They hacked a microwave.
This was the buzz on engineering quad at the University of Pennsylvania this weekend as a team of four Penn seniors took home the grand prize of $2,500 and a chance to present their handiwork to Google engineers at the company’s New York branch. They had won the 2011 PennApps Hackathon.
The hackathon was a competition where 41 teams of around four people had to build an application between 6 p.m. on Friday through noon Sunday using all the coding and software savvy they could muster.
This was the third year of the twice-annual hackathons.
While most groups focused on building apps for mobile phones, the winning team of Kevin Conley, Ben Shyong, Varun Sampath and Teddy Zhang added a hardware element into the mix.
“[The microwave is] a common piece of electronics that’s really outdated, kind of like TI calculators, so why not hack it and make it better?” Conley said.
“I feel that another side of the coin is that this year, we have the most entrants ever for PennApps and everyone tends to be computer science majors or programmers, where we’re a team of electrical engineers and a computer engineer,” Zhang added. “What sets us apart from everybody else? We know how to work with hardware and we know how to catch someone’s attention and make us memorable.”
The team modified a microwave to play highly rated YouTube videos while an item is cooking, with the length of the video determined by the time needed to cook the item. When the microwave is finished, a text message and tweet is sent to the user using a Twitter account made specifically for the microwave.
The greatest challenge was programming an appliance that was not designed to be programmed. The first attempt at programming a microwave failed because the group could not find a way past its metal inner covering, so a second microwave was needed during the hackathon.
“The hardest part is the fact that a microwave is a complete black box, there’s no specifications, no API for getting at a microwave, you just have to open the covers and hope that you can do something,” Sampath said. “We were lucky enough to see how the pieces were put together, we were able to take it apart slowly and we were lucky we didn’t kill ourselves with the capacitor inside it.”
The idea for the video-playing microwave came from a conversation Conley had while serving an internship over the summer combined with the desire be part of the trend of more everyday items becoming more Internet-friendly.
“It’s definitely a trend to the fact that all our houses have WiFi in them, we can expose a lot of data this way and we can get a lot of cool applications out of this that enhances the amount of knowledge that surrounds us,” Conley said.