We went to space – kinda

Melbourne hosted the NASA Space Apps Challenge along with over 200 other countries around the world

LAB-14 and the Carlton Connect Initiative became home to over a hundred hackers as participants descended onto the Former Royal Women’s hospital for a weekend of space themed challenges.

As is becoming custom with hackathons around Melbourne, we kicked off the weekend with a drinks function on the Friday evening. Participants, judges, mentors, and VIPs came together to talk space and discuss what ideas they were planning to work on.

After a super fast opening, introduction of the mentors, and explanation of the challenges, teams were formed and hacking began. It was interesting to see how keen people were to stay the night, with around three teams doing the full stint. One group even had all their concept images rendered on Friday night.

Opening the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge for Melbourne. Photo thanks to Myles Tehan
Opening the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge for Melbourne. Photo thanks to Myles Tehan

Whilst teams were hacking away, I thought we’d get into the space spirit and screen a interplanetary movie. The Martian was a feature hit that night, with popcorn and red frogs in abundance. Participants enjoyed the time away from their projects and relished in the opportunity to get their minds in the zone.

Saturday kicked off with an amazing breakfast provided by 130 degrees at Melbourne uni. “This is the best food I’ve had in ages!” were the comments floating around the room as muffins, yogurts, and “the fanciest croissants ever” were served to those willing to get up early and make the trip to LAB-14.

VR and Unity get their say

We were treated to two fantastic talks on Saturday morning. Warwick from Loke Digital talked about Unity and how useful it can be as a tool for creating 3D video games. The crowd also congratulated him on releasing his new Unity Assit to the store just that morning! Pretty cool right?

Next up we had Leon from IBM Bluemix, who talked about the use of the Bluemix platform and how Watson can be integrated into people’s projects. Participants were wowed when Leon stepped back and bought out the new HTC Vive – a huge hit for the weekend. This awesome VR experience was set up for the weekend where almost everyone had a crack at a number of games. Leon and his team went on to use the Vive to create a fully immerse Mars experience in a gaming environment.

Teams giving VR game development a crack thanks to Leon's HTC Vive. Photo thanks to Steven Cooper
Teams giving VR game development a crack thanks to Leon’s HTC Vive. Photo thanks to Steven Cooper

“The best I have eaten… forever”

Lunch. Now there is something to be said about food at hackathons. Mostly it is an abundance of pizza, Subway food, and whatever else happens to be on special at the time. Whilst pizzas featured on Saturday night (you can’t have a hackathon without pizza!) most of the food was a spread of delicious brain food… and when I say brain food, I mean real food, food that is actually nourishing and not just full of cholesterol.

Thanks to the amazing Hot Dish team, a beautiful Mediterranean buffet kept our participants well fed for Saturday. An abundance of fresh homemade dips, salads, and lavish ensured people had the best source of nutrition. The afternoon even saw banana bread, chocolate logs, and muffins grace the stage.

I think it’s safe to say it was one of the better catered hackathons. If I can give a tip to anyone running these events, it’s have good food… especially at a hackathon! People are awake for long hours, have their brains working in overtime, and the last thing they need is to be bombarded with pizza – have some pizza, but not for EVERY MEAL.

Back to the hack

It was really interesting to see how far our hackers had come in a day. By Saturday afternoon, the 3D printers were running hot (thanks to Mike Kuiper of VLSCI), experiments were being conducted from the first floor, sticky notes covered the windows, and games were coming together. Speaking of games… dance battle anyone?

It’s dance time

If anyone has ever been to one of the hackathons at LAB-14, you’d know I like to get everyone up and moving after a busy day at the desk. The Space Challenge was no exception, and on Saturday evening, the Kinect was dragged out, and it was dance time! Dance Central was so popular this time around that is was on for a good three or four hours. This may have been due to the fact that a competition was announced, which saw pairs of people battling it out for the highest score on “Hot Stuff”.

Breaking it down in Dance Central 2. Photo thanks to @Holoverse
Breaking it down in Dance Central 2. Photo thanks to @Holoverse

We had five people get over a million points (on the hard setting too might I add), but our winner Karen beat rival Max by a mere 10,000 points with a score of 1,700,000! One extra correct move would have seen Max take out number one, highlighting the competitiveness of our tournament. All five dancers received prizes, but Karen walked away with some sweet tech thanks to Palette.

This was such a hit, that I think I’ll continue to use it at more hackathons…

Sunday Pitching

Whilst some people spend their Sundays driving, we spend it pitching! Thanks to Marcus, hot-shot entrepreneur in Melbourne, our space hackers had a great session on how to master your pitch. Make it sharp, make it snappy, hit the right points, show off some energy, and most importantly, have a call to action. Don’t just leave your audience with a “that was awesome, but now what?” Give them something to do. Even if it’s as simple as “support us”, although the more specific your call-to-action, the more receptive people will be.

So after the pitch masterclass, some more great food, a visit from the Minister of Innovation and Small Business (thanks for all the support Phil), we finally came to the big finale… pitching.

With a fantastic line up of diverse judges – Iven from School of Engineering, Developer Steve, Atlanta from Signal Ventures, Ren from Blue Chilli, and Marcus our pitch master – and a great mix of projects, this hackathon ensured it wouldn’t be quite like any other… and it wasn’t! The incredible range of ideas presented were a testament to both the array of challenges available, but also the assortment of our participants. We had both first time and veteran hackers, science students and business people, hardware projects and software solutions. I was so impressed at the level of these ideas and the variety of what was showcased.

Our judges were awed by the a array of 3D printing prototypes, fully built games, drone apps, a bucket of sand and a skateboard, holographic technology, origami, and a Twitter favourite – a Jet Pack running on dry ice.

Luckily, the diversity of ideas presented was matched by the range of prizes on offer, with someone commenting that “almost half the people in the room walked out with a prize”. I think the easiest way the show the multitude of prizes which were given away are to list them here.

Judges prizes

  • 1st Place: Oh-Ree-Ga-Mee; “Ikea for Space” origami solution
  • 2nd Place: Breaking New Ground; Machine learning and asteroid mining
  • Best use of data: Zurkon; hazard identification
  • Best use of Hardware: NASA Space Monkies; jet pack
  • Best Mission Concept: Flight CheckR; drone security
  • Galactic Impact: Space Naps; is your plane on time?
  • Most Inspirational: Mirror Stairs; explore space with 3D gaming

Other prizes

  • People’s Choice: Drone Guard; know your no fly zone
  • Registration Competition: Steven de Salas
  • Best Tweeter: Jason Lee @jasonleecj
  • Dance Award: Karen Zhang
  • Best Mentor: Mike Kuiper
NASA Space Monkies. Photo thanks to Steven Cooper
NASA Space Monkies. Photo thanks to Steven Cooper

I think diversity has been a hot topic of this hackathon, and the prizes were no exception. The winners above received goodies from Microsoft, Zendesk, Razer, and Lifx, plus sweet tech from Nvidia (Jetsons), SCANN3D (Google cardboard), Sphero (BB-8), Palette (Cube)… and combine this with office space at York Butter Factory, and VIP tickets to both Future Assembly and Melbourne Knowledge Week and you have an awesome pool of SWAG!

What do you do with leftover dry ice? Make a show of it! Photo thanks to Steven Cooper
What do you do with leftover dry ice? Make a show of it! Photo thanks to Steven Cooper

Our 1st place winners were lucky enough to win a spot for their tech on a space flight to the International Space Station thanks to Quberider. Ironically, the solution developed by Oh-Ree-Ga-Mee was a storage unit for the ISS, so luckily they can now send their idea to space!

Thanks for an epic weekend

I want to again thank everyone for their efforts over this amazing hackathon. It literally was an out-of-this-world experience. Everyone contributed to making the NASA Space Apps Challenge in Melbourne a massive success… from the participants, to mentors, judges, sponsors, and everyone from the startup community in Melbourne who helped promote this event. I hope to do more awesome events like this so keep an eye out for the next big thing!

Thanks again to Developer Steve who took fantastic photos which can be found here.

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