Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My PennApps experience

I have a fair amount of hackathon experience under my belt:  I’ve done HackNY, Hack n’ Jill, and now, 4 Pennapps.  This spring semester, Pennapps took place (a little strangely) on Valentine’s Day.  As a graduating senior in Digital Media Design, it was also the last Pennapps I could participate in.  So, I was willing to forgo any Valentine’s Day plans, but only if I worked seriously on an idea I really liked.

Luckily, my partner had what I thought was a fantastic idea:  an ad-blocker for live television.  The app would mute the tv when commercials came on, and un-mute it when the show returned.  My partner’s long-term dream is to integrate this product with educational gaming:  when commercials start, the child will be redirected to an educational game, and they will need to achieve a certain amount of progress before getting back to the television.

We chose to do all of our coding for the app in Matlab—an unusual choice, but Matlab has a fantastic signal-processing library.  Because we didn’t have access to cable in engineering, we used Hulu (specifically, we did all of our classifier training from many hours of recorded Arrested Development episodes.  I now know season 3 better than any person should).  As it turned out, the most informative feature for detecting commercials is deceptively simple:  a moment of pure silence.  Pure silence occurs only during transitions between show and commercial, or commercial and commercial; even what we perceive as silence during tv shows actually always has a small amount of ambient noise.

As in all hackathon experiences, we had a couple crises; there were definitely times when I feared we’d have nothing to show.  But we powered through, and the excitement climaxed when my partner had a breakthrough on the hardware component, and successfully turned on and off a projector using an arduino controller.  At that point—6 AM Sunday morning—we decided to keep going and take it all the way.  On zero hours of sleep, we trekked to my house to bring back the spare tv in my basement. 

The final result was just about everything we’d imagined.  During demos, we streamed hulu live to the television.  When commercials began, the arduino controller muted the sound and blacked out the screen.  When they ended, the sound and picture were restored.  While we didn’t win anything, I was thrilled with what we’d made.  There’s nothing like having an idea and then bringing it to life!

Elissa is a senior majoring in Digital Media Design.  Questions for Elissa?   Contact her at
Our final set-up!

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