Hackathon presents a technically surreal night at The Dali

Where do minds, machines and masterpieces all come together? Why, at The Dali museum in St. Petersburg, of course.

For those following the art scene, Mind, Machines and Masterpieces is the name of the current exhibit highlighting Artist Salvador Dali’s interest and study of Artist Leonardo da Vinci, and their mutual fascination with math and science. Quintessential Renaissance men from different eras. 

This past weekend, however, The Dali took the concept to its surrealist edge, sponsoring for the first time a hackathon on premise, together with Detroit-based digital innovation company, Vectorform.

“Hacking of this nature is chopping into the unresponsive wood of normal experience to create something entirely new,” says Dali Museum Director Hank Hine. “In this way, it is like art. Both have as a goal to report what its like to be alive in this moment.”
Indeed, non-techies may be surprised to learn that the term “hackathon” is akin to “create”-a-thon.  There is no trespassing into computer systems involved, just futuristic solutions. 

Project 34: Hackathon, Dalí-style

Unlike the drab chaos of a typical hackathon in a hotel lobby or ballroom, The Dali venue provided a welcoming atmosphere of creativity and inspiration, while the organizers ensured the event stayed surreal and in-theme. 

“Nothing is arbitrary in this hackathon,” says Daphne Zargar, Vectorform’s Chief Strategist. “The logo, the date, the times: all Fibonacci numbers.”  

The Fibonacci Sequence appears in nature and is intimately associated with the Golden Ratio, considered throughout history by mathematicians, architects and artists, such as da Vinci and Dalí, to be the perfect aesthetic proportion. The Fibonacci numbers roll to infinity -- 0,1,1, 2,3,5,8,13,21,34, etc. -- and the sequence fascinated the two artists and underlies some of the their most famous paintings, such as da Vinci´s The Last Supper and Dalí’s version, The Sacrament of the Last Supper. 

Thus, the theme of the hackathon, and its name: Project 34, a number from the sequence.

Charged with creating “a digital solution that enhances The Dalí experience in a new or unexpected way,” the hackers began at 8:13 a.m. on Saturday, most working through the night with small sleep breaks on the floor with their pillows from home.
A hardware lab-slash-toybox provided by Major League Hackers gave hackers access to the absolute latest in technology including such things as Oculus Rift, futuristic goggles that create total immersion in a 3D world, and Myo armbands which track bio-info including specific body movements making such things possible as a virtual rock-paper-scissors game created during Project 34. Hackers were encouraged to play with the hardware and use it in any of their creations.
The hackers were also provided with Google Cardboard – what looks like a rudimentary black cardboard “View Master” toy, but will perhaps be the disposable 3D glasses of the future. The simple contraption allows you to insert your mobile phone and experience apps visually and through movement. 

Participants were treated to some never-before-seen-at-a-hackathon intermissions or mental breaks, called “Inspiration Sequences,” in which they were able to roll around in a Zorb (think: giant human hamster ball), experience hula-hoop light shows and get mellow with some Tai Chi.   

Museum visitors could also participate. Innovation Sprints discussing wearable technology and gadgetry of the future were available to the public throughout the weekend. 

Everyone interviewed by 83 Degrees noted how special and inspirational it was to be hosted in The Dali museum and that the “Sequences” were a big help in their hack process. 

“Exploring the museum is amazing!” says Adrienne Rodgers, a St. Pete resident who has her own mobile app company, Six Foot Creative, (though she is 6’3”) and says she has participated in many hackathons around the country. Rodgers, who studied Internet Design and Technology at San Francisco State University and holds two BAs in English from the University of Oxford in England and the University of Kentucky, marvels at how Dalí had pioneered holograms 40 years ago -- his 1970s hologram of Alice Cooper eating a skewered Venus of Milo is on display on the third floor.

“This is exactly what we are doing now!” Her team, all strangers ‘til the weekend together, created a mobile app that worked with the Google Cardboard, creating a 3D image of Dali and other surreal aspects like smiling fried eggs functioning as holographic tour guides.  

The best hack

Project 34 culminated in a shark-tank style presentation whereby the top brass at The Dali, Vectorform and the event’s sponsors acted as judges. The grand prize will bring the winning hackers to Vectorform’s Detroit headquarters to flush out the hack with its professional team and Vectorform will dedicate an additional two weeks of its time to making the solution happen. 

“Our hope is to implement the winning solution,” says Kathy Greif, Marketing Director of The Dalí.   

The hackers were predominantly local, but wide-ranging in age and experience. The youngest were high school sophomores and a senior from Boca Raton High School, founders of their Computer Science Club, who started their trip at 3:30 a.m. Saturday. There were also college students and PhD candidates as well as the more seasoned, some already working professionally in technology. 

By 6:30 p.m. Sunday, anxiously awaiting the results, the eclectic group of Project 34 hackers mulled about The Dalí Avant Garden in deluxe earphones fed by club music by a live DJ, allowing wearers to dance in silence. 

The winners? JD Parsley and Matthias Elliott, a team of recent college graduates who had met at a previous event, clearly stunned and thrilled at the announcement. 

Their app, which they named informally, “The Lobster Phone” inspired by Dalí's version, uses Bluetooth Low Energy beacons -- basically a little piece of technology that would sit at each painting and allow nuanced information about each painting to be transmitted to the visitor's phone. It would also allow users to click on pieces of the painting itself, on their phone, to get more information. For example click on the melting clocks and you may learn why Dalí used them so frequently. At the same time, the beacons would track and record visitor data granting The Dalí much greater insight into where visitors spend their time and what interests them most, among other critical marketing analytics.  

Hardly able to comment, complicated by the combination of sleep deprivation and excitement, Parsley, a recent grad of Full Sail University in Orlando, called his reaction to the news “a ‘wow’ moment.” 

Elliott, who just finished his masters at USF in Marine Sciences and is unsure of what he will do when his contract work ends in two weeks, says winning was “really validating” and that he was happy to have the opportunity to “build out such a fun idea to a professional grade app, to go beyond the scope we could do on our own in a really fast timeframe.”

Stu Sjouwerman, Founder and CEO of Clearwater-based KnowBe4, a sponsor and judge of the competition, says of Parsley and Elliott’s solution: “It was simply the best hack.”

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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