UNDER ATTACK Hippos beware!
One team turns a glowing tube of epoxy into a prototype for the next generation of lava lamps. Another rewires a Home Depot doorbell to send tweets, rather than ring. A third team wants to use Xbox to create a virtual dance floor.
And so it goes, at Providence's first-ever hardware hackathon, wherein dozens of geeks mash hardware (like a doorbell) and software (Twitter) into all manner of outlandish contraptions.
For this crowd, gathered at tech incubator Betaspring's new headquarters at 95 Chestnut Street, no idea is too strange or far-fetched — not even one man's declaration that he wants to make Providence's iconic Superman building "dance."
Software engineer Matt Gillooly works for Swipely, one of the hotter new startups in Providence. But over the weekend, he finds himself elbow-deep in piles of mini motors, paper clips, and what remains of a plastic toy hippo he has sawed open with a Dremel.
"I'm simultaneously building and destroying. As you can see, there's not much hippo there," Gillooly says, adding: "The hippo surgery was the highlight of the day."
His goal: take the Hasbro game, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and retrofit one of the hippos with a motor that can be remotely controlled by another player through the Internet. The space bar makes the hippo eat. The player can even gloat over his victories by pressing "G," which activates a tiny LED light under his beast. By Sunday morning, the game already has its own Web site, hungrypotamus.com, along with a matching Twitter handle.
"It's the weekend," Gillooly says. "It's my off time. If I do anything else it's going to seem a little too much like work."
It pays off, to a degree — Gillooly takes home the "grand prize," which, besides bragging rights, consists of a Lilliputian-sized trophy and Making Things Talk, a book on how to make your cat's litter box send you an e-mail, among other things.
Other projects have actual workplace applications, albeit indirectly. Chris Meringolo, of Providence, sandwiches an RFID reader and a series of sensors between two glass panes. The gadget, which Betaspring co-founder Allan Tear dubs the "Big Brother Kegerator," would sit underneath a tap and be triggered when someone sticks his glass mug — personalized with an RFID tag — under the tap. That would transmit a wealth of data on who is drinking, how much was poured, how much is left, and what beer was chosen — among other information — to an Android tablet.
One advantage of the system: employers with workplace kegs can use it to prevent illicit drinking. "Ten o'clock in the morning is a little early for a beer," Meringolo says.
But other hackathoners are all about super-sizing the party. Damian Ewens, an educator at the Providence After School Alliance who moonlights as a DJ, wants to outfit the Superman Building with 300 arm-length LED panels, which would change their color scheme depending on what a DJ is playing at a party, presumably in the vicinity of the building.
Ewens, who claims the prize for the most ambitious project, concedes he has his work cut out for him. As Ewens is describing his vision — standing next to a panel of windows that offers an untrammeled view of the downtown late Saturday afternoon—the building is suddenly splashed with the rusty orange glow of the setting sun.
"There, see, nature has us beat — it always has us beat," he says.