The Banana-Bot of Boulder, and other tales from Colorado hackathons

A potent mixture of ideas, energy, and technology delivered at a breakneck pace, hackathons represent the brightest aspects of our rapidly digitizing culture.

A typical hackathon sees teams of talented and inspired programmers, creatives, and more spend a blistering 24-48 hours combining skills like coding and design to solve the event’s core problem. As educational as they are frantic, hackathons have cropped up at universities across the globe, which is exactly how Gerard Casas Saez became involved.

Students presenting their hack.

Early days as an attendee

As a computer science undergrad in his native Spain, Gerard was first introduced to hackathons by a friend. Before long, he was taking advantage of cheap travel to attend a variety of events throughout Europe. When he was offered a chance to obtain his Masters at the University of Colorado Boulder, he decided to use his love of hackathons as a way to meet new people, reaching out to the University’s HackCU program before ever setting foot on U.S. Soil.

One thing Gerard noticed was that all of the hackathons he was attending were based around software, focusing on what a team of code slingers clustered around computers could script up. While he enjoyed these, he also enjoyed pushing his own boundaries, and he soon began dreaming about a hardware hackathon, one where teams used the components inside the computer instead of the computer itself.

“I feel like hackathons are the perfect place for these hardware projects. I never had enough time to do them.”

At home, he was already testing out his hardware capabilities, coming up with projects that would help him with simple tasks like watering his plants. Why not combine those small, fun projects with the frantic energy of a hackathon?

Vibin’ on sound with the Sound Vibes project.

Organizing HackCU

Gerard soon began planning the hardware hackathon through HackCU reaching out to his professors for guidance. One recommended using Particle for the hackathon, and soon Gerard was in touch with Particle for Good, who supplied Photon kits for his team to distribute at the event. Gerard gathered the Photons, sensors, and other components — along with enough food to power the hackers themselves — into a large space known as the Idea Forge. Soon, the event began in earnest, with one of the biggest differences being what was in the hackers’ hands. While software hackathons typically featured a sea of laptops, Gerard was happy to see the soldering iron he supplied being put to good use.  

The products that came out of the hackathon were impressive. One team combined a voice recorder with a Photon to create a device called Sound Vibes, which transmitted recordings to a server where their emotional tone could be analyzed by a machine learning algorithm. Another team used a Photon to create the Indoor Outdoor Home Automation System, a system capable of transmitting data collected by an array of sensors measuring everything from movement outdoors to water level indoors. This informative project ended up winning the Particle grand prize offered at the hackathon. 

The infamous Banana-bot of Boulder, Colorado

Gerard’s favorite, though, was the Banana-Bot. This project saw a team transform a banana left over from breakfast into a crawling, screaming, creature that used a Photon to connect to WiFi, with a LEGO chariot and a pair of arms serving as transportation. While not particularly useful, the Banana-Bot does stand as a hilarious testament to how creative hackathon products can be. 

With his hackathon a success, Gerard already has plans for the future, hoping to provide Particle hardware to the 700 hackers estimated to attend the upcoming HackCU V event.

“I mean, we did the first hardware hackathon. Now, it’s time to keep it up and keep building the community, and I think that’s one of the most important parts of the whole thing.”

Students 18 and older are all invited to attend this or any of the HackCU events, but that doesn’t mean that every hackathon is in Colorado. Hundreds of other hacking friendly events are just an internet search away; some good websites to help get involved include Hackevents and Hackathon. If the plethora of options still seems wanting, don’t let a hackathon’s nonexistence get in the way.

Just as Gerard set up his own hardware hackathon, anything is possible with an idea and some determination.

Author Bio

Alex Schab is an avid hiker and writer with a love for exploring the curiosities of the outdoors, tech, and where the two can meet.