Emily Lam

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hacking our Teabot at Make_BU Hackathon

Last Friday into Saturday, I participated in a 24-hr hackathon, hosted by Make_BU. This was BU's first hackathon, more on that later, and my second hackathon -- I participated in the MakeMIT hardware hackathon last month.

My teammate, Anjana, and I are seniors, and we have busy schedules. Doing this hackathon was a way for us to have fun, to take a break from senior design, and to throw design tolerances and the "significance" of a project out the window! We decided to build a tea robot based on the traditional Tea Serving Doll, Karakuri Ningyo, but with a modern twist: instead of the all mechanical design, we were going to go with a electronic-mechanical design. This was an idea Anjana and I had for a couple years now, we just never got around to it. But I thought, hey, it's a hackathon, there's a 24 hour limit, we can use this idea: things get done when there's a deadline.

So what exactly does the teabot do? Okay, here's the situation, you are entertaining a guest for tea and you and your guest are seated across from each other. The teabot is designed to wait for tea in a cup to be placed on a tray on the bot. Once, the cup is placed on the tray, the bot will move forward and present your guest with tea. Your guest will enjoy and drink the tea. And once your guest is done, he/she will place the cup back on the tray and the bot will bring the cup back to you. Here's a video demonstrating the simple functionality:

So like I said, this was BU's first hackathon, and while there were cool things provided, 3D printers (which are kind of slow. I don't really think they are ideal for hackathons. Prototyping? They're great! But a time-limited hackathon? Not so much) and food and stuff, there wasn't a lot of materials/supplies to hack with. This is not BU's fault or anything, hardware hackathons in general are a challenge because of this: you need more than a computer.

But this is where we embodied the maker's/hacker's spirit and decided to scale down our project -- we had plans for more fancy mechanisms and functionality -- and use a bunch of recyclables to create our project. Let me run you through some of the more hack-y things we did.

1) Our cardboard prototype board:

We were hoping that they were going to have prototype boards at the hackathon for us to put our circuit on. But nevertheless, there wasn't any. And given our circuit's simplicity, we did not want to spend money on buying an over-priced one at Radio Shack. So we built one with a recycled popcorn box. On it is the circuitry for the H-Bridge, a circuit that allows our bot to move forwards and backwards, as well as places to attach the outputs from the Arduino, homemade pressure switch, and motor.

2) Our gearbox made mostly from a jewelry box:

Here is our motor mounted onto a piece of cardboard with brass fasteners. It was actually very sturdy! It was a good piece of cardboard from a sticky pad that we found.

Here is the gearbox in it's entirety. The black box is jewelry box. The green spacers are Starbucks straws. The axel, we bought at Blick's, an art supply store. The motor and gears I had. And the wheels and washers were from the Tinkering Lab.

3) Our water bottle pressure switch:

So the tray to the bot is again a jewelry box. Our switch is constructed out of a section of a Poland Spring water bottle. Plastic has a naturally elasticity, that bounces back when pressed. We used string tied to the four corners of the box to keep the tray from flinging off. The switch used two copper plates as metal contacts. The bottle idea was actually pitched by my roommate, Angela. We initially were going to rely on either copper's elasticity or straws or springs from pens. You can see another wheel mounted on the gear box, this was used to make sure the tray/switch rested leveled.

4) Goodwill decorations:

We decorated with cloth from Goodwill. Haha, we are going for fun, remember?! We had a grand time savaging parts. And that's what a hackathon should be: a grand time.

I'm pleased to say that our hack won for Best Hardware! =]

I am under the impression that we won because our project embodied the spirit of a hackathon; we were being recognized for being resourceful, for being creative, for having fun, for making something cool -- the guys next to us built an impressive 3D scanner using a Kinect and fancy hardware, which was awesome. This is a very important message. You don't need expensive equipment and hardware to build cool things. We didn't use the 3D printers at all actually. This is a message that I especially want to broadcast to young students who are intimated by making and building. Just have fun with it. Sure, I have experience building things with recyclables and you may not have a motor and Arduino, but experience comes with practice and those items cost less than a video game! So if you want to make something, don't be intimidated: just do it. Hackathons are great places to start. However, if you are discouraged by the 24-hour "GO-GO-GO" attitude, don't be, it's part of the fun! (But if you need sleep, that's fine too. We went to sleep. Haha, as seniors, you take sleep whenever you can.) Another thing great about hackathons are that they encourage learning and doing and meeting other people. It's great if you have skills. But if you don't, that's just as great! There are usually categories devoted to people with no skills. At Make_BU, we had a category called Best nOOb which is dedicated to those who've had limited making skills.

I'm glad and thankful to the folks at BUILDS, Global App Initiative, CE++, DMCBU, Open Web BU, and Terrapin Computing for organizing BU's first hackathon. It's great thing they did and this is a great community to nourish at an university. Plus, an especial thank you to the BU ECE Department for sponsoring!! =]

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