Reporting From BornHack 2021: Hacker Camps Making It Through The Pandemic

In a normal summer we would be spoiled for choice here in Europe when it came to our community’s events, with one big camp and a host of smaller ones near and far. Only the most hardcore of travelers manage to make it to all of them, but it’s usually possible to take in at least one or two over the season. But of course, this isn’t a normal summer. Many of us may now be vaccinated against COVID-19, but we remain in the grip of a global pandemic. The massive Dutch MCH camp was postponed until 2022, and most of the smaller camps have fallen by the wayside due to uncertainty. But one hacker camp carried on.

BornHack in Denmark was the world’s only in-person summer hacker event of 2020, and on its return last week made it the only such event in Europe for 2021. Having secured a ticket earlier in the year when they went on sale, I navigated the tricky world of cross-border European travel in a pandemic to make my way to the Hylkedam scout camp on the Danish isle of Fyn for a week in the company of hackers from all over Northern Europe. BornHack had achieved the impossible again, and it was time to enjoy a much-needed week at a hacker camp.

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The First Hacker Camp To Show Up On Google Maps

Our summer gatherings at hacker camps are fleeting and ephemeral, anticipated for months but over far too quickly. Afterwards we have only our memories, and perhaps the occasional Hackaday write-up. We think BornHack 2020 in Denmark was the only hacker camp that wasn’t forced to go online-only by the pandemic last year, and now as far as we know it has also become the only one ever that has left its mark for the wider world by being captured for posterity by Google Earth.

Visible in the forest is the sparsely populated and socially distanced main field of what was a considerably smaller camp than normal, as well as in separate clearings the speakers tent and the loud field. Perhaps it doesn’t help as much in explaining to outsiders what a hacker camp is as might a picture of one of the larger ones, but it does at least serve as a visible reminder that we weren’t quite snuffed out last year.

It’s a moment of nostalgia to see BornHack 2020 on Google Maps for those of us who were there, but perhaps the point of all this is to take a moment to consider the likely prospects for similar events in 2021 given the pandemic. Both the British EMF Camp and American Toorcamp had to cancel their events last year and should return in 2022, there’s no word as yet about 2021 from the Serbian BalCCon or the Italian IHC,  our latest update on Luxembourg’s HaxoGreen is that it’s still slated to go ahead with its move to 2021, and currently both BornHack and the Dutch MCH are expecting to run as normal this summer.

In the grip of a savage third wave of the pandemic where this is being written, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that 2020’s cancellations may not repeat themselves. International borders remain difficult to cross without exacting quarantine requirements. If you make it to a camp this year you may be one of the lucky few, and in the increasingly likely event that we don’t, we’ll be suitably envious. Don’t loose hope, we shall all meet again… eventually.

If you fancy a closer look at BornHack 2020, have a read of our write-up.

Hands-On: BornHack 2020 Badge Has 9×32 Of Bling Fed By CircuitPython

Despite widespread pandemic cancellations, BornHack still happened this year and they even managed to once again bring an electronic badge to all attendees. If you missed it, I’ve already published an overview of the hacker camp itself. Today let’s dig into the 2020 BornHack badge!

Designed by Thomas Flummer and manufactured in Denmark, it takes the form of a PCB in the shape of a roughly 60 degree circular arc with most of its top side taken up by a 9 by 32 array of SMD LEDs. There is the usual 4-way button array and space for an SAO connector on the rest of the front face, while on the rear are a set of GPIO pads and a pair of AA battery holders for power. Connectivity is via USB-C and infra-red, and usefully there is also a power on/off switch.

At the heart of its hardware is a SAMD21G18A ARM Cortex M0+ microcontroller which is perhaps not the most exciting of chips, but the hardware becomes more interesting with the LED drivers. A pair of the IS31FL3731 chips (you may recognise from Brian Benchoff’s Mr. Robot badge) each drive half of the Charliplexed LED array. These versatile chips take the bother of scanning the LED matrix away from the microcontroller with their own internal frame registers fed from an I2C interface. This choice both makes the best use of the relatively meagre microcontroller in this application, and opens the way for the software choice. This badge runs Adafruit’s CircuitPython, and can thus be programmed over the USB connection in the same way as any other CircuitPython board. To test this I put aside my GNU/Linux laptop, and picked up something considerably less versatile to test its ease of use: a Chromebook.


# configure I2C
i2c = busio.I2C(board.SCL, board.SDA)

# turn on LED drivers
sdb = DigitalInOut(board.SDB)
sdb.direction = Direction.OUTPUT
sdb.value = True

# set up the two LED drivers
display = adafruit_is31fl3731.Matrix(i2c, address=0x74)
display2 = adafruit_is31fl3731.Matrix(i2c, address=0x77)

text_to_show = "BornHack 2020 - make clean"

CircuitPython devices mount as a disk drive in which can be found a Python file that can be edited with the code of your choice. The BornHack badge ships with code to display a BornHack banner text, which serves as a quick introduction to the capabilities of its display. It’s noticeable that the text scrolling performance leaves something to be desired, but this microcontroller is hardly one of the more powerful supported by the CircuitPython platform. The Chromebook was happily able to edit the code, though viewing the Python serial console necessitated diving into its Linux virtual machine.

The BornHack badge then, an attractive design that fulfils the aim of being capable and easy to program through its use of the popular CircuitPython platform, and through its decent sized LED matrix and available GPIOs with the chance of seeing a use beyond the camp as a general purpose display/experimentation platform. It may not be the most powerful of badges, but it does its job well. In particular it has achieved the feat missed by so many others, of arriving at the camp fully assembled and with working hardware and software. You can see more about it in Thomas’ badge presentation at the camp (cut from a stream, talk begins at 5:27) which we’ve placed below the break.

We look forward to seeing its influence upon other similar badges. Meanwhile if you are interested, you can compare it with the 2019 BornHack badge which we reviewed last year.

Continue reading “Hands-On: BornHack 2020 Badge Has 9×32 Of Bling Fed By CircuitPython”

Running A Successful Hacker Camp In A Pandemic: BornHack 2020

You could say 2020 is The Year That Didn’t Happen, or perhaps even The Year That Everything Happened Online. All the international cons and camps have been cancelled, and we’ve spent our time instead seeing our friends in Jitsi, or Zoom.

But there was one camp that wasn’t cancelled. The yearly Danish hacker camp BornHack has gone ahead this year with significantly reduced numbers and amid social distancing, turning it from what is normally one of the smaller and more intimate events into the only real-world event of 2020.

I bought my ticket early in the year and long before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, so on a sunny day in August I found myself in my car with my friend Dani from FizzPop hackerspace in Birmingham taking the ferry for the long drive through the Netherlands and Germany to Denmark.

Continue reading “Running A Successful Hacker Camp In A Pandemic: BornHack 2020”

Hands-On: BornHack’s Light Sabre Badge

A badge modelled after the handle of a light sabre? Yes Please! This Star Wars themed hardware is the work of hardware designer Thomas Flummer for the 2019 BornHack conference held in Denmark last month. (Check out my roundup of the event if this is the first you’ve heard of it.)

It's not a badge but a light sabre! The front of the BornHack 2019 badge.
It’s not a badge but a light sabre! The front of the BornHack 2019 badge.

It fits the hand nicely, and with clever side-on placement of the two AA battery holders (a trick we first saw with the 2016 Hackday Superconference badge) it also keeps any protruding solder joints away from clothing. In the centre of the badge is the 240×240 pixel colour display that also hides the Silicon Labs Happy Gecko processor and its surrounding components. Three buttons at the edge of the board to the left of the screen are a nice fit for your thumb when holding it in your left hand — a good choice if you happen to leave your right hand behind on a visit to the Cloud City of Bespin.

Between the battery holders lies a four-way joystick, two buttons, and a 6-pin add-on connector. Above it is a micro SD card socket and a micro USB socket, and above them are an IR emitter and receiver. All of the hardware is on the front of the PCB, with no components on the reverse (other than the solder joints for the batteries). But it is there you will find a set of exposed pads for serial and I2C interfaces. Continue reading “Hands-On: BornHack’s Light Sabre Badge”

BornHack 2019, A Laid-Back Hacker Camp In A Danish Forest

This is a fantastic summer for hacker camps and I was very happy to make it to BornHack this year. This week-long camp attracts hackers from all over Europe and the mix of a few hundred friends and soon-to-be friends who gathered on the Danish island of Fyn delivered a unique experience for the curious traveller.

The camp takes place at the Hylkedam Danish scout camp, located in a forest amid the rolling Danish famland not too far from the small town of Gelsted. It’s a few kilometres from a motorway junction, but easy enough to find after the long haul up from the UK via the Channel Tunnel. As an aside, every bored cop between France and the Danish border wanted to stop my 20-year-old right-hand-drive Volkswagen on UK plates, but soon lost interest after walking up to the passenger side and finding no driver. It seems Brits are considered harmless, which is good to hear. Continue reading “BornHack 2019, A Laid-Back Hacker Camp In A Danish Forest”

The Danish Internet Of Hot Tubs

Every hacker camp has its own flavor, and BornHack 2019 in the Danish countryside gave us the opportunity to sample some hacker relaxation, Scandinavian style. Among the attractions was a wood-fired hot tub of gargantuan proportions, in which the tired attendee could rejuvenate themselves at 40 Celcius in the middle of the forest. A wood-fired hot tub is not the easiest of appliances to control, so to tame it [richard42graham] and a group of Danish hackerspace friends took it upon themselves to give it an internet-connected temperature sensor.

The starting point was a TMP112 temperature sensor and an ESP8266 module, which initially exposed the temperature reading via a web interface, but then collapsed under too much load. The solution was to make the raw data available via MQTT, and from that create a web interface for the event bar, Twitter and IRC bots. There was even an interface to display hot tub temperature on the ubiquitous OHMlights dotted around the camp.

It’s more normal to control a hot tub via an electric heater, but since the wood fire on this one has to be tended by a camp volunteer it made sense to use the IRC system as an alert. It will be back at BornHack 2020, so we’ll have to do our job here at Hackaday and spend a long time lounging in the hot tub in the name of journalistic research to see how well it works.