What’s not to love about a hackathon? The junk food and caffeine that fuel the weekend; the highs that come with success and the lows that come when the blue smoke is released; the desperate search for inspiration as the clock ticks away; nerve-wracking pitches to the judges, hoping against hope that everything works in the demo. Hackathons are the contact sport of the hacker world, bringing in top competitors and eager upstarts, and when done well you just might attract interested “civilians” and other newbies that will catch the hacking bug from what they witness.
Such was the scene at the Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, NY over the last weekend of January. New for 2016, the CoG is hosting a series of four hardware hackathons this year, each with a different theme. This event’s theme was “Internet of Things”, and the call went out to any and all to come compete for bragging rights and over $1,000 in prizes. Incentives to compete included some big name corporate sponsors, like AT&T, and judging and mentoring provided by the likes of SparkFun’s [Jeff Branson]. There was also a steady stream of food and drink, saturation coverage by local media outlets, and your humble Hackaday writer and his son, who made the trip up to Troy with a small passel of Hackaday swag and a curiosity to see how the CoG has fared since our last visit at the grand opening of their glorious new home. We were not disappointed.
Measuring the body’s electrical signals is a neat trick… if you can get your equipment dialed in enough to establish dependable measurements. The technique is called Surface ElectroMyography (SEMG) though you’ll hear many call this ECG. They’re essentially the same technology; the Electro CardioGraph instruments monitor the activity of the heart while SEMG Instruments monitor electrical signals used to control other muscles. Both types of hardware amount to an instrumentation type amplifier and some form of I/O or display.
This topic has been in my back pocket for many months now. Back in May we Hackaday’ites descended on New York City for the Disrupt NY Hackathon event. We arrived a day or so early so that we might better peruse the Korean BBQ joints and check out the other electronics that NY has to offer. On Saturday we gathered around, each shouting out the size of his or her t-shirt preference as we covered up our black Hackaday logo tees with maroon maroon ones (sporting the Hackaday logo of course) for a 24-hour craze of hardware hacking.
There were two individuals at our tables who were both hacking away on hardware to measure the electrical field produced by the body’s muscles in some form or another. The electrical signals measured from the skin are small, and need careful consideration to measure the signal despite the noise. This is a fun experiment that lets you work with both Instrumentation Amplifiers and OpAmps to achieve a usable signal from the movement of your body.
Big-name corporate sponsors, top-notch judges and mentoring, 36 hours to play in a huge new hackerspace, and all the Cheetos and Red Bull you need to stoke the creative fires. Sounds like a hackathon, and it’ll roll into The Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, New York next month. And from the look of it, it’s going to be a big deal. You should be there.
You might recall the TVCoG from a story we did this summer on the grand opening of their amazing newly renovated space in downtown Troy. Occupying an entire city block in a historic department store building and housing not only a huge hackerspace but a tech company incubator with manufacturing capabilities and a STEM outreach space, the CoG now has the room to reach out into the community and host big events. The hackathon scheduled for January 30 and 31 and is only the first of four events planned for 2016. This one has the theme “Internet of Things” and will feature SparkFun’s Jeff Branson as mentor and judge.
Here’s a call to arms for Hackaday readers in the northeast: let’s pack this hackathon and make it huge. There’s already a bunch of Jolly Wrencher stickers scattered all over from our last visit, so you’ll feel right at home. Head over to the TVCoG site and sign up for this one. We’d really like to see HaD take home bragging rights. And you can be sure we’ll be covering the event and bringing some swag of our own.
Software hackathons are an old hat these days. They’re a great scouting opportunity for talented candidates looking for a job, and they provide the battleground for coding enthusiasts to prove themselves by developing a project from start to finish overnight, albeit, with a few kinks. Hardware hackathons are an entirely different beast. By trading APIs for components and Python libraries for soldering irons, they pull the excitement out of the text editor and onto the workbench for everyone to see.
While hardware hackathons might be “the next big thing” with you and your four best DIY-pals, the broad range of physical components, from Arduinos to CNC milling time, makes rule-establishment, safety enforcement, and winning criteria far more difficult to constrain within a single night. Enter Muddhacks. This past October, three students from Harvey Mudd College set out to deliver a hardware hackathon that would open their student community’s mind to the thought of tinkering-for-fun in their spare time outside the lab and beyond their homework.
Students [Benjamin Chasnov], [Apoorva Sharma], and [Akhil Bagaria] had just finished their experimental engineering class: E80. Along the way, they designed a custom sensor payload into a meter-long rocket and launched both rocket and payload to measure the rocket’s fundamental frequencies in flight. With a victory behind them, they were ready for their next big project.
As the next semester waned onwards, however, they realized that any big project–no matter how modular–would be a serious time commitment. After some thought, they refactored their idea entirely. Tinkering was a passion shared by each of them; why not spread the love school-wide and bring together a community of engineers-by-night? To resolve their craving for after-hours engineering and to inspire a culture of collaborative tinkering, they set out to bootstrap a hardware hackathon; an event where many projects could be realized by many students in a single night.
Everyone Says Hardware is Hard
For the unitiated, hardware looks hard. Breadboards, LEDs, r`esistors? To those who have never put together a simple circuit before, taking that first leap is a challenge set by a box of components that almost seems to glare back menacingly. The three teammates took this first-timer roadblock as a challenge unto themselves to break down that barrier. Thus, HackWeek was born.
HackWeek was the MuddHacks teams’ answer to get students comfortable gluing modules together to produce a functional project in a short time. How do I make things move? How do I connect things to the internet? What parts do I choose? All of these questions-worth-answering became topics of the three-day event before the hackathon. The idea behind HackWeek was simple: give eager students enough theory and a functional demo that they could probe, tweak, and recompile so that they could feel more comfortable developing their own ideas into projects. On day one, the MuddHacks team brought functional demos of various motors into the hands of eager students. By day two, the three teammates actually assembled a functional hack of their own before the eyes of their listeners: an internet-enabled microwave that could remotely start warming up that cup of ramen on your way back from class.
Unlike software hackathons, a successful hardware hackathon involves parts, and the MuddHacks team was well-prepared to bring the participants the parts that they wanted. With ten days to go before the event, [Ben] took orders from each team’s desired list of parts. With a day to go, all parts arrived before the event and made it to their respective user’s hands in “goodie bags” on the last day of HackWeek. On this last day, teams opened their bags and explored the parts given to them and to other teams while taking advice from the mentors present to offer tips for using various components. This time for “open-exploration” ensured that the following night spent hacking would be more fruitful, now that teams had cleared the starting questions for various parts on the previous day.
On the night of MuddHacks, [Ben], [Apoorva], and [Akhil] had completely turned their original aim to build their own project into a night spent mentoring the projects of others. Throughout the night, they became the “ground crew,” bringing advice to debugging teams and keeping the night culture alive with two waves of snacks. “We felt that if students were going to come to our event, it was our responsibility to keep them both awake and happy,” Apoorva mentioned. Classrooms refilled for the night with students eager to bring their robots, LEDs, and gantries to life, but other parts of the school came to life as well. The machine shops reopened, and old oscilloscopes and test equipment emerged from the engineering stock room for loan to any teams that needed them. Even a few professors happened to wander into classrooms and offer advice.
For [Ben], [Apoorva], and [Akhil], fostering a sense of community in tinkering became their top priority. As they wandered between teams, they encouraged stellar performers to take a brief break and help out another team through a bug. At the night’s end, a number of early-rising professors joined the crowd of students to judge the winners. Oddly enough, the MuddHacks team didn’t spend any money on the prizes–but no one seemed to notice or care. For the eighth of the entire undergraduate student body that attended, these students weren’t coming for the prizes. They came to join that culture of tinkerers–to be a fellow hardware-hacker-by-night–eager to do their part to make the world blink.
When was the last time you burned yourself downloading someone else’s API? Probably never. With a hardware hackathon, comes a new wave of challenges not seen before in the software variant. With one successful hackathon under their belt, we asked the MuddHacks Team to share some insights for other teams looking to assemble their own hardware hackathon. Here’s what they came up with.
Charging participants an entrance fee may solve the problem of funding, but for the thrifty, starving student, entrance fees may also weed out people who had a slight curiosity but weren’t eager to throw a few bucks down to support it. The solution? Bring participants in for free and support the hackathon with external funding. The MuddHacks team reached out to a number of companies and encouraged them to take a sincere look at their website and cause.
The Muddhacks team handled most of their administrative work online. Among the tools they chose were
Google Forms for parts orders and feedback
Slack and email lists for real-time updates during the event
Google Spreadsheets for keeping track of order requests
Bootstrap for deploying a website
The Muddhacks team mandated that students form teams to enter the hackathon, mostly to foster community and collaboration. They reasoned: “If you already build things for fun on your own, you don’t need a hackathon to get you excited about hardware for the first time.” Most teams self-assembled, but the Muddhacks team also suggests a submission form for stragglers to pair up.
Ten days before the hackathon, [Ben] put out a call to order parts in a $100 budget range. Each team made part requests, and [Ben] then ordered each of these parts in time for the hackathon. In addition, the Muddhacks team also ordered a collection of additional stock hardware (think: Arduinos and shields).
Setting the Stage
The Muddhacks team received permission to host the night event on the third floor of one of their buildings filled with classrooms. Among points to consider for the setting are:
reliable Wi-Fi connectivity
power outlet access
Soldering irons and sleep-deprivation don’t mix well. Among the points to consider for safety are tools that will keep users safe (safetly glasses and ventilation in this case). The MuddHacks team also recommends a safety waiver.
Advertising and Swag
Getting people excited is key. Logos, T-shirts, and Mugs all add to the authenticity of the one-night event. The Muddhacks Team brought in each of these to its participants. In addition, they printed posters, deployed a website and facebook page, and pitched to students directly in their computer science and engineering classes.
Keeping the Night Moving
Feed the masses. The MuddHacks team reminds us that, as the hosts and organizers of the event, it’s your responsibility to make sure that attendees are both awake and enjoying their time. Not only did the team provide two rounds of food, they also walked around and engaged participants that needed some help debugging, effectively becoming an extra set of eyes to track down bugs as mentors throughout the night.
The MuddHacks team brought in their favorite professors to judge teams’ projects. At this event, the MuddHacks team stresses that all participants deserve to see all projects. Not only can they witness something awesome, they can also engage their peers with questions, effectively learning a few extra tricks that they didn’t discover while working on their own project.
Priming for Next Year
From the MuddHacks Team: “Take pictures!” While the first website and facebook page were filled with images of the tools and the setting, next years website and advertisements could be filled with pictorial proof of the promise to participants of a genuine experience. As the first hackathon closes, they also stress that you, the organizers and founders, learn too; and the best way to do so is to collect feedback with some manner of online form. At the same time, this form could also recruit additional hands for assembling next year’s hackathon.
We hope these tips from a stellar hackathon serve as a starting point for developing one of your own. To learn more about MuddHacks, take a quick visit to their website: MuddHacks.com, or follow them on their Facebook page.
This article was specifically written for the Hackaday Omnibus vol #02. Order your copy of this limited edition print version of Hackaday.
The concept behind crop squares is to make a graphical user interface using Dizmo that clearly shows the status of your crops in a grid system. For the prototype they used an Arduino Pro Mini with moisture sensors in potted plants to detect moisture levels, while a Raspberry Pi also collected weather data for the area being watched. The Arduino used an ESP8266 WiFi module to transmit the data remotely. To demonstrate how the system could be used in an automated sense, they hooked up another Arduino (this time a Leonardo), to pour water once the moisture levels dropped below a certain threshold.
Crop Squares won the Best Pitch Award as well as the Best Integration of Dizmo — good job guys!
There’s a great hackathon going on this weekend in the Boston area. Hacking Eating Tracking challenges participants to develop technology that will help guide personal behavior toward a healthier lifestyle.
The event in hosted in Cambridge, MA by Harvard University. It isn’t focused on giving you a diet that you need to follow. It looks instead at how some more abstract behavior changes will cause your body to do this for you. One really quick example is to change the hand in which you hold your fork, or swap out the fork for a different utensil. Going “lefty” while you eat can change the cadence of your consumption and my impact how many calories you consume before feeling full. This is a really fun type of hacking to delve into!
Hackaday is one of the Hackathon sponsors and [Sophi] is headed out to participate in the weekend of building. She’s planning to work with a Pixy Camera which can measure depth data and can separate colors. Of course decisions on the build direction won’t be made until she and her teammates put their heads together, but she did have a few preliminary ideas. Several of these cameras might be used in a supermarket to gather data on where customers tend to congregate and how aisle flow and stock choices might be able to change behavior.
If you’re not in the area you should still be able to follow along as the event helps to improve people’s lives through behavior. The hackathon will be using the Hackaday.io Hackathon framework. Teams will register and update their projects throughout the weekend. We’re looking forward to seeing what is built using the crate of LightBlue Bean boards we sent along from the Hackaday Store.
Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of helping out at the KW Hackathon in Waterloo, Ontario, sponsored by PCH Hardware, who hosts hackathons and meetups around the world to help inspire invention and entrepreneurship. This was the sixth hardware based hackathon they have hosted.
When they host a hackathon, they gather local sponsors and provide the tools and resources for the entrants to actually develop a working prototype in less than 54 hours, that they then can pitch to a panel of judges to win some awesome prizes. Did we mention it’s free to register? The next one is in London, England.
Personally, I provided some mentorship in product design and development, but more importantly, I opened up the use of my giant laser cutter to help the teams create real prototypes, and learn more about rapid prototyping using a laser cutter. Everyone wanted to 3D print their prototypes at first — but there was a limited number of printers available, and long wait times. We introduced them to sites like www.makercase.com, a site that will generate laser cutter plans for enclosures that you specify the dimensions of, and of course, the ability to search google for “laser cut arduino case” to find pre-designed laser designs for electronics.
Some teams more experienced in CAD got creative and made cool decahedrons which actually helped create a working prototype the way they envisioned it on paper.
In addition to the main event, they hosted keynote speakers and workshops to help take teams ideas even further — we think Communitech (the hosting venue) really summed up the purpose of having hackathons nicely:
“Useful stuff does really emerge from hackathons: some realized ideas, but more importantly, new human hacker connections and a deeper sense of capability and our capacity to create beyond the software realm.”
Overall, the event was fantastic, and it makes us wish there were more like it. You could feel the buzz of excitement in the room when creative people got together and started designing and making things. Oh and the free food was pretty awesome too — especially for students.
For more information about the event, check out the news piece by [Darin White] for Communitech News.