CMU students win Yahoo! contest

Credit: Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager Credit: Celia Ludwinski/Operations Manager

Four Carnegie Mellon undergraduates have won the first-ever Yahoo! Open Hack All-Stars competition with Ruum, a file-sharing web application they created. Computer science majors Chong Xie and Amos Yuen, electrical and computer engineering major Arjuna Hayes, and art major Ethan Gladding were awarded the grand prize of $10,000 for their efforts.

Their journey started in the fall semester of 2009, when Yahoo! held “HackU” tournaments, open to any college student, on college campuses around the world. The rules were simple: Within a 24-hour time constraint, the participants had to create a revolutionary computer application using Yahoo! technologies and open application programming interfaces (APIs). The same team of four (first-years, at the time) won the CMU HackU tournament with FlickrThrough, an app that takes a Flickr search and generates a photo mosaic comprised of relevant search results.

Two years later, the group found themselves at the Yahoo! Open Hack All-Stars competition in New York City, which pitted the winners of past HackU events from all around the world against each other. The groups were subject to the same constraints, but their app also had to solve a problem faced by the digital media industry. After much deliberation, the students, whose official team name throughout the competition was “D1W,” eventually settled on creating a file-sharing tool that would fill a niche between two existing file-sharing tools, Dropbox and Google Docs.

“There’s no obvious choice for when you just need a couple of files shared,” Hayes said via email. “Like if you want to work on just a few [documents, pictures, videos] ... maybe not editing them, but just communicating about them. That was sort of how we built the idea.”

This idea, after many hours and lines of coding languages such as PHP, HTML5, JQuery, and MySQL, evolved into Ruum.

“What we envisioned Ruum as was a fast, easy-to-use file sharing tool,” Hayes said. “We marketed it as a tool for publishers to share documents with their editors. In like three seconds flat, you can create a Ruum, link other people to the Ruum, and drag and drop files really easily into Ruum.... There’s a live chat, so you can chat with people about the files.”

Of course, Ruum wasn’t the only impressive application at the competition. Other interesting projects included a photo-essay generator for consuming online news articles, a media player with a song selection mechanism based on the current context (time of day, GPS location, etc.), and an iPad app to interact with content playing on a SmartTV. Reflecting on how outstanding the programs of other participants were, Hayes appreciated the effort he and his team put in to obtain this monumental achievement.

“We couldn’t have done this missing any one of us,” Hayes said. “Ethan was our secret weapon since no one else really had an artist. We had a logo and [our app] looked nice. Chong did most of the front-end, I did a little bit of the front-end, and Amos did most of the back-end. My main job was presenting.”

In contrast to the previous HackU tournaments, this competition placed a huge emphasis on the quality of the presentations each team put on, in addition to the quality of the apps they wrote.
“I had to present to the Yahoo! judges,” Hayes said. “Once we got into the top six, I had to give a 90-second presentation to the businesspeople. The idea was that the project had to be a little more business-oriented.... It had to be [marketable].”

So will we in fact see Ruum come to the marketplace anytime soon? Hayes regrets the fact that he and his teammates’ busy schedules have delayed any extensive work on the project.
“I wish I had more time to work on it,” Hayes said. “We’re going to talk to Yahoo! about possibly incubating the project.... We made it because there wasn’t anything there, and it does fill a gap. It would be something I’d like to see implemented and hopefully we can actually do that.”

Yahoo! held another HackU tournament at Carnegie Mellon this past weekend, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, and will be hosting the Open Hack All-Stars competition again next year.
“Hack Days are the perfect venue to create cool and innovative apps,” Yuen said in a Carnegie Mellon press release. “The opportunity to focus on a singular problem and bring a solution to life is what hacking is all about.”