During the past 24 hours, Harsh Pandey (CS’15), Jonathan Goldman (CS’15), and Siddharth Dhulipalla (CS’14) have seen nothing but a blur of code and words. The end result, a 15x15 crossword puzzle, is seen on the big screen by the crowd packed into the auditorium of CMU’s Gates Hillman complex.
It's all part of TartanHacks, CMU’s annual hackathon, where hundreds of coders and designers spend a day competing to develop “cool things.” PuzzlePal is the project for Pandey, Goldman, and Dhulipalla. Although it just came to fruition, it has been in the making for three years.
Pandey and Goldman first met during 2011’s freshmen orientation, when they were assigned to be roommates in Morewood E-Tower. Once the semester began, they started cranking through the same computer science classes—including Freshman Immigration, where they learned about activities humans can accomplish that computers can’t, such as solving a crossword puzzle.
The roommates returned to E-Tower wondering how something so ordinary could be so complex. After doing some research, the fledgling programmers grudgingly concluded that computers did have shortcomings when it came to solving crossword puzzles.
Nearly three years later, when Pandey registered for the 2014 TartanHacks, Goldman was the obvious choice for his teammate. For the hackathon, Goldman suggested they solve that crossword puzzle conundrum computers face. Pandey liked the idea, but he didn’t know whether—in just 24 hours—they could create an application that translated the human thought process into a computer program.
Pandey’s concern made him think of Dhulipalla, also a computer science major, whom Pandey met though Mayur SASA, the campus South Asian student organization. Pandey recruited Dhulipalla for more brainpower, and the PuzzlePal team was formed.
Like the other teams at the hackathon’s start, the PuzzlePal guys had a long day and night ahead of them—studying new theories and applying complex principles. The task was daunting, but as hours passed, they figured out how to digitize the static image of the board, process written clues, and crack algorithms to determine correct answers. As they worked, they tweaked bugs, rethought calculations, even took a nap. They finally got the computer to select the correct words for down and across, but were there glitches?
The team and everyone else are about to find out as all eyes are on the big screen. With 15 seconds left in their 75-second demonstration, the crossword puzzle is still blank. Suddenly, the crowd gasps. Correct letters and words magically fill the boxes, and the computer finishes with time to spare. The audience cheers for what ends up being the winning demo.