Weekend AEC Hackathons Spawn New Innovation

Weekend AEC Hackathons Spawn New Innovation

by LUKE ABAFFY, ENR

Sponsor prizes are beginning to ensure the usability and usefulness of software developed at the architecture, engineering and construction "AEC Hackathons" now popping up around the country and, soon, abroad.

For the weekend charrette, team practitioners from construction who have ideas for software team up with code writers from across the software world. The competing developers are drawn by the fun of crash-creating, in just 18 hours, useful products and by the chance of winning up to $500 or valuable software.

"People warned me it was too hard to code the application I wanted in one weekend," says Luis Martinez, a project manager at Howard S. Wright, a Seattle-based Balfour Beatty company that self-performs concrete superstructure work. Martinez wanted an app to track daily concrete placement and productivity.

Keith Walsh, virtual-design construction intern at Balfour Beatty, helps fellow employee Daniel Shirkey, senior process manager for traffic planning and design, navigate virtual- jobsite software, called HazYard, which Walsh helped program. Shirkey wears an Oculus Rift headset he bought after attending the second AEC Hackathon last March. (Photo by Balfour Beatty)

Keith Walsh, virtual-design construction intern at Balfour Beatty, helps fellow employee Daniel Shirkey, senior process manager for traffic planning and design, navigate virtual- jobsite software, called HazYard, which Walsh helped program. Shirkey wears an Oculus Rift headset he bought after attending the second AEC Hackathon last March. (Photo by Balfour Beatty)

"This is something we really need and can use," Martinez says, adding, "Doubts about asking anyone to program all this" almost kept his team away.

A group of programmers from Newforma Inc., a project information management system, heard his pitch and, with a programmer from Microsoft, jumped at the challenge and created BuildTrak over a weekend. "They made all of it work in 18 hours," says Martinez. The coders used Newforma's existing PDF markup platform as a base. "They really wanted to understand what we needed as a business," says Martinez.

The BuildTrak iPad app won first prize in the construction category at the third and most recent AEC Hackathon event, held in mid-September at the University of Washington's Pacific Northwest Center for Construction Research and Education, in Seattle. Second prize in the category went to a tool-tracking system called "Dude, Where's My Nail Gun?"

Like the developers from Newforma, representatives from several other sponsoring vendors, including Autodesk, Bentley Systems and San Francisco-based gaming technology firm Unity, and individuals from other construction software companies, including Trimble, ended up joining the teams, says Damon Hernandez, a co-founder of AEC Hackathon, the non-profit organization behind the events. Hernandez also is a 3D web and virtual and augmented reality developer at IDEAbuilder.

Unity offered five seats of its software as prizes for virtual-reality applications. An app called HazYard won two for its work integrating SketchUp with the virtual-reality headset Oculus Rift in a safety training game.

The idea for the game was brought to the hackathon by Daniel Shirkey, a senior process manager for traffic planning and design at Balfour Beatty. "We thought, what if we used VR to bring people up to speed on a job?" Shirkey says. He brought his own Oculus Rift device and teamed with employees from Iris VR, an immersive-3D reality company.

By the end of the weekend, the team had a virtual-reality safety game that simulates an evacuation and outlines safe exit routes (points were deducted if users strayed into hazardous areas).

Shirkey is impressed by the prizes. "Those seats of Unity are a couple of thousand dollars each," he says.

The AEC Hackathon organization has held three events so far, the most recent two of which offered cash prizes.

"The first hack had a lot of cool concepts, but these last two are all working code, all applications," says Hernandez.

Hernandez adds that, so far, three companies have been formed around the tools and relationships created at the hackathons.

The resulting projects and intellectual property are owned by the teams that develop them, although the hackathon organization encourages the code to be either shared or open-sourced.

"I'm still blown away," says Hernandez. "I didn't think it would get past the first event."

Four AEC Hackathons are scheduled before fall 2015, including events in Dallas, Chicago, New York City and a to-be-determined venue in California. An AEC Hackathon in Europe in 2015 is in the works, too, Hernandez adds.

The author is an associate editor and technology correspondent for Engineering News-Record, which is published by McGraw-Hill Financial. The article appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of ENR.

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