Smart Toasters and the Airbnb of Things at Canada's International Hackathon

Roughly 1,000 people just competed in 'Hack the North.'

Sep 22 2014, 10:15pm

Image courtesy of the author.

A toaster oven with its side panel ripped off is sitting on a table, its electrical guts exposed. One guy is huddled over it, stripping and soldering wires together in ways the manufacturer never intended. Another guy is busy typing away at his laptop, while two teammates are closely examining a microwave to see if they can subject it to the same fate as the toaster.

"It's so useful. You'll be able to perfectly cook chicken," Mayank Gulati, the one mangling the toaster oven said to me. It's eleven hours into Hack the North, Canada's largest and first ever international hackathon, and the team is trying to make a bunch of household appliances controllable through a smartphone.

Roughly 1,000 people, or about 250 teams, descended on the University of Waterloo's campus for the hackathon. Most participants, some from schools as far away as the Netherlands and China, came armed with their laptops. The rules were simple: create something awesome using available technology within 36 hours and then pitch it to a panel of judges in 100 seconds or less.

The "hack" in hackathon, refers to the old-school definition: finding a creative, unconventional way to manipulate technology, in unintended ways. The basic idea of the event is to throw a bunch of code-smart, creative, builder-types, into the same space for a day and a half—then see the impressive results by the end of it.

Add in some old and brand new hardware to the mix, like Thalmic's Myo armband—which senses electrical activity from wearers' muscles to tell what gestures and rotations their arms are making—and you're in for some interesting inventions.

Canada's Hack the North was inspired by American hackathons like MHacks, an annual event hosted at the University of Michigan.

"We [the organizers] had been to these hackathons [in the U.S.] just as participants and we were just blown away. And we were thinking, 'Why doesn't this happen at Waterloo? This needs to come to Waterloo,'" said co-organizer Valentin Tsatskin. "And we were like, 'Okay, let's do it!'"

Close to a year of planning later and the Waterloo students made Hack the North come together with tech industry sponsors like Bloomberg, Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla and Yelp, while Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky, 500px CEO Andy Yang, and Brilliant CEO and founder Sue Khim, judged the event.

The Engineering 5 building at U of Waterloo, normally used for classes and student lounges, became ground zero, with hackers spread out on all six floors. The lobby in another nearby engineering building was converted into a makeshift nap area with hammocks and mats strewn everywhere.

Besides the main hacking project, participants also attended a variety of talks and workshops throughout the weekend, taking part in midnight coding challenges on Sunday, where four tablets were awarded to the winners.

"Let's start the mother fucking microwave demo," yelled Austin Feight, from the toaster oven and microwave team, into his phone Sunday morning. Seconds later, the microwave timer set itself to 99:99 and the plate inside began spinning. After hours of hacking, the microwave and toaster oven were fully operational over smartphone voice commands, with the cooking temperatures adjustable, and the system sending out texts after the cooking was complete.

The judges chose ten winning teams Sunday afternoon (sadly, Feight's team didn't make the cut). Some of the winning hacks included Lend, a website that connects users who want to rent objects, described as "an Airbnb for things." The same hackers also created a mobile-compatible version with a functioning Bitcoin client.

Another winning hack—Open Pokémon—is an Android application that renders real-life maps into Pokémon-style graphics, allowing users to fight wild Pokémon anywhere, and challenge other users they encounter on the map, to battles. The game is also activated through voice-command, so users literally tell their Pokémon what attacks to use.

One team created a special door lock that can be unlocked by tapping a smartphone with a corresponding app installed on it. The owner of the lock can give people access based on Facebook events. If someone is listed as "going" to your party, instead of answering the door a hundred times, guests can tap their phones to the lock and unlock the door. But if your party friends switch their statuses to "not going," they won't be able to unlock it.

Considering the participant and sponsor turnout, Hack the North is on the rise and this likely won't be its last year. There's also no surprise the event was held in Waterloo—a huge tech hub in Canada, with U of Waterloo serving as Canada's engineering mecca and one of the top 50 universities in that discipline worldwide.

And the entire event is a sign of Canada's growing prominence in the technology sector, with big corporate sponsors in attendance (likely for recruitment), giving talented students the platform to not just showcase their inventions, but themselves, to elite tech sector players. 

Ultimately, with companies like Facebook in the US already embracing similar hackathon culture—Hack the North shows the same thinking is north of the border in Canada, too.

Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Austin Feight as David Fontenot. We regret the error.