Hacking Hardware to Create Moanitor @ Silicon Chef

by Brittany Martin


moanitor.jpg

This past weekend, I traveled to StripeHQ for the second annual Silicon Chef, a women's only hardware hackathon, that was organized by Hackbright Academy. I was excited because I've been to many software hackathons but hardware was completely new to me. 

Hackbright set up the hackathon prizes, teams and projects on hackathon.io. I spotted a prize for the best hardware hack for a zombie attack. I came up with the idea of the Moanitor and posted it as an available project to hack on. I wanted to build a simple device that detected zombie noises and prompted you to flee. 

The Moanitor project on Hackathon.io 

The Moanitor project on Hackathon.io 

As I arrived on Saturday, i hadn't heard from any potential teammates so I was prepared to join another team. As I was picking up my t-shirt, a pair of identical twins (America and Penelope Lopez) approached me and said that they had traveled from LA, had hardware experience and wanted to work on my project! Right after that, a hardware engineer from Amazon (Hannah Lewbel) and a Javascript engineer (Tatiana Charkova) joined the team. At that point, I already felt like I was winning because the talent on the team was more than I could have hoped for. 

The hackathon kicked off with a huge barrel of Philz coffee, tech talks and a breakdown of what we were getting in our Arduino + Electric Imp kit. By 2pm, we were starting to draw up our plans for what we wanted to accomplish, prizes we were aiming for and what we thought was feasible to complete on Day 1 and 2. I drew up a Trello board and we started to work on our separate pieces. 

This leads me to why hardware hackathons are both awesome and difficult.

Why hardware rocks:

  • When you build something, you can actually see it and show people. It's incredibly empowering to bring life to a couple bits of plastic, wiring and metal. 

  • It's much easier to test hardware since it is clear when it is working and when it is not. 

  • It's also much easier to get feedback from others if your hardware hack is useful. Hardware is for all ages and species. It would be a lot of fun to build something for my 2 year old nephew or my chocolate lab. 

  • There is much smaller subset of the tech population that know how to hack on hardware, even smaller if you are looking at women. The ability to work with hardware is a badass skill. I have a new level of respect for my little sister who works at Carnegie Mellon's machine shop. 

Why hardware can be difficult:

  • Hardware is fragile. There were times when the Moanitor would work on one build and then break on the exact same build on the next test. 

  • If you make a bad move in software, it is fairly easy to rollback your commit. In hardware, if you connect the ground wire to the wrong port, you can fry the whole Arduino permanently. Hannah taught me the basics of soldering (two or more metal items are joined together by melting and flowing a filler metal into the joint), and I soon discovered it is a tricky art. We ruined one of our Electric Imps by soldering the wrong pieces together. Lesson learned!

  • We broke the project into separate pieces. Sewing those working pieces together was a new project in itself and it often wasn't team-friendly. A lot of times, one team mate would need to focus on a part of the project while the others tried not to break their concentration. 

  • The Arduino IDE operates on C++. As a Rubyist, that was a challenge for me. Next time, I'm going to play with the Arduino Playground for Ruby. 

By the end of the hackathon on Sunday afternoon, the Moanitor was able to detect proximity, sound and environmental temperature using sensors. If the device detected a close noise and a temp drop, it would text you via Twilio to run! While we didn't take home any prizes, it was so fun to watch the other thirty teams demo. 

Big thanks to Hackbright for putting on such a great event and Stripe for the accommodations. I will be picking up my own Arduino kit to tinker with at home or in the office (tech offices rule). Thank you to Hannah, America, Penelope and Tatiana for working with me. Gaining some smart, talented women in technology friends was the best part! 

The Moanitor team!

The Moanitor team!

Moanitor's slide can be found here: http://slides.com/brit200313/moanitor-silicon-chef-2014#/

The Moanitor on Github: https://github.com/Moanitor