Teardown 2019: A Festival Of Hacking, Art, And FPGAs

As hackers approached the dramatic stone entrance of Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Arts, a group of acolytes belonging to The Church of Robotron beckoned them over, inviting them to attempt to earn the title of Mutant Saviour. The church uses hazardous environments, religious indoctrination, a 1980s arcade game and some seriously funny low tech hacks to test your abilities to save humanity. This offbeat welcome was a pretty good way to set the tone for Teardown 2019: an annual Crowd Supply event for engineers and artists who love hardware. Teardown is halfway between a conference and a party, with plenty of weird adventures to be had over the course of the weekend. Praise the Mutant! Embrace Futility! Rejoice in Error!

For those of us who failed to become the Mutant Saviour, there were plenty of consolation prizes. Kate Temkin and Mikaela Szekely’s talk on accessible USB tools was spectacular, and I loved following Sophi Kravitz’s journey as she made a remote-controlled blimp. Upstairs in the demo room, we had great fun playing with a pneumatic donut sprinkle pick and place machine from tinkrmind and Russell Senior’s hacked IBM daisywheel typewriter that prints ASCII art and runs a text-based Star Trek adventure game.

It wouldn’t be much of a hardware party if the end of the talks, demos and workshops meant the end of each day’s activities, but the Teardown team organised dinner and an afterparty in a different locations every night: Portland’s hackerspace ^H PDX, the swishy AutoDesk offices, and the vintage arcade game bar Ground Kontrol. There also was a raucous and hotly-contested scavenger hunt across the city, with codes to crack, locks to pick and bartenders to sweet talk into giving you the next clue (tip: tip).

Join me below for my favorite highlights of this three day (and night) festival.

Expressive Robotics

One of my Teardown highlights was the hilarious and inspiring talk about designing interactions between humans and robots from Dr. Heather Knight, Robotics Professor at Oregon State University. Her work at the CHARISMA Robotics Lab (CHARISMA being an abbreviation of Collaborative Humans and Robotics: Interaction, Sociability, Machine learning and Art, of course) involves Human-Robot Interaction and Social Robotics. Knight took us through some of her body of work, including delivery drone interaction design, her Marilyn Monrobot theatre company, and lessons learned from working on a giant Rube Goldberg machine in that famous OK GO video.

Watch Knight’s talk on Expressive Robotics below, from 4:34:00 onwards:


Open FPGAs For Everyone

FPGAs were everywhere at Teardown this year. We especially loved the well-thought out workshop by Piotr Esden-Tempski for the iCEBreaker FPGA development kit. We have had access to open source toolchains for a little while now, but Piotr’s documentation is the clearest and simplest we’ve seen.

Our other FPGA highlight was getting to play with the ridiculously small (as in, entirely fits inside your USB port small) Fomu board led by hardware legends xobs, bunnie and Tim Ansell. After hours, xobs was showing off one of the tiny FPGA boards with an even tinier rework that he and bunnie somewhat implausibly managed to pull off — a truly awe-inspiring example of soldering!

Circuit Python All The Things!

FPGAs weren’t the only trend at Teardown this year. To really get into the spirit of the weekend, you needed to attempt to get Circuit Python running on at least one thing. Scott Shawcroft from Adafruit shared his custom GameBoy cartridge that brings Circuit Python to the iconic handheld gaming system. Shawcroft designed a circuit board with a SAMD51 microcontroller that fits snugly into a hacked cartridge, giving you access to the GameBoy’s hardware — including the ability to create retro sounds instantly from a Circuit Python program.

As well as sharing his GameBoy projects, Scott could be seen helping other hackers set up Circuit Python on their boards over the weekend, including a Doppler (another FPGA board, this time for music-specific applications) and a prototype of the Automat Mini, a board that turns MIDI signals into triggers for solenoids and LEDs.

See Scott Shawcroft’s full talk here, from 1:35:38 on.

Oregon’s Own Open Source Satellite

I was very impressed by the student aerospace engineering project from Portland State Aerospace Society (PSAS), who are launching a low-cost, open-source satellite into space with NASA. I had a great time opening up the casing of OreSat at Teardown and exploring what kind of technologies go into an ambitious project like this. Electronic and Mechanical Engineering students from Portland State University were on hand to show off the sensing and control systems they built, as well as an impressive array of open source projects that work alongside the satellite for scientific and educational aims.

One of my favourite projects designed to partner with OreSat is the handheld open-source satellite tracker, designed so that high schools across Oregon can follow the path of the satellite and receive live video beamed from orbit.

What makes this open source satellite project extra special — aside from the whole going into space part — is how well documented it is. Despite the number of different people, departments and technologies involved, PSAS have made it a priority to make sure their work is actually available on GitHub for other institutions or enthusiasts to replicate, tinker with or learn from.

Wearables for Space (or ComiCon)

Whether you’re trying to put a human into space or convincingly fake a moon landing, you’ll probably need something to wear. Sophy Wong’s talk on the broad spectrum of technologies that fall into the category of ‘wearables’ shared her experiences of designing technology for the human body. We learned why the writing on the front of astronaut suits are mirror images and that all clothes are basically a series of interconnected tubes. She also shared the technologies and techniques from some of her recent wearable projects, including an spacesuit inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Prometheus, a Ghostbusters outfit, and an extremely funny hoodie hack that lets you play Flappy Bird by flapping your arms.

Watch Wong’s full talk here, from 2:05:26 onwards.

Cramming Linux into the Feather form factor

The Adafruit Feather is fast becoming one of the most popular form factors in the hacker world. In the demo room at Teardown we got to see a powerful new example: the Giant Board from groguard. The Giant Board squeezes a Linux computer into a tiny space by making use of the compact but powerful SAMA5D2, which saves precious board space with its built in memory. Aside from running Linux and being tiny, the Giant Board has 20 GPIOs, an SD card slot and impressively low energy consumption.

One of the advantages of using the Feather form factor is the wide range of other boards you can choose to interact with. We got to play with groguard’s cute quadruped robot, a great example of the advantages of Feather stacking. The robot itself was made of a satisfyingly tidy stack of Giant Board, servo FeatherWing and Wifi FeatherWing, with a Giant Board and Wifi FeatherWing combo making up the remote control. If you’re more into classic video games than robot athletics, you can also see this board running a handheld version of Doom, complete with authentically terrible audio.

The organisers behind Teardown 2019 — Crowd Supply and the Make+Think+Code department at PNCA — managed to pull off a vibrant and intelligent hardware hacking event that championed art tech and the indie electronics scene. The talk and workshop programming was impressive, especially given the relatively small size of the conference. We hope this event stays on the hardware conference calendar for years to come. We will certainly be back.

7 thoughts on “Teardown 2019: A Festival Of Hacking, Art, And FPGAs

  1. Finding the Game Boy is almost easy. But where on the Adafruit site would I be able to find their circuit Python on a custom cartridge for the game player? Oh and Helen welcome to the most important place online next to our e-mail and two other places.

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