Winning a hackathon looks great on a resume or grad school application, and it provides nerd bragging rights, but what happens to winning projects when the event ends? Hack Princeton is known for its ultra-competitive hardware category, so we caught up with the three winning teams from the spring 2014 event to find out their fate.
In first place was a distributed bike-sharing system, whose inventors learned important development lessons. Taking second was a robotics project that may soon be open-sourced. In third was a credit card security project that’s likely to become a startup company.
Zipcar for bicycles
Chen Ye and Nate Parrot, both of Brown University, made Airbike — an Arduino-based hardware device that can lock and unlock a bike, with an accompanying iPhone app to find the nearest bike, track your time using it, and bill appropriately.
At first glance, Airbike didn’t amount to much. “We discovered that there are Kickstarter projects to create systems highly similar to what we envisioned. That’s why we decided not to continue actively working on the device,” said Ye, now a sophomore intending to major in computer science and with a likely second major in biology.
But in deeper reflection, Ye said the experience taught him valuable lessons. “That was my first hardware hack,” he said. “It opened the door for me to other projects that aren’t just building an app. Before, I was intimidated.”
“Directly, it greatly enhanced my knowledge of programming Arduino code and by extension programming in C,” Ye continued. “Indirectly, I’ve been more confident in my ability to work on systems that sound complex and that I’m less familiar with.”
It’s a six-legged microbot!
Potentially less game-changing, but just as cool, is Twitchy the Hexapod. The blue, plastic, six-legged robot is the brainchild of Bonnie Eisenman and Harvest Zhang. Both also graduated from Princeton this past spring. Eisenman is a staff engineer at CodeAcademy, while Zhang works as a software engineer at Facebook.
Eisenman said her main takeaway from developing Twitchy was business and life skills. “The biggest thing that translates is just the ability to work with people on exciting things and iterate rapidly,” she said, in New York.
Eisenman still works on hardware just for fun. She specializes in electronic music. She’s lecturing later this month at World Maker Faire. Her topic: “Electronic Musical Instruments and How to Make Your Own” using Arduino microcontrollers and the ChucK musical programming language. That interest stems from another of Eisenman’s past Hack Princeton projects called Piano Stairs, which is exactly what it sounds like — except it worked through discretely installed microcontrollers and light sensors, not “Big”-esque giant keys.
Someday, if the code is polished enough, it could be released to the world. “We never got around to it,” Eisenman said.
Outsmarting credit card thieves
CryptoCard was among the winning projects. It’s an electronic credit card with a frequently-changing account number so crooks would be unable to sell or use it. Inventors Lawrence Diao, Joe Goss, and Eric Rehe all graduated from Princeto, continued working on CryptoCard at the Princeton incubator, and are now furthering their technology with a startup called Raydiant Enterprises.
On the hardware side, “We’re in the process of shrinking it down. We’re closer to having a third-generation prototype that’s significantly smaller and still just as functional [as a regular credit card],” Rehe said. For the business aspect, Rehe added that his team is working with unspecified financial companies on implementation and funding opportunities.
Rehe said that hackathons taught him and colleagues two important lessons: be open to customizing your project for all kinds of uses and potential customers, and listen to what everyone has to say. “There’s been a lot of resources that we never even would’ve imagined exist, that came out of participating in hackathons,” he explained.
(Editor’s note: Do you know of another awesome hackathon project that continued in an interesting way past the event? Tell us about it and maybe you’ll be featured here! Contact: Evan@mlh.io)