I attended my first hackathon hosted by NBC-Universal on March 28th, 2015. The theme, “Smart, Dynamic, Immersive Entertainment Driven by Technology” and $19,000 in cash prizes drew over 170 people to participate. Over 42 teams submitted projects for judging in 6 categories. We were permitted to compete in up to two categories with each project.

The two challenges I selected:



Following is my summary of the project:

Universal has an on going theme of fantastic that is all around us just out of sight. That slight twist of magical or technological reality makes the impossible real just around next turn. Whether it’s magical ability in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, mutant DNA in Marvel, or rule-defying technology in Jurassic Park. U-Discover is an interactive immersive experience with game-based missions to eliminate the traditional line system.

First let’s examine the functions a queue performs:

  • Spaces out boarding of the ride in a manner that balances arrival time with passenger throughput.
  • Generates a sense of fairness regarding boarding time within the audience.
  • Provides initial immersive experience to initiate suspension of disbelief.
  • Provides time for the transmission of safety information.


All of four of these needs and more can be accomplished by tasks, while incentivizing the user.

A user enters the park and receives a message in the Universal App asking if they’d like to have an interactive experience. If they opt in, their smartphone (or a wearable for minors/adults without smartphones) opens functionality to a set of novel experiences.


Upon reaching the entrance to a ride with U-Discover features, a full screen notification alert pops up in the universal app offering the opportunity to participate in a challenge composed of several tasks. Below is a mock-up of one possible task rendered by Emory Alvarado.

Once the last task in the series is completed, a unique key is sent to Microsoft Azure for the ride gate to verify and allow entry upon the patron’s return.


This provides the following possibilities:

  • Timing and number of tasks can be determined based on observed and predictive analytics. This can allow on-the-fly traffic control.
  • Users have a sense of progress and accomplishment obtained by transit and completion of tasks.
  • The need for skill provides an alternative sense of justification for boarding times.
  • Tasks can be included that mimic safety needs with motion tracking devices such as a leap motion or modified kinect. These activities could include; pulling the bar down, maintaining a clearance envelope, and other ride specific safety regulations. This can ensure reception of the information by call and response verification.
  • Users are encouraged to interact with the immersive world and utilize more regions of the park than they otherwise might visit.
  • Users are able to make purchases of food, merchandise and use restroom facilities during that wait time rather than being stuck in one location.
  • Tasks and challenges can be modified to provide different experiences over time allowing for novelty while using the same equipment
  • For Harry Potter specific rides, Integration with Pottermore will allow story customization by house and the allocation of points to houses, based on tasks completed.

Our variable switching Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon system is probably the most interesting technological component of our project. Michael Dupont, wrote an excellent Instructable detailing the process We use an iPhone and an Intel Edison as variable TX/RX BLE beacons. This acts as a logical gate imparting information based on whether the beacon is in receive or transmit mode. Conceptually, The use of task completion as a queue system represents a radical shift that allows a deeper level of guest engagement by leveraging both existing and yet-to-come technology.


I went alone with an idea, pitched it to the group of participants, recruited a 7-person team, managed design and development subgroups and delivered our final project. While we were not selected for one of the six major prizes, we were awarded “Best Microsoft Hack,” for our most original and effective use of Microsoft Azure’s Services. Not bad for a first go at hackathons!

Demonstration of the system.

At 31 seconds they interview me and show the team in NBC-Universal’s video.


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