Montreal’s first Cloud Robotics Hackathon “Hacking” a bright robotic future

12 Mar

I don’t know much about robots or robotics (part of the reason for the delay in blogging this). But as I wait for organizers to announce the winner of the first-ever Cloud Robotics Hackathon (teams from Montreal competed on March 2-4 in a worldwide, well North American, in any case, hackathon that was born here) I’m keen to learn more.

UPDATE: The winners were announced! Team Lightningbots from Montreal won first prize; second prize went to Team Oddwerx from Santa Clara. Team No Pain, No Game from Montreal came in third.

Hackathons aren’t about breaking into computer systems. Though they’re open to anyone regardless of background or experience, in Montreal they tend to be gatherings of geeks, often computer programmers or software engineers, who work together, usually over a day or weekend, to create some sort of useful software application or web site. This hackathon attracted “a hundred and more programmers, geeks and hardware hackers” and the contest involved prizes and a time limit. Teams spent a weekend building and testing robots and programming applications that would get a free robot (DFRobotShop Rovers -described by organizers as $99 “Arduino-compatible robotic development platforms” were provided) or robots to interact with computers and/or smartphones, video cameras, Twitter and other robots. They were encouraged to connect their robot(s) with other robots by sharing their data on a “cloud” on MyRobots.com. Some teams even slept over at Notman House and functioned on very little sleep.

At the end of the weekend the teams presented their ideas and accomplishments before a panel of judges. Montreal judges selected two semi-finalists and soon a finalist will be chosen soon from one of the competing cities/regions, including Montreal, Waterloo, Winchester County and Santa Clara.

My interest in this event was sparked when I was looking for things for my 14-year-old son to do over last week’s March school break. I was disappointed to learn kids and teenagers were not welcome at the hackathon. My son used to be interested in robotics. I’ve long hoped he would invent a robot that would go beyond the Roomba and do a lot of our housework. Anyway…

Since spaces were full for participants requiring a robot (there was room for people bringing their own robots) and I didn’t have anyone to team up with, I decided to cover it for this blog. I thought I would come by on Sunday and check out the final presentations at the end of the hackathon. The schedule said presentations started at 5 p.m. I arrived at Notman House at around 5:20 figuring I had missed one presentation. As luck would have it, presentations got under way at 4 p.m.

I was wowed by what I saw and heard. What especially impressed me was that women played key roles on many teams. My experience with Hacks/Hackers Montreal meetings at Notman House has been women attendees are universally from the “hacks” side of things and “hackers” are all men. It’s difficult to actively participate in a hackathon without coding or design skills and for Hacks/Hackers at least there seems to be some sort of journalist/programmer divide. From what I could tell the women at the Cloud Robotics Hackathon were enrolled in computer science or related fields.

Many of the teams I saw presenting had great ideas (some were quite funny) but had trouble executing them. At least one team admitted they’d spent more time on programming than debugging their robots. A number of teams reported problems with the robot’s Bluetooth function and with getting sensors working properly. For instance, one team’s robot was supposed to distinguish between day and night and play “Twinkle, twinkle little star” at night but ended up playing it anytime!

Team Foulab tried to get their robot to collect and place beer bottles (or pop cans) in a pattern, say a smiley face. But they said they couldn’t get the robot to “see” the colour blue and complete the experiment.Team Cybernaut proposed a telepresence robot that could be used in a museum at night. Each piece of art in the museum would have a bar code that the robot could read and a video camera would work with the robot to display art works online. The museum could charge a fee for people to navigate the museum online via the robots to see the art works. But they couldn’t get the robot to work. And as they pointed out, such a project could potentially allow criminals to case a museum but ideally it would improve a museum’s security.

The Blue Tag team ran into problems getting their robot to avoid obstacles. When it finally did manage to avoid them, the robot would only turn left. The STR Group wanted their robot to recognize printed images of faces or real faces it “sees” via video camera and follow the detected faces around. But the robot didn’t cooperate.

Team Unimate proposed using robots for climate control. Robots would map out room luminosity to detect temperatures in different rooms and depending on data sent to the cloud, decrease or increase the temperature if the room was too hot or too cold. But the robot’s Bluetooth function didn’t work at first and initially its motor broke down and had to be glued together. The trio’s spokesperson, a woman, was sarcastic and funny in her video description of their robot’s performance:”Oh look it’s turning. We’ve got awesome temperature readings. Now it’s doing wall follows. Awesome.”

For me the funniest presentation was Team Shadow Love explaining their Roboball game. The self-described “robotics enthusiasts from McGill” planned to link their robot up with social media so that people could tell the robot where to go in a Roboball game. They programmed their robot to recognize green objects. It spent the demonstration chasing around a green plate. The robot, they promised, will update the cloud and report the largest green object it encounters, even if it’s on Mars!

Semi-finalists: I saw No Pain, No Game’s presentation and felt they were speaking to me. Their project was all about getting a child to clean their room by blocking say, laptop access to a computer game until the room is cleaned. The robot was linked up with a video camera so it could detect objects in the room it hadn’t seen before and send data about them to the cloud. It could remind a child of what cleaning needs to be done and when the room was cleared of objects, give an all-clear to play the laptop videogame.

I’m embarrassed to say I missed top Montreal semi-finalist Team Lightningbots’ presentation. I saw their display on a table and didn’t realize they were participating. It seemed everyone else in the packed main room at Notman House was sweating, bleary-eyed and lugging around a laptop or carrying their book-size Rover tank robot. Team Lightningbots had their charming RoboBrrd “owl” robots placed neatly on a table in the main room. Their display was carefully labeled and the two team members, RobotGrrl Erin and Valery, were calm. The idea behind their Cloud Robotics project is to help children learn math. They present different math equations and each time the child chooses a correct answer in the computer game app, the robots light up and their wings flap. The robots shake their heads to say no when an answer is wrong. Energy/brain power used to get the right answer is recorded onscreen (in an image of a power level). To get a better idea of what they did, check out the video here.

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