The fall 2014 hackathon slate is shaping up as the busiest yet: there are already 30 events announced, dozens more being planned, and uniqueness is promised from the very start. Keep reading our hackathon preview to learn what’s new and interesting this season…

MHacks, at the University of Michigan / Ann Arbor (Sep. 5-7), is the season’s first major event. Among its organizers is Vikram Rajagopalan, a sophomore from Bethesda, Maryland. This contest will be the fourth go-around for MHacks, so his crew is making some changes to keep it fresh.

Rajagopalan wants to ensure that plenty of first-timers are there. “Sometimes when your brand becomes really good, and you become nationally known, then you don’t have space for the newcomers,” he said. “So we try to create many avenues to gain admission to MHacks automatically.”

Toward that goal, MHacks signed mobile application distributor MakeGamesWithUs as a partner. Students who completed a four-week online course on the MakeGames site received automatic admission to MHacks, Rajagopalan said.

The organizing committee also has a clever plan to help students who lack hacking ideas. “What can people build to benefit the people of Michigan specifically?,” Rajagopalan asked. Rather than having young hackers get lost in ways to change the world, he wants to make suOculus Rift VR headsetch students think of challenges for their localities and encourage brainstorming for ways to solve them.

Another unique aspect of MHacks, although not necessarily new for this season, is that its leaders are almost entirely other sophomores. Wolverine juniors and seniors tend to focus their spare time on finding internships, landing full-time jobs, or getting into graduate schools, Rajagopalan noted. He’s at a different place in collegiate life: he hasn’t even declared a major. Computer science will probably get the nod, he ackowledged.

Rajagopalan himself spent the summer studying new programming languages. Perhaps he’ll write his own language someday, or he could become an excellent project manager. In leading MHacks, “One of my favorite parts of this role is that I’m an enabler,” he said. “I can enable other people to build amazing things.”

Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets will be used by about 40 teams at MHacks, Rajagopalan said. That trend began last season and is now in full swing. “That’s something that was just not available that readily at the last hackathon season,” he said. “We’re working hard to make sure we have as many of those headsets as possible.” Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift led to the start-up being able to pump up their production, he added. Fewer students will be using Google Glass due to its cost, he said.

Creative uniqueness abounds

Hackathons tend to look the same as each other, but there are plenty of ways to stand apart. The organizers of BoilerMake, at Purdue University (Oct. 17-19) distinguished themselves last season with visionary organization. Hack Princeton (Nov. 14-16) is known for its ultra-competitive hardware category. Sometime a hackathon is noteworthy for its straightforward heft: YHack organizers at Yale University (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) are aiming to have their event be one of the largest.

On the other extreme is HackTX, at the University of Texas/Austin (Oct. 18-19), showing that a regional event can thrive without fretting about size.

“Although we have some national attention, we like to focus regionally. We consciously decided that we wanted to focus on Texas students,” explained Taylor Barnett, a senior computer science major from Weatherford, near Dallas. However, neighbors are welcome, too: “This year we even have a few students who are going to be driving up from Mexico,” because it’s closer than going to events farther away in Mexico City, she observed.

Barnett said her event will have workshops for hackathon newcomers. The idea evolved last year when some participants formed their own beginner’s group on Facebook, she said. HackTX will also have some activities to get people to step away from their tables, she said. Tapping into Austin’s live music scene is a possibility, but at the very least college hackers need to have some human contact, not just stare at a screen. Healthy bodies are as important as healthy code, she noted.

As such, there won’t be pizza. Barnett is adamant. “I don’t throw events with pizza. I as a CS student have been given so much pizza by event sponsors that I’m sick of it!,” she said. “We’re trying to bring back barbeque… and we have tacos.”

Other notable hackathons this fall include CalHacks (University of California / Berkeley, Oct. 3-5); DubHacks (University of Washington, Oct. 17-18); Hack the North (University of Waterloo, Sep. 19-21); HackGT (Georgia Institute of Technology, Sep. 19-21); HackRU (Rutgers University, Oct. 11-12); PennApps (University of Pennsylvania, Sep. 12-14); and TreeHacks (Stanford University, Nov. 14-16).