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Cross-campus collaboration at Hacking Arts

Sixteen teams presented at the second annual Hacking Arts festival

October 10, 2014

Mariana Gutheim, Ianis Lallemand, and Efi Marcus Goffer demonstrate Tomorrow is Another Day, a project that translates touchscreen data into a “tangible artifact” Photo: Ahmad El-Nemr

Mariana Gutheim, Ianis Lallemand, and Efi Marcus Goffer demonstrate Tomorrow is Another Day, a project that translates touchscreen data into a “tangible artifact” Photo: Ahmad El-Nemr

The Hacking Arts festival and hackathon returned to MIT for a second year Oct. 3–5, creating a unique opportunity for artists, engineers, business people, and entrepreneurs to collaborate. Its purpose, according to student organizers, is to foster new thinking that may spur advances in creative industries.

The event featured multi-disciplinary panels, musical performances, presentations, exhibits, and a hackathon. “I don’t think there’s any event that brings together artists, people in business, and engineers in this way,” said Michael DiBenigno, MBA ’15, who attended last year’s inaugural Hacking Arts event and was one of the student organizers this year. “I think that combination is what makes it special. There’s that technology piece that you may not find anywhere else.”

   Hacking Arts organizers Michael DiBenigno and Liz Thys, both MBA ’15<br/>Photo: Ahmad El-NemrHacking Arts organizers Michael DiBenigno and Liz Thys, both MBA ’15
Photo: Ahmad El-Nemr

Some 350 people attended Hacking Arts 2014, many of them drawn to the prospect of hacking for long hours throughout the weekend to develop new apps, business plans, or hardware, and perhaps win a prize for their endeavors.

Some of the participants made considerable efforts to travel to MIT, including two members of the team that won the top prize for Best Overall Hack. Two French PhD candidates at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Lyes Hammadouche and Ianis Lallemand, heard about Hacking Arts and decided to come to the United States just for the event.

They came with the outline of an idea: to develop a way to create physical representations of the time that people spend on their mobile devices. On Friday night, people with hacking ideas were given one minute to make their pitch as the first step toward building a team. Hammadouche and Lallemand approached the microphone together to describe their idea and by evening’s end they had assembled a five-person team.

Team member Pasquale Totaro, a PhD candidate in mechanical engineering at MIT, said that he and two others—Mariana Gutheim, a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Efi Marcus Goffer, a mechanical engineer from Tel Aviv University in Israell—were interested in the tangible aspect of the idea.

“The interface between digital data and its physical materialization is a topic we are very interested in as artists,” Totaro said. After the team formed and discussed the idea, the members decided that they wanted to build a machine that would turn data into a “tangible artifact.”

Team members estimated that they spent 13 or 14 hours over the next two days working on their hack. They built a cardboard cone that they placed on a small platform that rotated, powered by a small motor operated by a microcontroller. They then employed the TouchOSC app to transmit the phone user’s touch coordinates to another app that analyzed the user’s gestures and communicated them to the microcontroller.

They called their project Tomorrow Is Another Day. During the event’s culminating episode—presentations on Sunday in the MIT Media Lab—the team demonstrated what they’d built. The cone began to rotate as Lallemand held aloft a smartphone and began to move a finger along its touchpad. An ink-filled table tennis ball attached to a wire emerged from the top of the cone and drew a graph on the rotating surface, depicting the speed and direction of Lallemand’s finger movements, drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd.

Tomorrow is Another Day won a $1,000 prize for Best Overall Hack. The group was one of 16 hacking teams that gave presentations that day and one of four to win a prize. Other winning projects were Luxloop, which won Best Hack in Film, TV, and Virtual Reality, for a technology that automatically changes screen camera angles to respond to movement of viewers; Harlequin, which developed an interactive map of universally recognized body gestures; and Street Production Systems, a mobile app to provide technological enhancements for public performances where electronic technology is not available.

Judges encouraged the teams to pursue their ideas further, and student organizer DiBenigno reminded participants that the hacking processes that were launched at this year’s Hacking Arts event aren’t necessarily over. In November, MIT and MIT Sloan will sponsor an event called Hacking Arts Remix, where participants can move to new teams or apply new ideas to the hacks that arose from the Hacking Arts event.

Judge Aurora Thornhill, community engagement manager at Kickstarter, said she was struck by a thread that was shared by many of the teams. “One thing I noticed was the idea of taking things out of the digital space and putting them in a physical space,” she said. “That’s what Tomorrow is Another Day did, and it added an extra element of delight.”

DiBenigno said he hopes the event will continue and grow larger in future years. This year’s event was bigger than last year’s inaugural Hacking Arts festival—three days instead of two, eight panels instead of five—and was sold out.

He says that the collaboration of MIT students and MIT Sloan students is what makes the event unique.

“The purpose is to explore the intersection of arts, technology, and entrepreneurship,” he said. “With MIT involved, we can better see how we can use technology to enable progress in the creative arts.”