Pittsburgh advertising firm puts out 'hacker challenge'

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If you ask a teen-age tech whiz whether he might consider an advertising career, he might look at you funny, even if he never watched the '60s-era show "Mad Men."

Technology is dictating a faster and faster pace for all industries, but public perception of the advertising business is stuck in the era of drawing boards.

Brunner, a Pittsburgh advertising firm, came up with an idea "for kids to see that ad agencies do cool things with technology," said John Roden, its chief information officer. In September, Brunner launched its own ad campaign, the Hacker Challenge, and invited students between 14 and 18 to submit ideas for the chance to win a training session and access to Brunner's expertise in turning their ideas into products.

Brunner's spin-off innovation, BHiveLab, held a session Saturday at TechShop Pittsburgh in Bakery Square, Larimer, for eight students chosen to receive an Arduino starter kit, training in how to use it to get their idea going and the chance to win a first-place prize of $2,000 or runner-up awards of $500 if their ideas are chosen.

The Hacker Challenge refers to "hacker" as an innovator, tinkerer and technology explorer -- not a criminal invader of data systems.

Arduino is a circuitry platform that works as a computer processor on which to develop prototypes. It was developed for use in schools as an accessible and affordable platform.

"This is a strategy for building the next generation of advertising careers," Mr. Roden said. "The challenge today is finding technology people who keep adding value to our industry. Right now, given the choice of a technology job in advertising or with Google, they're going to pick Google."

But a whiz kid at an ad firm could be working on proprietary technology that lets your refrigerator talk to your phone.

Brunner is working on an application to do that called Objctify, "like Facebook for objects," Mr. Roden said. Your refrigerator would alert your phone that you are almost out of milk and your phone would signal that a supermarket is a few blocks up on the right.

That communication would be triggered by a program created to figure the rate of use of the refrigerator's contents, such as a gallon of milk: "Five children, 10 seconds," Mr. Roden said.

The average person would put milk on the shopping list, but these apps are not meant for the average person, at least not yet. They are meant to give companies better chances to speak to potential customers and to attract clients.

"It's a challenge to get your mind around how much there is you can do," with technology, Mr. Roden said.

Advertisers still design brochures, write jingles and promote clients for print and TV, but digital production possibilities are "mind-boggling," he said. "It would be fantastic to be a kid in school these days."

Of the eight students chosen for the Hacker Challenge, Amber Griffith is a ninth-grader at Knoch High School in Saxonburg.

"My idea is an interactive homework app," she said. "The students can check off the homework they did and the teacher can see who actually did the homework. It could be used either by phone or a website. It would take the place of an assignment book.

"I've done basic circuitry," she said. "My uncle's a microbiologist and always tries to increase my interest in science. He got me a circuitry game you can put together like a puzzle."

Any thoughts about going into advertising?

"I'm interested in forensic science," she said.

Victor Mao, a sophomore at Franklin Regional High in Murrysville, is creating an app that automatically lets you know when your library book is due.

"Students always forget that," he said. "So, the student can renew the book with the app. This way, the librarian wouldn't have to find people's emails" to send out notices.

He wants to go into computer science or medical technology.

Ben Ekeroth, a senior at Franklin Regional, is building an app "to teach kids low-level programming and circuitry," he said. "The app would allow you to communicate with the Arduino chip so you could create programs."

Advertising wasn't on his radar either. He's thinking about studying math and computer science.

But Brunner has home field advantage in December, when the students visit its Downtown offices to pitch their ideas.

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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