Hardware Hackathons Are Hard

(This is a guest blog by Matt Haines, Community Manager at Electric Imp.)

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Many are saying we’re in the midst of a hardware revolution. The tools, skills, and communities needed to quickly and easily prototype electronics are becoming more and more accessible. Despite this, however, hardware is still a hard and lengthy process. You can’t take an idea for a hardware project from inception to prototype over the course of a weekend – not unless you have a lot of components laying about (and the right components for the project you have in mind). As a result, planning an event like a hardware hackathon involves some extra logistical hurdles to jump over, compared to a ‘traditional’ software hackathon.

Planning and running a hackathon takes a tremendous amount of work. If you’re going to run a hardware hackathon, or a hackathon that invites hardware submissions, you should be aware of some extra requirements. Simply saying, “hardware projects welcome” is not enough, and may actually cause a lot of frustration for the few folks who choose to work on hardware.

Space and Equipment

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When running a software hackathon, you need to ensure your space can comfortably fit all of the attendees, there are enough power outlets for everyone to use one or two each, and that there is reliable (and fast!) WiFi.

You’ll need all of this for a hardware hackathon, and then a few more things.

To begin, you’ll want to make sure the space you’re using will allow soldering irons. It turns out that a lot of venues are worried about things like “fire,” and leaving soldering irons (aka fire starters) laying around and turned all day tends to make some folks a bit nervous.

While it is possible to run a hardware hackathon that doesn’t allow soldering, you’re going to find that a lot of the more experienced hardware hackers will get frustrated very quickly. Breadboards can be useful prototyping tools, but hackathon projects often require something more precise and permanent.

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Now that you have a space that allows soldering, you need to start looking at what kind of a lab you’re going to provide. At a bare minimum, you’ll want to supply soldering irons, basic tools such as tweezers, pliers, wire cutters, and multimeters, as well as lots of table space to work on. In addition to the lab you’ve brought along, you probably want to ensure there are lots of tables and workspaces available for people who choose to bring their own setup.

Components

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It’s easy to gather the necessary “components” for a software hackathon. Various APIs, Open Data, and tools like MongoDB, Heroku and GitHub will likely be core components used in a lot of projects. As an organizer, you need to ensure your attendees know what tools they can and cannot use, and likely provide some guidance about how to use them (through tech talks, information sheets, etc).

Clearly, it’s a little a lot more difficult with hardware. When you start looking at what components you (as the organizer) want to provide, the list can start adding up pretty quickly. You can’t bring everything, but you need to bring enough as your attendees likely won’t be able to acquire missing components over the course of your 8-48 hour hackathon.

You can ask people to bring their own hardware, but that can cause a few problems. It will discourage folks who are new to hardware hacking (this may or may not be seen as a problem for your event, but that is a separate discussion in and of itself), and it largely prevents ideation to occur at the event itself as people will need to determine what they are going to build before hand and acquire the necessary components.

For Hack With Us, a hardware hackathon Electric Imp ran last December, we did a bit of a mix, with fairly successful results. We provided Electric Imp dev kits (an imp card + April breakout board) that together acted as the microcontroller for people’s projects. Along with this, we asked participants to bring their own components to hack with, and suggested a fairly cheap (about $30) “hackathon kit” for folks who were new to hardware or otherwise didn’t know what they should bring. The kit was designed to be inexpensive, easy to use, and have a range of components that could be put together in a variety of ways.

The kit was a huge success, and we saw just about every single component used across the various projects people worked on. One team built a Simon Says game with the buttons and LEDs, another team used the tilt sensors as a super-cheap “accelerometer” to determine orientation. We saw teams use motors and servos to make all kinds of things spin, and the winning team scavenged everyone’s unused piezo buzzers to build a 4-channel music machine!

Take Aways

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what’s required to run a successful hardware hackathon, it’s meant to get you thinking about the differences between hardware and software hackathons. It’s easy to invite hardware hackers to your software hackathon, and it’s something that’s happening with greater frequently (which is terrific!) – but there is a BIG gap between inviting hardware hackers and providing them with a good experience. When you’re missing a tool or component for your hardware project, you can’t just Google an alternative (well, you can, but you won’t get it in time).

Hardware is great, and we should be helping more developers get their hands dirty! If you’re planning an event that involves hardware hacking, I encourage you to think about these bits of advice, and most importantly, seek out hardware hackers in your community to help you plan the event since they know what is needed!

Happy Hacking!

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