Rise of Hardware: A PCH Hackathon

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.

Hackaday Prize Worldwide LA: The Ultimate Workshop, Party, And Hackathon

The Zero to Product workshop, held at the Hackaday Design Lab in Pasadena two weeks ago, was a packed house of talented people seeking to expand their skill set with professional PCB layout tips and tricks. [Matt Berggren] didn’t disappoint, bringing his professional experience to the table in a way that anyone with basic electronic knowledge can grasp. Learning the things that make a board reliable and manufacturable can be done with a simple design. In the case, the culmination of the workshop is development board to host the ESP8266 WiFi modules that have been so popular over the last half-year.

This isn’t the first time we’ve pulled off a massive hardware hackathon and meetup, and it certainly won’t be the last. You have another chance to participate in the workshop in San Francisco on June 13th. If you can’t catch that one, we’ll be in Shenzhen for the Shenzhen Maker Fare, a Zero to Product workshop, and a meetup.

The completed ESP8266 breakout presented during the talk
The completed ESP8266 breakout presented during the talk

Of course Hackaday events are never “all work and no play”. The day crept into night and the the chairs were cleared out for hightop tables and tasty beverages. The atmosphere was festive and everyone still made it back early the next morning for an entire day of hardware hacking, tinkering, and general futzing around with circuits and electrons. If you check out [Rich Hogben]’s photo log of the weekend, you’ll find some an impressive collection of hackers were there. I see at least one person who’s job is flying space probes, a Hackaday Prize judge, and a security researcher who can crack a Master Lock in 30 seconds.

The display for [Steve]'s LIDAR
The display for [Steve]’s LIDAR

Bar-time Show and Tell

The meetup Saturday night wasn’t technically a bring-a-hack event, but we walwasy want to see people’s latest and greatest contraptions. [Steve Collins] brought a homebrew LIDAR. This project was based on a SparkFun Time of Flight breakout board that scans the room with a cheap hobby servo, reads the data into an Arduino and displays the rangefinding data on a small TFT. The LIDAR is good enough to scan the entire Hackaday Design Lab, with more than enough resolution for any robotics project you have in mind.

Also at the Saturday night gathering was our very own mythical creature [Sophi Kravitz], [Elecia White] who is and embedded.fm podcaster, engineer, and Hackaday Prize judge two years in a row, and [Samy Kamkar] known for his privacy and security research and for building the KeySweeper. They gave a series of lightning talks about the latest things they’re working on:

We rented Galaga and Ms. Pac Man machines for the entire weekend, but that wasn’t the only electronic entertainment for the party. Two Bit Circus was there with a game that could only be described as highly disorganized electronic chess. FLED, the exceedingly large, high-resolution RGB LED display was behind the bar, and Deezmaker took over a room to 3D scan people and print out miniature clones on a pair of 3D printers.

The Hackathon

The events continued on until Sunday evening with a hardware hackathon. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill software hackathon where people sit behind their MacBooks the entire time; we had soldering irons, components, solder, solder wick (important!) and dozens of hardware hackers tinkering away at their latest electronic doodad.

Foreground: A moisture vaporator
Foreground: A moisture vaporator
A vast assortment of dev boards
A vast assortment of dev boards

The amount of hardware on hand was spectacular. Hackaday Prize sponsors Atmel, Freescale, Microchip, and TI all provided some hardware. Everything from ATMega328 boards from Atmel, TI Launchpads bristling with goodies like the Sharp Memory Display booster packs, Seeed Studio starter packs, to insanely powerful Freescale Freedom boards were available to build on at the event. The Sunday hackathon also had several gigantic boxes from Mouser filled to the brim with components and breadboards available to everyone to clobber into submission, letting their inner electronics geek shine.
chipWhen taking a break from the build there was plenty to look at. People were showing off already completed projects they brought along with them. [Jeff] from Circuitry & Poetry was there with a bunch of circuit bent synths. A number of people were also finishing up the ESP8266 breakout boards that were presented the day before; some soldering and some laying out a PCB in Eagle. It was an incredible event, with dozens of groups going off to do their own thing, but still welcoming to anyone else who wanted to tinker. This type of community isn’t found everywhere and we’re thankful for the people that make Hackaday events like this one so special.

We need to take the time to give a big shoutout to SGVHAK. We honestly couldn’t have done this event without them. I’d personally like to thank [Michael Proctor-Smith] for bringing his amazing livestreaming box. He is the reason I am not currently (still) editing down seven hours of video from the PCB design workshop and the lightning talks. Big ups to [Lan], [Scoops] and everyone else who helped out. If you came to the Hackaday event, check out their meetups. If you’re in the area, we also have regular informal meetups somewhere around the hackerspace. Come on out!

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Hackaday Links: May 31, 2015

Back in the mid-70s, [Paul Horowitz] (who has an incredible Wikipedia entry, by the way) started teaching Physics 123 at Harvard. Simple electronic circuits, solving problems with silicon; simple stuff like that. His lecture and lab notes started getting a following, and after Xeroxing a few dozen copies, he realized he had written a book. It was The Art of Electronics, and Ladyada interviewed this master of hand drawn schematics. A great interview and great camera work, too.

Like hackathons? How about one at CERN? It’s happening October 2 through October 4. The aim this year is to have a humanitarian and social impact thanks to technology. The projects last year were very good; everything from cosmic ray detectors to a $10 inflatable fridge for field operations.

You want viral advertising for your movie? This is how you do viral advertising for your movie. It’s Hackerman’s Hacking Tutorials, and we’d really like to know how they did the 80s graphics with modern computers. It’s not like you can just go out and buy a Video Toaster these days…

Previously available only through group buys, the Flir Lepton module is now available at Digikey.

We have hit the singularity. We have stared into the abyss, and the abyss has stared into us. There was a kickstarter to fund a trailer for another, bigger kickstarter. Relevant xkcd right here.

The Tymkrs had a lamb roast, and what better way to do that than with a huge lathe? Put some charcoal on the ways, turn it at a low RPM, and eventually you’ll have a meal. Bonus points for the leaf blower manifold, a gold star for carving it with a sawzall.

PicoRico Hacks String Encoder for Bike Suspension Telemetry

It’s simple, it’s elegant, and it works really really well. The PicoRico team built a telemetry system for a downhill bike. Off the top of your head how would you do this? Well, telemetry is easy… just add an IMU board and you’re golden. They went beyond that and have plans to go much further. In fact, the IMU was an afterthought. The gem of this build is a sensor that may go by several names: string encoder, draw wire sensor, stringpot, etc. But two things are for sure, they planned well for their hackathon build and they executed on that plan. This landed them as first-runners-up for the top award at the 2015 Disrupt Hackathon in New York, and the winners of the top Hackaday award at the event.

picorico-thumb[Chris], [Marek], and [Dorian] wanted to log all the telemetry data from [Chris’] downhill bike. One of the biggest challenges is to measure the force absorbed by the suspension on the front fork. The three had seen a few attempts at this before. Those used a retractable wire like what holds keys to a custodian’s belt, mated with a potentiometer to measure the change. This is where the term stringpot comes from. The problem is that your resolution and sensitivity aren’t very reliable with this setup.

That is a sensor problem, not a mechanical problem so they kept the retractable reel and replaced the pot with a much more reliable part. In its place an AMT203 absolute position sensor provides an epic level of sensing. According to the datasheet (PDF) this SPI device senses 12 bits of rotation data, can be zeroed over the SPI bus, and is accurate to 0.2 degrees. Unfortunately we didn’t get a good up-close shot of the installation but it is shown in the video. The encoder and retractor mount above the shocks, with the string stretching down to the skewer. When the shocks actuate, the string extends and retracts, turning the absolute encoder. Combine this with the IMU (and two other IMUs they plan to add) and you’ve got a mountain of data to plot and analyze. The videos after the break show a demo of the string encoder and an interview with the team.

picorico-packing-heavyThey came to play

It’s worth noting that the PicoRico team were in this to win it. They packed heavy for the 20-hour hackathon. Here’s a picture of all the gear they brought along with them to the event… in addition to the bike itself.

We see a solder station, Dremel (with drill press), impact driver, tap and die set, extension cords, boxes full of electronics, and more. This type of planning breaks down barriers often faced at hardware hackathons. You can download a software library; you can’t download a tool or building material that nobody has with them. This is the same lesson we learned from [Kenji Larsen] who, as part of his mentoring at the event, brought a mobile fabrication facility in a roller bag.

If you start getting into hackathons, and we hope you will, keep this in mind. Brainstorm as much as you can leading up to the event, and bring your trusted gear along for the ride.

Continue reading “PicoRico Hacks String Encoder for Bike Suspension Telemetry”

Hardware You Might See in a Bar in New York

Our New York City trip for the TechCrunch hackathon is just about wrapped up, and this weekend we’re hosting a hardware hackathon at the Hackaday Design Lab in Pasadena, but there’s still one more event from NYC left to cover: our drink-up in the city.

Our drink-up took over about 90% of the Antler Beer and Wine Dispensary, with the usual, not electronically enabled patrons sufficiently annoyed.

datarecorderWhile this meetup was really just a meet-and-greet pregame for the TechCrunch hackathon, and not a proper ‘bring a hack’, that didn’t stop a few people from toting out some very cool hardware. [Katie Fortunato] trucked out a flight data recorder (or an airplane’s black box, painted orange for visibility) that is supposedly from a 747.

This flight data recorder keeps relevant data on a loop of mylar tape. We didn’t crack into that part of the black box, but we did manage to dig into the electronics. Very weird stuff in there; the control electronics have a backplane design, where each card has a connector that’s basically 2 rows of 50 or 75 female pin sockets. These cards aren’t keyed in any way, and they must be placed in the backplane in a certain order. The circuits are extremely simple; just a mix of op-amps, 74- and 54-series logic (no, we can’t figure that one out, either), buffers, and inverters. The latest date code was some time in the early 80s, and all the boards had a conformal coating on them. There’s a weird connector on the outside of the black box [Katie] promises to document on her hackaday.io profile.

Also at the event were a few folks from NYC Resistor, a few people from the IoTGotham meetup, some of the crew from littleBits. Somewhere in the pictures below is a Ms. PacMan/Galaga cabinet. Yes, I tested the bee overflow cheat, it works, but the high score was above 500,000.

Continue reading “Hardware You Might See in a Bar in New York”

Safety Belt Holds Up Pants and Passwords

[Dan Williams] built a belt that holds up your pants while remembering your passwords. This was his project while camped out at the Hackaday Hardware Villiage at the 2015 TC Disrupt Hackathon last weekend.

safety-belt-pcb-sandwichThe idea started with the concept of a dedicated device to carry a complicated password; something that you couldn’t remember yourself and would be difficult to type. [Dan] also decided it would be much better if the device didn’t need its own power source, and if the user interface was dead simple. The answer was a wrist-band made up of a USB cable and a microcontroller with just one button.

To the right you can see the guts of the prototype. He is using a Teensy 2.0 board, which is capable of enumerating as an HID keyboard. The only user input is the button seen at the top. Press it once and it fires off the stored password. Yes, very simple to implement, but programming is just one part of a competition. The rest of his time was spent refining it into what could reasonably be considered a product. He did such a good job of it that he received an Honorable Mention from Hackaday to recognize his execution on the build.


IMG_20150502_183207[Dan] came up with the idea to have a pair of mating boards for the Teensy 2.0. One on top hosts the button, the other on the bottom has a USB port which is used as the “clasp” of the belt buckle. One side of the USB cable plugs into the Teensy, the other into this dummy-port. Early testing showed that this was too bulky to work as a bracelet. But [Dan] simply pivoted and turned it into a belt.

safety-belt-built-at-hackathon-thumb[Kenji Larsen] helped [Dan] with the PCB-sandwich. Instead of mounting pin sockets on the extra boards, they heated up the solder joints on a few of the Teensy pins and pushed them through with some pliers. This left a few pins sticking up above the board to which the button add-on board could be soldered.

To finish out the build, [Dan] worked with [Chris Gammell] to model a 2-part case for the electronics. He also came up with a pandering belt buckle which is also a button-cap. It’s 3D printed with the TechCrunch logo slightly recessed. He then filled this recess with blue painter’s tape for a nice contrast.

[Dan] on-stage presentation shows off the high-level of refinement. There’s not a single wire (excluding the USB belt cable) or unfinished part showing! Since he didn’t get much into the guts of the build during the live presentation we made sure to seek him out afterward and record a hardware walk through which is embedded below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

[Kenji Larsen] Shows off the Ultimate Hacking Kit

If you roll into a hardware hackathon empty-handed, you’re going to be at a disadvantage compared to those who bring equipment with which they’re already familiar. Pray that you never roll into one where [Kenji Larsen] is your competitor. Luckily, this weekend he came out to mentor for Hackaday’s hardware hacking village at the TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon and not as a competitor. In this video he shows off the huge rollerbag which he calls his “Hack Pack”. I’d say there’s a 50/50 chance his travel setup is better than your home lab.

Where do I begin (seriously, watch the video)? Perhaps best to note is how organized he is. For instance, the large plastic bag containing his battery-operated and plug-in Dremels also has conveniently sized stock like acrylic and metal. There are compartment boxes full of sensors, others contain things like passives, batteries, battery chargers, hundreds of Moteino modules, handfuls of BeagleBones Black, breakout and dev boards of every flavor. He has all the necessary tools like hemostat, x-acto blade, steel ruler, and magnifying glasses. There’s even a 3D printer in the bag — a Printrbot Simple which [Chris Gammell] played with all weekend err… learned to use as part of his role as a mentor.

We had a ton of hardware along with us, but time and again [Kenji] was there for the save on some of the less-common needs. He’s a expert when it comes to fabrication techniques and it showed. We also give him mad points for staying up overnight for all 20-hours of the build session. Thank you so much [Kenji], I think I speak for every one of the hardware hackers when I say you helped bring the event to the next level of exhilarating and exhausting fun. Please direct your own thanks, stories, and well-wishes, and follows to [Kenji’s] hacker profile.

If you weren’t able to make it to NYC this weekend, you definitely missed out. We’ll be telling the story of that all week. Those on the West Coast will have a chance next weekend at Hackaday Prize Worldwide: LA. The workshop is sold out but socializing on Saturday, and a Sunday free-build are both still available for RSVPs.