PennApps began its tenth edition Friday with a fascinating variety of announcements spanning new technologies, ovation-worthy prizes, and a heartfelt effort to create medical hacks.

The event is also a milestone for we at Major League Hacking. It marks our one-year anniversary, during which time we’ve worked with 15,000 students in 38 hackathons!

First day highlights

PennApps kicked off in the afternoon with PennApps’ API Expo. Seven name-brand companies were showing recently launched or upcoming technologies: Apple offered iOS 8 camera interfaces, IBM showed its Bluemix application hosting service, Intel’s Mashery demonstrated the new “Edison” microcontroller, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory spoke of automation features in its Composable Analytics environment, MongoDB had a new pluggable storage engine and document-level locking, SendGrid launched its email newsletter tool, and Twilio debuted toll-free SMS features.

At the opening ceremony, several companies offered cash prizes for the best uses of their products, but the loudest applause was for swag — nearly infinite Redbull from 50onRed, air hockey tables from Mashery, GoPro cameras from Bloomberg, and free massages from us fine folks at Major League Hacking. Money can be saved or spent, but Moxtra offered glory — in the form of a Smash Brothers tournament this weekend.

Twilio offered perhaps the cleverest prize of all: four-inch-tall action figures of your own likeness for the best apps designed to save ‘net neutrality. Two students from Wellesley College, Karina Chan and Claire Schlenker, accepted the challenge. They’re working on a web game where users earn points every time they somehow advocate the cause. PennApps is their first hackathon. Win or not, let’s hope their project succeeds.

Roaming everywhere were professional and technical mentors. Spotted in a campus hallway was something equally pragmatic: a company called Dr. Duino, pitching a Kickstarter for Arduino debugging tools.

Hacking the human body

Students at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school took things to a much more serious level with their PennHealth initiative. About 50 hackers attended the speech from med student Mitt Coats, who along with undergraduate Brynn Claypoole is leading the charge toward biological hacks. They already have a major idea for the next PennApps — to make real operating room equipment available for which student projects can interface. (There were no volunteers to be the test subjects!)

Brown University’s Chen Ye, who won at HackPrinceton, said he’s thinking about making a virtual reality interface to an endoscopy tool. “I looked it up. It doesn’t exist,” he said, acknowledging that he’d only done a cursory Google search. Such a tool would be more direct than merely looking inside the human body from a traditional joystick and computer screen, he said. PennHealth intrigued him compared to other subject areas, Ye said. “It’s a topic that I think is uniquely suited to the hackathon concept.”

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