December 7, 2012

Microcontrollers Hackathon -- <span style="text-transform:none"><span style="text-transform:none">&#181;</span></span>C at EC Test

Verizon Digital Media Services (formerly EdgeCast Networks) runs on the newest and most powerful hardware; our rapid deployment of state-of-the-art technology, such as solid state drives and the fastest cache memory, allows us to push multiple gigabits per second of network throughout on each server configuration. But the sheer muscle of our PoPs and SuperPoPs makes it easy to overlook the important contributions of our humble micro controllers. Indeed, these miniature, low-power devices serve critical roles in the monitoring of our network, so we decided to host an internal hackathon that would give curious EdgeCasters more insight into how they work and what they’re capable of. The goal was to create a bundle of fun mini-projects to be distributed around our offices, just in time for the holidays. Sort of like an elves’ workshop, if you will, albeit with very technically-inclined elves.

Verizon Digital Media Services Hackathon

The morning kicked off to an introduction on micro controllers, with an overview of the devices and what they’re typically used for. Walk-throughs on progressively more complex projects shed light on the capabilities of the Teensy 2.0 modules chosen for the hackathon, which include sensing, interfacing with computers, and outputting information through light or sound, all using Arduino software and basic circuit components. At the end of the tutorial, participants were given alcohol sensors and instructions on how to build a very special login system. With the alcohol-sensor-equipped Teensy modules hooked up to their laptops, our elite hackers needed to reach (or exceed…) the Ballmer Peak before they were allowed to login and begin the free-roam portion of the hackathon.

Projects for the open segment of the hackathon included:

  • Alcohol Spice Sensor — Dino (IT)
  • Morse Code Keyboard — Seungyeob (Streaming)
  • Security Breach Panic Button — Will (Core)
  • Drunken Mouse — Marko (Marketing)
  • Mouse Prank — Yaniv (Sales)
  • Capacitive Program Luncher — Bashar (SysOps / Security Ops)
  • RGB Color Decoder — Arleena (NOC)
  • LED Network Status Monitor — Robert (Development)
  • Shadow Theramin — Gregory (Engineering)
  • Auto Screen-Locking System — Shinji (SysOps)
  • Arcade-Style Simon Says — Daniel (DevOps), Carlo (DevOps), Tianhe (Marketing)
  • Drunken helicopter — Derek (Development)

Every participant made inspired and playful products in just a few beer-and-pizza-powered hours. Three winning groups were awarded Adafruit gift cards for scoring highly in the creativity, fun, and execution categories.

Robert built a notification system that would blink an LED and play the theme song from a classic video game when changes to our network were detected, and walked away with the biggest individual prize from the contest. Could this be a useful tool for our NOC engineers, perhaps?

Seungyeob and Gregory tied for second place with fun re-inventions of common instruments. Seungyeob developed a fully-functional USB keyboard…with just one key; users have to enter Morse code in order to type. Amateur radio operators take note — this could be the perfect tool to practice for your license! Gregory created an entirely new type of musical instrument: a theramin whose pitch is controlled by shadows on its light sensors. Watching Greg make music by waving his arms was almost magical.

First place was awarded to a multiplayer, Simon-says game with a web interface, built by Carlo, Daniel, and Tianhe, with special thanks to Andrew (DNS). Losing players are egged on with insults via the live web display. Classy.

Thanks to all the participants for joining this year’s microcontroller hackathon event, and hats off to Lior for setting it all up. We all walked away with a greater understanding and appreciation for microcontrollers, whose diminutive size and cost allow them to go places and to do things that even the most powerful chipsets can only dream of. Great things really do come in small packages.