demos get underway and to view the world as an evil cyborg.
Pacheco instructs everyone to take a seat. “There are more seats in the front. You won’t want to miss any of this,” he says. The assembled crowd is a mix. The contestants remain, but now other tech entrepreneurs have arrived, there to scout fresh talent. At least one venture capitalist shows up too, and takes notes about the presentations on a small netbook.
In Hours 28 and 29, the demos roll. Some work quite well in the allotted three minutes. Others experience technical difficulties, and one young man ends up having to talk in front of a blank black screen. One early standout is VoiceBunny, an online service that’ll provide voiceovers for as little as 10 cents per word. It promises to match you with the perfect voiceover, and the VoiceBunny team plays several audio clips of potential matches, including a shockingly good duplication of the deep-voiced—and, sadly, deceased—Don LaFontaine, the movie-trailer god (You know, the man who seemed to start everything with, “In a world…”)
Another memorable presentation comes from Open Captions. The creator, Narayanan Ramakrishnan, designed software to both subtitle and provide American Sign Language for YouTube videos. He opens with an episode of Sesame Street that includes subtitles for Elmo's dialogue. When Ramakrishnan clicks on the subtitle text, a smaller video appears that contains the signing. An audible gasp arises from the audience as the cartoon hand nails each word.
Next comes Munchee, an app that could exist on any Internet TV system, and possibly even a conventional cable stream, says its developer, Marianne Bellotti. Using an existing API, Bellotti crafted software that lets you order out directly from your television set. Plug in your address, and voila, Munchee brings up nearby restaurants and the corresponding menus. After the demo ended, two young men joined Bellotti on the sofa. They came from Ordr.in, a company that provided the API Bellotti used. They sat next to her for the remainder of the event. “I don’t think the Ordr.in guys are going to let me go!” Bellotti says later.
But the crowd’s favorite becomes clear when two scruffy young men present Terminator Vision, the app the Kurdziel was so enthusiastic about. It works just as promised. You sign into your Facebook account, and in a perfect mock-up of the Terminator’s distinct vision program, it will bring up details—such as name, gender, birthday, and more—about the person you point it at. “Yeah, the Terminator knows all,” says Haris Amin, who created the app with work buddy Rich Cameron (no relation to Terminator 2 director James Cameron). The two have already appeared at seven hackathons, combined, this year—and this time, they decided to create something that was just fun, and used a facial-recognition API from Face.com.
We break for the judges to deliberate each product based on creativity, difficulty, and marketability. Fifteen minutes later, close to Hour 30, the judges come back with a decision. Terminator Vision wins both the people’s choice and the grand prize, which means millions of people trooping through Times Square each day experiencing the red-hued vision of a cyborg. Apparently, Terminator Vision blew out the competition when it came to marketability. As Pacheco says to me later, “Who wouldn’t pay a dollar for that?”