NBCUniversal Shares Its Hit Hackathon Formula

June 15, 2015

On the heels of recent hackathons in New York, Orlando, and London, NBCUniversal’s Media Labs division believes it has set up a new mechanism for tapping into energy and ideas from outside the corporation’s walls.

“We have established a successful formula for our hackathons,” says Sanjay Macwan, NBCUniversal Media Labs’ senior vice president and chief technology officer, right. “With each event, we continue to learn more about the local tech communities.”

The hackathons are one responsibility of Media Labs, an innovation team that helps develop and deploy new technologies within the company, a $25.4 billion division of Comcast Corp. responsible for theme parks, a movie studio, and several broadcast and cable networks. The weekend-long events attract dozens of software engineers and designers interested in developing novel approaches to issues NBCUniversal cares about.

More than 130 participants took part in the London event earlier this month, which carried the theme “The Future of Content Creation, Distribution and Monetization in a Connected World.” Those attending had the opportunity to compete for more than £10,000 in cash and prizes.

Background on Media Labs

“Our Media Labs organization is dedicated to driving a culture of innovation across NBCUniversal. We partner with startups, research groups, academics, content creators and brands,” Macwan says.

“NBCUniversal is in the business of telling compelling stories,” he says. Media Labs “helps our internal clients adopt the newest technologies as quickly as possible to create the best experiences for our audiences.” The division has offices in New Jersey, London, and Los Angeles.

One way Media Labs explores the potential of new technologies is by having its internal teams create short demos to show off NBCUniversal content in new ways, says Atish Banerjea, NBCUniversal’s executive vice president and chief information officer.

For example, the group created mock-ups of movie trailers to demonstrate what the content would look like on virtual reality headsets being developed by Oculus and Samsung, he says. The idea was to quickly produce a proof-of-concept to show what the new technology can do, and how the company could use it to connect with audiences.

Banerjea says his team brought the concept “to our executives in those divisions and said, ‘If you wanted to have a small experience of a trailer for a movie in three dimensions, this is what it could look like.'”

How the Hackathons Work

Media Labs’ series of hackathons are tied tightly to issues and opportunities identified by business unit executives.

“First and foremost, our hackathons are collaborations with our key businesses. We focus on the areas where innovation can have a significant impact,” Macwan says. “So we go to the business leaders and obviously explain what we are doing with the hackathon, and invite them to come up with a challenge that they think would be very meaningful to solve for that business,” he says.

London hackathon participants were challenged with creating new advertising models to attract millennials, build new experiences around subscription-based video content, and develop new ways to integrate sales transactions into social media platforms.

Orlando participants were given challenges based around theme parks and cable television properties like the Golf Channel and Telemundo.”The Orlando hackathon was a great event,” Macwan says. “We had 42 exciting concepts developed which leveraged hardware, software and content to help us continue to create richer entertainment experiences for our guests and audiences.”

“We had the right mix of developers, entrepreneurs and user experience and user interface specialists. We also really tapped into the local tech community. The participation and the output were outstanding, largely because of the high level of local engagement,” Macwan continues. Hackathon participants get access to a “Developer Sandbox,” which lets them use APIs, or application programming interfaces, that make it possible to connect what they build to existing systems or databases.

NBCUniversal doesn’t view hackathons as a solo endeavor; the company has attracted technology partners like Twitter, Oculus, IBM, and Microsoft, all of which are eager to get developers building things with their platforms. There are also event sponsors other than NBCUniversal that support the hackathons. Judges for the projects mainly come from NBCUniversal business units, augmented with media entrepreneurs from outside the company and notables from the local startup scene.

“Probably the biggest challenge we faced in Orlando was underestimating the popularity of our event. We had to make a last minute call to increase the budget and add tables to accommodate more participants. In fact, we were oversubscribed by dozens of people. And that’s a great problem to have,” he says.

As for all the intellectual property generated at the hackathons, NBCUniversal doesn’t try to assert ownership. After a hackathon, the company can decide whether or not to enter into a business partnership with a team — something it has done with several past hackathon participants.


Some examples of challenges that NBCUniversal laid out for participants at its recent hackathons:

Fan Storytelling

To generate buzz around the future release of Universal Pictures franchise movies we challenge teams to build a tool that gives fans the ability to interact with provided content to create and share their own stories around a film or franchise. The tool should allow fans to incorporate all types of media to tell their own version of the story, thereby increasing engagement and generating buzz around future releases. We encourage teams to go even further than past examples we’ve done with Universal Pictures films including “Get On Up” and “Dumb & Dumber To.”

Gifting Digital Content

Holidays and birthdays just wouldn’t be the same without the gift of entertainment. For 40 years, films and TV shows have found their way under trees or wrapped in ribbons, as perfectly matched gifts to elated recipients. The digital revolution has challenged this tradition, and gifting a digital film or gift card lacks the elegance and emotion of its physical counterpart.

Your challenge is to rejuvenate this practice, and make both gifting and receiving content a social interaction that can turn digital bits into physical excitement. Using NBCUniversal content, platforms and software provided by our technology partners, and the APIs of various social networks and digital storefronts, create opportunity for someone to give the perfect gift to a loved one. The key here is ease of use and technical utility. A successful solution will be simple, fun and multi-platform – allowing the gift giver to buy without knowing what device the film will be download to, because the gift receiver can download the film on a variety of devices.

More Time for Story: Changing or Eliminating the Standard Queuing ExperienceMany [theme park] guests will stand in a queue upwards of 30 minutes prior to experiencing an attraction, for multiple attractions per day. We challenge you to develop a solution to queue guests such that they are not confined to one space, yet are still immersed in the story of what they will experience. Could guests be virtually interacting with characters from the attraction while they wait? Focus on the system behind the story, allowing for modifications between seasons or as interests change.

Find new ways to get golfers out on the course!GolfNow is the worldwide leader in the distribution and sale of online tee times. Its desktop and mobile products interact with a robust internal database of tee time inventory at 6,000 courses around the world, with daily availability of 500,000-600,000 tee times. GolfNow is especially focused on finding innovative ways of optimizing utilization by increasing the booking of tee times that are about to expire (1-4 golfers). GolfNow can aid course partners by proactively surfacing tee times that are about to expire and offering super deals to entice golfers to book a round and get to the course as quickly as possible.

GolfNow’s challenge is to use its tee times API to design an innovative new way to target and engage users of tee times that are about to expire (1-4 golfers) and to incentivize them to book through discounts and other means. Examples could include: creating an auction/bidding process, a notification mechanism, a queueing process, hooks into social platforms, and many other possibilities.

After the Event

The best ideas generated in the hackathons become part of on-going projects at the company.

Macwan says he is pleased to see so many projects from the hackathons feed into the company’s development pipeline. Telemundo, for instance, recently announced the upcoming launch of RAVE [real-time augmented virtual experience], which lets viewers interact with and share content in a completely new way. As part of RAVE, Telemundo will include an experience inspired by one of the projects from the Los Angeles hackathon.

And hackathons benefit NBCUniversal in other ways, Macwan says. They’re “a fantastic vehicle for us to be connected with start-ups, and the whole technology ecosystem around the globe,” he says. And the hackathons are a great way to meet talented people, some of whom become new hires.

“These people come on their own, sacrificing their weekend just because they are very passionate about what they’re doing, and they’re really interested in a company like ours. So it’s a great way for us to attract the best technology talent for [the] world-class technology organization that we are building,” Macwan says.