Hack.IAA: 65 students, 24 hours and one night

I first noticed the Hack.IAA with the focus Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Car-2-X Communication in a newsletter circulating in my university. Surprised to see a hackathon taking place within the world’s largest motor show. Hacking throughout the night and tackling the challenge of shaping future mobility – I quickly thought of friends who I could join with.

My friend and former roommate Benedict Kerres immediately came to mind. He had been working on image detection for more than a year at a renowned research group at Heidelberg University. He further suggested Thomas Hehn who had been working with Benedict and just finished his master’s degree.

Christian Kohlhas, Benedict Kerres and Thomas Hehn

A great and diverse team was assembled. Our team’s name: HD Vision Deep. We were just three people, me: Christian Kohlhas – in charge of business development – as well as Benedict Kerres and Thomas Hehn doing the coding and prototyping.

7:00 AM: Still a little bit tired from the night, we took the amazing DigitalLife Tour Bus to the IAA where the hack would take place. Participants from almost all leading German universities as well as some teams from Japan and Portugal were chatting away, collecting ideas and were anxious to start coding.

As we arrived on the exhibition site, we first toured the Mercedes-Benz booth, getting a first glance at all the amazing new technology and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) we had access to. Definitely one highlight of the “pre-hack” was the inspiring first keynote speech which was given by Buzz Aldrin – the second man on the moon – WOW!

12:00 PM: Time to process all the inputs and suggestions and get ready for the official countdown. We would have 24 hours to come up with an original idea and prototype.

Let’s hack!

01:00 PM: Time to start! After a more or less effective brainstorm session, we came up with a handful of very different ideas. However, after discussing and evaluating, we quickly realized which idea was the most promising and matched our skills.

04:00 PM: We further discussed our idea with Daimler mentors, including Oliver Wahlen, Chief Technology Officer of moovel, who really supported and pushed us. We wanted to automatically detect cars and pedestrians on the road and process the information to be used for various business cases. We lacked some important GPU (Graphic Process Unit) infrastructure to train our AI, a special feed forward deep convolutional neural Network.

Luckily, there was our mentor who happened to know how to fix just that problem and provided us the infrastructure we needed. Thanks again, Oliver!

08:00 PM: After non-stop hacking for more than seven hours, it was time for a creative break including some amazing dinner at the main exhibition hall of Daimler. As the IAA closes its gates at 7 pm for the public, we kinda felt like being alone in a museum – except of some security guards, checking the expensive prototype cars (e.g. the new Vision Mercedes-Maybach Cabriolet), the exhibition was deserted.

The fight against fatigue

09:30 PM: Pitch Perfect! Thanks to Björn, our pitch coach, we got to know the state-of-the-art presentation style, content and techniques to impart our idea to the audience. The session ended with some cold beers and a quick chat with other team members about their progress during the hack.

03:00 AM: By 2:30 or 3:00 am we totally lost the sense of time but the feeling of fatigue was suppressed by coffee, energy drinks and the excitement about our prototype which slowly took form.

04:00 AM: Time for a nap! After hours and hours of extensive coding and discussions we were facing our first, but most serious problem: Having successfully fried our servers there was nothing more to do than wait and sit it out. Our concept was working well and we were really glad with the results. While Benedict and Thomas had been working on the infrastructure I tried to define our business cases and core audience.

Let’s test our prototype!

07:00 AM: After two and a half hours of deep and restful sleep, the DigitalLife team provided us with a Mercedes E-Class (thanks for that guys!) to shoot a quick video from the urban area in front of the exhibition for our AI to classify. We had not yet tested on multiple frames and fingers crossed hoped for the best.

The results were amazing. Better than we could have hoped for! With the back-end in place Daniel Deparis, Head of the smart lab at Daimler, came by to give us some feedback. It was amazing how well informed and constructive the Daimler management was throughout the hackathon. Thanks again, Daniel!

11:00 AM: Only a couple hours to go! Luckily, David von Oertzen, Chief Product Officer of moovel, took some time to evaluate our pitch and business proposal. His input was invaluable and he clearly outlined our business proposal and what our unique AI was able to achieve. By now we had been hacking for nearly 22 hours, but exhaustion was overpowered by enthusiasm for our product and lots of energy Drinks.

Pitch perfect

01:00 PM: It’s the final countdown! With that song, all mentors from the DigitalLife Team announced the end of the active “hack” time. For us, it was the time to practice our presentation style and fine-tune our PowerPoint. Again, the excitement of various mentors helped us to sharp our content and to clearly present our idea to the audience.

03:00 PM: Pitch time! After listening to twelve inspiring pitches (where we saw many ideas we also considered pursuing at the beginning), it was our turn. In front of the jury, visitors of the IAA and other hackathon participants, we had just three minutes to present our prototype. For the “wow” moment, we decided to play a short video which illustrated our technology, which we developed in just 24 hours.

04:00 PM: Wait and see. About one hour after the pitches the jury announced the three most promising ideas. We were very happy to hear our team name and celebrated our partial success with a cool beer!

Winning team HD Vision Deep

05:30 PM: It’s getting serious! After an inspiring talk by tech evangelist Guy Kawasaki on the me Convention main stage we again pitched our idea to Daimler executives, the DigitalLife Team and hundreds of IAA visitors. That was by far the largest crowd all of us have ever presented to… Minutes later, the head of DigitalLife@Daimler, Markus Hägele announced the winning team – HD Vision Deep!

Realising that we just prevail against 60 highly qualified and motivated students from all over the world, we received the final price – a trip to the largest tech convention in Europe, the Web Summit in Lisbon. Happy, but slowly noticing the 30+ hours in our bones, we enjoyed some drinks with the DigitalLife@Daimler team before taking the train back to Heidelberg.

Winning Team „HD Vision Deep“

We had an amazing time at Hack.IAA @ me Convention, met awesome people and made great contacts. We were surprised by the enthusiasm Daimler showed towards new products and prototypes. We all contemplate working again with Daimler and wholeheartedly recommend joining a DigitalLife hackathon  for the amazing experience. We will be thinking about this weekend and our moment of victory for months to come and are looking forward to joining Daimler at the Web Summit in Lisbon.

mailto:Hack.IAA@me Convention is part of the global DigitalLife Campus hackathon series, organised by DigitalLife@Daimler.

He is studying Technology Entrepreneurship at University College London and was part of the winning team HD Vision Deep together with Benedict Kerres (M.Sc. Computational Physics at University Heidelberg) and Thomas Hehn (M.Sc. Computational Physics at University Heidelberg).