Hacking at a dream: Third-year Gustavo Correa is bridging two disciplines into one


Third-year computer engineering student Gustavo Correa did what many applicants in California could not do. He qualified for the extremely prestigious Red Bull “Hack the Hits” hackathon in San Francisco that only accepted 15 college students nationwide — only two of which hailed from California. This event saw five teams face off against each other in a competition to test their innovative prowess to combine two mediums: Music and engineering. This event, sponsored solely by Red Bull, used a wealth of their revenue in an effort to ensure that all competitors had enough resources to build whatever their minds could conjure up.

Correa came from humble beginnings as a resident of Fontana, California that led him on the path to engineering. In his pre-adolescence, he would team up with his father and they’d make wooden furniture and assemble televisions. His grandfather owned a TV repair shop, which exposed him to many electronics and knick-knacks.Through this, Correa developed a curiosity in “opening anything and everything that could be opened by a screwdriver.”

Correa also grew up with an affinity for instruments since his uncle showed him instruments while in elementary school. He went on to join his high school’s marching band, which enabled him to learn even more about the music discipline through long practices with his team. Among the few instruments he’s managed to excel in are the guitar and saxophone.

Creativity was something that Correa was able to harness easily since his upbringing constantly saw him teaching himself how to link the possibilities of both technology and music into his projects. To do that, Correa needed to think outside of the box. This all came to a head a few summers ago when he embarked on a trip to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, a convention where start-up and premium tech companies show off their patented innovations to a new generation of potential engineers. It was here that Correa resolved to become someone who was able to showcase his own inventions. “Seeing all those inventors and big-shots showing off their creations only furthered my ambition to develop my own craft,” Correa shares.

Due to the enlightening experience at CES, it was a no-brainer that Correa would be enticed by the mention of the Red Bull Hackathon from his friend a month prior to the application deadline. The day the application was due, Correa managed to turn in a compelling video of him showing off his innate talent for music and technology. In his audition video, shot via iPhone for the “aesthetic,” Correa DJ’d and put on a light show that simulated a performance similar to what one would see at a rave festival. And his zaniness ended up working in his favor. Two weeks later Correa found out he was selected for a spot in the Hackathon along with another student from USC. Those two were the only applicants to be accepted from California.

The first day of the Hackathon was primarily for the chosen applicants to acquaint themselves with each other. Red Bull had ensured that their travel and boarding came completely complementary. All the attendees had to do was show up to San Francisco with optimism and a willingness to create, according to Correa. The crew of 15 students, along with a bevy of mentors who specialize in tech development, used the first few hours as a social so that the following two days would be a competition among new friends, rather than one for pure sport.

Once day two came, the stakes were raised higher than ever. The 15 students had dispersed into five teams of three. And in the next 48 hours they were each tasked with the conceptualizing and building of any sort of gadget that combined the two mediums of music and engineering. As long as the inventions met those guidelines, anything was fair game. The teams each had a $500 dollar spending budget, along with an extra $200 to be spent at designated hardware shops partnered up with Red Bull. Correa’s team took the first 12 hours to brainstorm an idea, and the following 24 hours to work on the project. Each group worked in a command hub that acted as a makerspace for the engineers to work their magic. In these spaces were power tools of all types and workbenches for each team.

Correa’s team ended up crafting a “Human Music Sequencer.” By utilizing an electrical grid, people can walk under the radius of the grid and act as a catalyst for a particular musical note. If someone were to stand where the base notes lie on a musical sheet, they’d be able to imitate the sound of that exact pitch. It’s like making beats with your own body as the stimulus. To work at optimum potential, four people are required.

This was purposefully done by Correa who states that “Having the human collaboration element was essential. Many current devices in popular culture are geared toward singular interaction. I wanted to bring back the team element in technology usage.” The four individuals on the grid swap places and take turns making a myriad of beats. It’s a innovative way to get people to make music while staying active and communicating with friends.

Although Correa’s team didn’t end up winning, he finds that the experience “Made me recognize the potential I have as a tech developer and introduced me to peers I’d want to keep in contact with.” In the end, the coordinators threw a social for all of the group members to negate any feelings of loss from the competition. Community members and other tech moguls joined the function, making it a night to remember. Correa appreciated the insistence from the mentors and coordinators to have fun even in the midst of hacking their hearts away. It reminded him that it’s okay to enjoy yourself and have down time while doing the things that bring you immense satisfaction.

When asked if he would recommend this event to other budding engineering majors, Correa gleams with pride and praised the event, saying, “I’ve noticed that even when immersed in a university environment it’s still a little difficult to talk about the things I love without being unapologetic for it. But this event put people with similar interests together and made it easy to talk about our hobbies.” He also encourages people to take advantage of opportunities college provides because in his mind college is like a “sandbox” where students have “a relatively safe space for making mistakes and learning from them. It’s best to capitalize on that while it’s available.”

Correa’s hackathon experience proves that no idea is ever too big for the imagination to tackle. He’s begun sowing the seeds for a prosperous future and with an innovative mind like his, sooner or later he’ll be a part of a corporation like Apple or Microsoft. But for now, Correa is content with seeing his journey advance little-by-little, making sure to treasure each and every lesson as a unique learning experience.

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