A Wallflower Jumps Into The Los Angeles Unconference

When I was asked to cover the Unconference in Los Angeles last week, I have to admit that I was a more than a little uncomfortable with the idea. I’m not big on traveling, and the idea of meeting a lot of folks was a little intimidating. Surely meeting Hackaday readers in person would be like walking into a real-life version of the comments section of a particularly controversial post. Right?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The LA Unconference, held at the Supplyframe Design Lab in Pasadena, was a far more collegial and engaging conference than any I’ve been to in my professional life. I couldn’t have asked for a better group to share the afternoon and evening with, and the quality of the talks was excellent. The Design Lab turned out to be a great space for the event — a large main room for the talks with plenty of little areas to break away for impromptu discussions and networking.

I didn’t do an official headcount, but the place was full, and pretty much the entire crowd stayed through the whole event. As with the Chicago and San Francisco Unconferences, we were basically making it up as we went. Usually “winging it” and “conference” would be a recipe for disaster, but almost everyone came prepared to talk, and even some wallflowers (including yours truly) were inspired to get up and present on the spur of the moment. We opened the event with a stack of Post-It notes and a white board, quickly built a solid schedule of eight-minute presentations and lightning talks, and it was off to the races.

Can an Unconference Have Themes?

One thing that struck me was that there were a couple of major themes to the talks, which is odd because of the organic nature of the whole thing. Great minds think alike, though, and there were several talks covering the philosophy of hacking and social engineering. [Rob] discussed his “City Sphere” project, which aims to model complex systems by mapping their shape as a three-dimensional network of interconnected nodes. Optimized systems would approach the shape of a sphere, and he has been pitching his model to municipalities like Pasadena.

Also along the lines of social engineering was [Joan Horvath]’s talk about leveraging 3D-printing to help teachers of visually impaired kids, and [Matt Meier]’s views on the philosophy of rapid development. [Matt] is working on a project to ease documentation of open hardware projects called Howstr.

[Amy Wenslow] had a great talk about a problem many hackers aspire to have — how to make the leap from product to profits. She had some solid advice on how to manage a crowdfunding campaign and the importance of positioning your prebuy as more of a “donation with a gift.” She also spoke in depth about not stepping on the landmine of excess inventory and the importance of dealing with tight profit margins. It was interesting to hear from someone with these business chops.

Speaking of successful products, we heard a heartwarming tale from [Liam Kennedy] on how Hackaday helped him make his dream come true. We covered his ISSAbove project, which lets you know when the ISS will be making a pass overhead. Since then he has expanded the product to include live video streams and has sold more than 1700 units, including some to NASA for their conference rooms.

Health and the Transhumanist

Health was another theme that had a strong showing. [Paweł Chojnacki], a self-described “open-source transhumanist,”  discussed what started as an effort to debunk a Kickstarter for a “smart sleep mask” called NeuroOn, a device that purports to analyze your EEG and determine the optimal point of your sleep cycle to wake up. As it turns out, the product actually works pretty well, and [Paweł] is now working with the company to open-source the device.

Sticking with health, [Jacob Christ] discussed his thoughts on bringing affordable healthcare to global populations by the development of diagnostic expert systems using Google’s TensorFlow. And [Raul Ocampo] discussed his ideas on preventing hip fractures in the elderly with autonomous robots to intercept falling seniors and reduce the energy of impact.

And then there were the more eclectic talks: [Jonathan] on building community LoRA networks, and [Leonardo Zuniga] who is working on a continuous pyrolysis process to produce biochar as a substitute for composting. Two real crowd pleasers were [Boian Mitov]’s Visuino, a visual programming environment for Arduino with a drag-and-and drop interface to auto-generate sketches, and [Alex]’s BananaPhone system to automatically block robocalls.

There was a lot going on during the day, and I have no doubt I missed something, so my apologies to anyone I left out. The pace was relaxed but consistent, and breaks were mainly working breaks — networking, demos, and informal gatherings around the design lab. Dinner was fabulous, a catered feast of Italian foods far in excess of what we could reasonably eat; if anyone went away hungry, it was not for lack food. Hats off to [Shulie] and [Katie] for their leadership and all the organization that made the disorganization possible, if that makes any sense, and for their hospitality and advice in making the most of a weekend in southern California. And of course, thanks to everyone who attended and made this a great event.

The Hackaday Unconference kicked off the 2017 Hackaday Prize. Get inspired to Build Something that Matters and make a difference in the world. There are no shortage of problems to tackle and people to join in on the challenge. It’s simply a matter of choosing to spend some of your time and skill on a clever idea and there were no shortage of those in Los Angeles last week.

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