Background - 29.03.2017 - 00:00 

Running a programming race: the 2017 START Hack

The START Hack took place on the campus of the University of St.Gallen from 17-19 March 2017. Bryan Giger and Björn Schmidtke from the HSG won the hackathon together with two other students.

30 March 2017. More than 400 programmers, designers and product developers from all over the world took part in the hackathon and completed a project within 35 hours. They were able to select one of the tasks that had been made available by Cognizant, SBB, Deutsche Bank, Swisscom, logitech, Zühlke and Volvo & Bosch. An interview with HSG students Bryan Giger and Björn Schmidtke, who won the hackathon together with Alexander Pfyffer (University of Zurich) and Vytatutas Mikalainis from Lithuania.

Mr Schmidtke, Mr Giger, the hackathon was about programming a product within 35 hours. What problem did you want to solve?

Björn Schmidtke: We opted for a task set by Cognizant. The background of the problem was the fact that many things can be encrypted, for instance an internet connection. As a rule, though, the screen is not encrypted. When I read my e-mails on my smartphone, tablet or notebook in a café or on the train, others can read them as well in principle. We wanted to create an encryption between people’s eyes and the screen. The challenge was to invent an "augmented reality" for this.

What does "augmented reality" mean?

Schmidtke: "Augmented reality" means that additional information or objects are virtually added through a device like a smartphone or smart glasses. So I’m able to display information about navigation on my "smart" glasses, for example, and in this way "augment" reality or rather my perception of it. If the focus is on the security aspect, smart glasses are of course best because only their wearer can see the additional displays.

How exactly did you use "augmented reality"?

Bryan Giger: We programmed the SuperSecret website and app. You can sign up there free of charge and send an encrypted message to someone who has also signed up. We make use of asymmetrical encryption, where two different keys are used for encryption and decryption. The key for the encryption of the message is public and is stored on the server…

Schmidtke: …whereas the decryption key is only known to the recipient of the message and is stored on his personal device, for example his smart glasses.

Giger: We first convert the message on the server into a QR code, which actually looks like a standard QR code but can’t be read with a normal app. This can only be done with the personal device on which the key is stored. In addition, the recipient must enter a password in order to decrypt the message. This means that as soon as I receive an encrypted message, virtual figures display on my smart glasses or my smartphone, which I must then virtually select in the right combination. Only then will the message be decrypted and displayed. Mind you: only I will be able to see the figures and the message; without glasses and key, you can only see the QR code.

And you programmed all this in only 35 hours? Did you sleep at all?

Giger [laughing]: I only slept for two hours.

Schmidtke: I slept for four, but still. Some time on Sunday morning I fell asleep on my chair. When I woke up at nearly five, the boys from Cognizant had joined us and helped us with a problem, which was really nice.

What are the possible areas of application for your product?

Schmidtke: One example could be online banking. The process is very secure because you don’t merely need a password but also the device on which the key is stored. I can’t simply borrow a friend’s smart glasses in order to read an encrypted message addressed to me.

What will happen to your project now?

Giger: Everything we programmed is open source. This means that everyone can use the source code free of charge; they can continue to work on it, improve it or simply find out what we did. We don’t want to make any money with it. Our goal was to solve an exciting problem in the team that weekend, to be creative and to learn alongside other people, and to make personal progress. We also presented the project at the START Summit. We improved it a bit for that purpose. In the final presentation at the START Hack, we still had a few problems.

Schmidtke: [laughing]: We didn’t even have a proper PowerPoint presentation like the others. At the start of the 35 hours, we didn’t have a clue about "augmented reality" and we didn’t expect to win at all. We simply found the topic exciting and thought that this was where we’d be able to learn most. The jury obviously liked it.

When did you start programming?

Giger: I started when I was twelve. We had to cobble together an internet page with a relatively simple system at school. I found that too boring and so I started to learn the markup language HTML and programming languages.

Schmidtke: It was similar with me; I was thirteen. We had a rock band and we wanted a website of our own. Of course we didn’t have any money and so I started to create the site with HTML myself. Over time I got better and learnt programming languages. I founded my first start-up right after school. Today it’s three firms which create innovative websites and apps. This is how I also fund my studies.

A final question: what are the penguin costumes all about?

Schmidtke [laughing]: At the START Summit, we presented an open source JavaScript Framework which helps other web designers and web developers create dynamic websites and apps. This is called penguin.js.

Bryan Giger is studying economics at the University of St.Gallen. Björn Schmidtke is the CEO of "websites einfach smart" and is studying management at the University of St.Gallen.

photo (from left to right): Alexander Pfyffer, Björn Schmidtke und Bryan Giger at the START Summit 2017

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