Occasionally in my travels, I get to see the future concentrated briefly in one time and place. Last weekend was the time and the Engineering 5 building at the University of Waterloo was the place.

The reason for this concentration was Hack The North, a 1000-hacker-strong meetup at the intersection of ideas, sponsor support, and get-it-done maker spirit.

As a self-taught electronics hacker with an education in software development, I was delighted to find cross-disciplinary hacks that knitted together component and consumer hardware, cloud-based services and smartphone clients. With our fervour for phone apps plateauing and our appetite for Internet-of-Things hardware warming up, the synthesis of elements in the solutions I saw on Sunday really mark an inflection point for our tech ecosystem.

I’m a firm believer in the power of proof-of-concept. Show me, don’t tell me. At a meta level, Hack The North demonstrated that a reverse tide of top talent flowing into Canada is possible. A “brain gain”, if you will. Three thousand students applied for the hackathon and 1,000 were accepted.

Sure, it was a weekend event, but it demonstrated a will and a joy of making by participants and organizers alike. The event highlighted the power of critical mass, too. When you get that many bright people under one roof, it serves as a powerful lure to sponsors seeking product feedback, talent and exposure. In return, those sponsors provide cool gear to hack, access to tools and food for all.

Sounds like symbiosis to me.

Having travelled over the years to Maker Faires with a vibe similar to this hackathon, this watershed event feels like a real validation of Waterloo Region. We weren’t in the Bay Area. We weren’t even in Toronto. We were right here in Waterloo, just four kilometres from my house.

Back in 2009, when I was helping to found kwartzlab, the region’s first makerspace, we had to explain the constructive nature of hacking and distinguish it from media conflation with criminal activity. Now, five years later, we have people travelling from as far as Shanghai to make stuff and hang out in our neighbourhood.

We arrived at this juncture via several metric tonnes of hard work from a lot of different constituencies. The event organizers thought it up, planned it out, and most importantly, pulled it off. Bravo. The University of Waterloo, long a pillar of the community, continues to evolve and till fertile ground for these applied intellectual pursuits. Communitech and local advocacy groups do a lot of lobbying and connecting beyond our borders, much of which goes unseen.

That groundwork, often not glamorous or immediately gratifying, pays long-term dividends across decades. And our local governments are collaborating with a long-term vision for the region and the best intentions for our future.

I wanted to jump straight in to some of the absolutely unreasonable number of photos I shot over the weekend, but I felt the context is important and a tip of the hat is warranted.

Before I get into the visual story of Hack the North, I’ll mention the rig shown above, consisting of Arduino Unos and Spark Core Wi-Fi modules, which served as the brains for a smartphone-controlled, mobile Silly String shooting device. Hackers Varun Jacob-John, Jakub Dworakowski and Tobias Gu put this together with a total absence of function guilt and an ample sense of humour. Nice work, guys. Now rewinding back to Friday night…

HackTheNorth_Day1 020_750px_I rolled in behind E5 around 8:30 in the evening. Often I go into these shoots with very little information, but this time event organizer Kartik Talwar had sent out an email to sponsors earlier in the day outlining everything from schedule to parking and registration. It sounds obvious, but it’s uncommon. Oh, and while I don’t work at Communitech, I do some work for them. This gig was choice: long form photo walkabout and hacking. Perfect.

 

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This is what sponsors like to see, front and centre.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 028_750px_I was pounced on by event security which is good considering the event hosted hackers as young as 17 years old. See, that’s the dad in me talking.

 

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A quick check-in at the desk got me a badge…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 037_750px_as well as my friend and Communitech volunteer Yanish Jutton (right). The registration lines seemed a bit sparse, but I figured most people had beat me to the event and signed in at 6 p.m. when the doors opened.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 032_750px_Meta! My handful of regular readers know my minor obsession with photographing other photographers.

 

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This seemed like a lot of “leftover” dinner…

 

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Engineering 5! I remember when you were just a parking lot.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 059_750px_Eavesdropping told me that there had been an accident on the 401 highway between Pearson Airport in Toronto and Waterloo. Three-hour bus ride instead of one hour. But we’re resilient, right?

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 064_750px_Love this building. The School of Engineering held an awesome tour here last year for Grade 6-8 students. After two hours my sixth-grade son Calder said “Yup, I’m going to UW for Engineering. What do I need to do?”

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 071_750px_No time for a look around though, as the opening ceremony was kicking off in 10 minutes over at Hagey Hall, so out the front door we went…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 073_750px_past the Davis Centre…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 078_750px_left turn behind E3…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 089_750px_and into Hagey Hall. It would have been difficult to get lost. There were helpful blue-shirted volunteers all along the route.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 102_750px_Jamming! The Humanities Theatre quickly filled to capacity and people were being shunted off to live-streaming secondary rooms. I was grabbing shots when a vigilant theatre staffer shooed me out of this corner, which she said belonged to…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 108_750px_this shooter. Happily, she relocated me to a great perch at stage left.

 

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HackTheNorth_Day1 123_750px_This works!

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 126_750px_A little shoulder surfing revealed that somebody was getting the jump on the Myo SDK.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 133_750px_Tired, but…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 128_750px_happy…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 130_750px_to be here.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 139_750px_They call him Swift. Major League Hacking Commissioner and founder of Hacker League.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 142_750px_With a blast of the horn, organizer Valentin Tsatskin kicked off the hackathon.

 

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HackTheNorth_Day1 160_750px_Rousing talk by Chamath Palihapitiya (right) with Jason Calacanis hosting.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 185_750px_Hackathon helper from MHacks, Dave Fontenot at the mic, wrangled questions for Chamath.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 206_750px_Organizer Kartik Talwar kicked off introductions for a long list of…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 468_750px_sponsors who all came up to the mic and…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 469_750px_pitched their companies, and prizes, and offered to help out with the products and tools.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 462_750px_He also shared a few ground rules…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 466_750px_and a sweet list of gear that was available for the weekend.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 486_750px_Then it was back to E5…

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 507_750px_for a frenzied swag-fest to kickstart the hacking.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 513_750px_I caught up with some Communitech friends on the floor. Volunteer Kurt Schwarz (centre) and Tony Reinhart (right), Director of Editorial Strategy.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 523_750px_Saj Jamal (centre), Communitech’s Director of Marketing Services, had secured a swag hat to beat all swag hats.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 534_750px_Pebble’s Eric Migicovsky.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 539_750px_Straight into the hacking.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 540_750px_I was particularly interested in this guy who had pried the housing off a Myo. He was much less interested in me photographing that.

 

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HackTheNorth_Day1 546_750px_The seriously well-oiled logistics were quickly apparent as volunteers stocked and restocked food and drinks throughout E5.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 548_750px_It looked like a grocery store, albeit a niche grocery store back there.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 550_750px_Lots of discussion going on as I wandered about.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 563_750px_A bit of a…

HackTheNorth_Day1 575_750px_lineup as hackers…

HackTheNorth_Day1 564_750px_borrowed everything from Arduinos to oscilloscopes.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 567_750px_Saw a humorous tweet fly by later on Saturday: please only 3D print hack-related material. No more jokes.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 568_750px_I found people…

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hunkering down…

HackTheNorth_Day1 572_750px_in every…

HackTheNorth_Day1 578_750px_corner and…

HackTheNorth_Day1 579_750px_classroom and…

HackTheNorth_Day1 598_750px_corridor.

 

HackTheNorth_Day1 599_750px_With everyone…

HackTheNorth_Day1 603_750px_deep in the…

HackTheNorth_Day1 601_750px_planning phase…

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I thought it best…

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to head home as the clock was hitting 1:30AM.

 

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Hard to miss the 7,500 Timbits on the way to the car.

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 001_750px_After a busy Saturday at home hacking my backyard gate into working order, I returned to UW around 11 a.m. on Sunday to catch the wrap-up. Checking the Hack The North app, I discovered there were 196 entries for judging. Wow.

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 010_750px_Inside E5. Where you find duct tape…

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and discarded clothing…

HackTheNorth_Day3 017_750px_you’re likely to find good hacks. Here is the aforementioned Silly String shooter. Good use of a lever and the cap to depress the spray nozzle with a garden-variety servo.

 

L-R__Varun_Jacob-John__Jakub_Dworakowski__Tobias_GuVarun Jacob-John, Jakub Dworakoski and Tobias Gu, striking a Steve Jobs-inspired pose.

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 026_750px_The swag scattered to the wind…

HackTheNorth_Day3 027_750px_and the cookies, well, they were holding up fairly well, all things considered.

 

Team Home EaseHere’s Team Home Ease talking with sponsor wit.ai, Jen and Oliv.

 

Team_Home_EaseVoice-remote-controlled baking. The team wisely used a servo to physically control the oven’s temperature knob rather than try to interface with 110VAC current with the electronics on hand.

L-R__Austin_Feight__Mayank_Gulati__Ram_Sharma__Nick_Mostowich_TeTeam Home Ease: Austin Feight, Mayank Gulati, Ram Sharma and Nick Mostowich. Saw a lot of multi-school teams at the event. Austin is from U of Michigan and the others are UW students.

 

Ram_Sharm_Team_Home_EaseRam demonstrated the mobile app for their hack.

 

Nabil_and_Kurt_CommunitechSunday found Communitech’s Director of Business Services, Nabil Fahel, in the booth with the ever-present Kurt.

 

Tse-Chi_Jeremy_Wang_Silicon_ManTse-Chi Wang’s Silicon Man hack, with the iPhone strapped to his face, was my personal favourite.

 

Tse-Chi_Jeremy_Wang_Silicon_ManHe controlled the rig with this awesome glove that incorporated flex sensors on the fingers, an Arduino, a solderless breadboard (wearable!), and I’m so curious to know what that pink thing is. USB 5-volt power source?

 

Tse-Chi_Jeremy_Wang_Silicon_Man

Nice hack. Hope you documented it. And great to see you make the Top 10.

 

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L-r__Caleb_Amlesom__Jonathan_Anthony_Gomes__Daniel_Ledlow__ChrisTeam GrowCube: Caleb Amlesom, Jonathan Anthony Gomes, Daniel Ledlow and Chris Thiele

 

Team_GrowCubePoints for using pumps and solenoid valves, guys. These tanks were intended to provide plant-specific watering and light.

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 150_750px_Meta.

 

Steph_Little_Mushroom_CateringAh, my old friend Steph Tanner of Little Mushroom Catering is feeding everyone…

Little_Mushroom_Cateringlunch.

Amanda_Bell

Back inside, I saw evidence of the 36+ hours of no sleep. Amanda Bell, clutching a pillow, said only “I’m so tired.”

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 170_750px_E5 was looking well-lived in when I found…

Tristan_Homsi__Sina_Ghuffari__Team_LetsGo

Tristan Homsi and Sina Ghuffari, and got a demo…

Team_LetsGoof their Let’s Go app. It showed locations of your friends and local restaurants and allowed the group to vote on where to eat. I wanted this right now and started pitching feature requests like a product manager.

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HackTheNorth_Day3 189_750px_Hacking had wrapped up at 10 a.m., so things were quieting down as teams queued up for…

HackTheNorth_Day3 195_750px_judging and sought demos for sponsor prizes.

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Many teams were rehearsing their pitches, so they were happy to use me for practice.

 

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There might also have been…

HackTheNorth_Day3 210_750px_some testing in progress as well.

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 220_750px_Team RaceKeeper: Mihir Pandya and Mirai Akagawa, both all the way from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Love the robotics work coming out of CMU.

HackTheNorth_Day3 213_750px_RaceKeeper is a super-aggregator (my term) for runners who track their telemetry with a variety of services.

HackTheNorth_Day3 216_750px_Now you can compete against your friends regardless of which cloud they use to store their data.

 

Eric_Diep__Kathrina_Manalac__Andy_Yang__JudgesThese judges were really supportive. Eric Diep, Kathrina Manalac and Andy Yang.

 

Emily_Hilbig__Logan_Allen_Cassandra_Chan_Team_PaceKeeperThey were sizing up Team Pacekeeper…

Logan_Allen__Emily_Hilbig__Cassandra_Chan_Team_PaceKeeperof Logan Allen, Emily Hilbig, and Cassandra Chan.

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Then the time for looking was over, and the time for…

HackTheNorth_Day3 257_750px_heading back to Hagey Hall had arrived. Results from the judges awaited.

 

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HackTheNorth_Day3 281_750px_Tired.

HackTheNorth_Day3 282_750px_and quiet.

 

Pearl_Sullivan__UW_Dean_of_EngineeringPearl Sullivan, Dean of UW’s School of Engineering.

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Valentin_Tsatskin__organizerValentin brought it home.

 

Sam_Altman__Y_CombinatorCongratulations from Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator

 

Kartik_Talwar__organizerKartik called up…

HackTheNorth_Day3 358_750px_the judges. Gargantuan task to parallel-judge 40 projects in two hours.

 

Team_Open_PokemonTeam Open Pokemon rocked it with a phone-based, location-aware Pokemon game that you could play in real life with friends.

Team_Open_Pokemon

Team_BotscapeTeam Botscape unleashed a…

Team_Backtrackvirtual world you could populate with bots that would explore and progress semi-autonomously.

 

Team_LendTeam Lend had something that was like Uber, except instead of getting a lift…

Team_Lend

you could connect with someone who was willing to rent you a ladder, for example.

 

Team_PinPointMeTeam PinPoint Me had…

Team_PinPointMe

an app that would help them find you, if I understood that correctly.

Team_RememberTeam Remember All had a hack that would allow you to search…

Team_Rememberyour digital history with some cool image recognition.

 

Team_Space_BowlTeam Space Bowl combined an Oculus Rift with a Myo for…

Team_Space_Bowlvirtual bowling.

 

Tse-Chi_Jeremy_Wang_Silicon_ManIt took a bit of doing, but Tse-Chi Wang’s Silicon Man video feed finally made it up…

Tse-Chi_Jeremy_Wang_Silicon_Manto the screen.

 

Team_FlockTeam Flock had a…

Team_Flocksocial media connected physical door lock.

 

Team_GuavaTeam Guava had a cool application to allow hospitals to share…

Team_Guavagenetic data.

 

Team_pinpnt.meTeam Pinpnt.me…

Team_pinpnt.mehad a solution for sharing location based info.

 

Team_SignLangTeam SignLang used a LeapMotion rig to “read” sign language from physical gestures.

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Juddges_and_Top10_FinalistsWith the sponsors’ prizes awarded, the judges and finalists were all brought up on stage and we learned that all 10 teams were winning prizes. And really, everyone who participated took something away from the event.

 

HackTheNorth_Day3 834_750px_As everyone headed for the buses…

HackTheNorth_Day3 764_750px_I couldn’t help but wonder about a follow-up Hack The North event in the future. Rumour has it that planning has already started.

Happy hacking,

DW

About The Author

Darin White

Darin White, a long-time resident of Waterloo Region, has an unlikely education in both fine art and computer science, and a love of all things to do with the maker movement. As a founding director of kwartzlab makerspace, Darin got hooked on engaging the public in community building through storytelling. His latest venture, makebright.com, serves as a portfolio of his toolset and his passion for exploring the lesser-known corners of our creative ecosystem.