Yesterday at the Over The Air hack-a-thon, I was part of the team that won both the Best Hack in Show and the Paypal X Challenge. This is the story of that hack…
Picture by Benjamin Ellis.
First up, a huge, huge thank you to the rest of my team at the Hack-a-thon from this weekend’s Over The Air Mobile Development event. My hacks traditionally have a huge vision, and that needs an ad-hoc team with a huge range of skills.
So to Simon Maddox, Sam Machin, Rachel Clarke, Robert Lee-Cann and Karl Turner my thanks yet again not only to committing to the hack, but joining in with another one of my mad ideas.
Thanks also have to go to Nicolas, Martin and Michael at Parrot for the use of their Parrot AR.Drones, the flying quadricopters that took to the sky during Over the Air which everyone was queuing up to have a go on. Having seen some prototypes last year, I had a sneaking suspicion then that they’d be (a) useful at a Hack-day style event and (b) an instant hit with everyone in the crowd. I was right on both counts.
Again, by Benjamin Ellis.
The basic idea for the hack was to create a “futuristic racing game” that was a bit like the Sony Playstation’s Wipeout series. But to create it in the real world. This would mean:
- …building a suitably twisty and hilly track around the Great Hall at Imperial College.
- …having two vehicles that could race round the track under player control.
- …provide suitable video coverage to both play the game (from in-car streaming cameras) and around the track to provide the sweeping view you expect from any racing game (via the Parrot AR.Drones and their web cams).
The track itself was the first casualty, as the hoped for cardboard supports never arrived although the sheeting for the track surface did arrive – so that means a lot of improvising with chairs, upturned plastic crates and a lot of tape. Rather that a big loop, the hack ended up with “drop and climb” hill section from the stage to the back of the hall, a hairpin, and then back through a tunnel.
The climb had to be reduced in incline during design as well, thanks to the [lack of] power in the remote control cars we had sourced as our vehicles.
These were controlled by either an Android or iPhone client, using the accelerometers to steer the cars (by rotating the phone left and right), and tilting back and forwards for accelerate and reverse, with a drivers eye view relayed back to the handset.
In essence we were looking to replicate the control system that Parrot has spent years developing for the Drones in around 18 hours, although our cars didn’t have to deal with issues like stability, thrust, balance and weight distribution (it really is magical what the AR.Drone manages). We also need to hook up the vehicles to the smartphones. Parrot manage this with an ad-hoc wifi hotspot created in the Drone. Our route was a bit more involved. The smartphone connected to our own wifi network, whose router then had an Ethernet connection to an Arduino circuit board, which then was hardwired into an R/C handest, which sent the requisite commands over a radio channel to the R/C cars.
And apart from some latency issues, the controllers worked and we got some track time with the cars!
The second goal, to get live streams from the webcams from the Drones and the cars, (which were essentially Telent controlled Ferraris) wasn’t as successful. Simon ran out of time, and while we had some VGA output going to the mixing desks, there wasn’t enough time to finish this code so we could present it.
What Simon did come up with though was a front-end to the vehicle control application that allowed us to hack together a financial reward system for loaning out the Parrot AR.Drone. Handing over your smartphone to someone so they can find the Drone, they are asked to input their Paypal account details along. They can choose the duration of how long they want to play (and the cost) before they were given
We also added in a very alpha section that supported the Bump API, the intention being that when an impact was detected, when
Matthew Cashmore someone crashes the Drone at top speed into a wall high above the Great Hall, they’ll contribute to any repair costs of the Drone. This would need a fair bit of work to be fully implemented to reach a suitable consumer grade level.
And for the record, all the Paypal interactions took place in a sandbox, so we’ve not made that profit… yet. But given the popularity of the AR.Drone in the hall, this hack could easily cover the cost of buying one for your office!
Picture by Bejamin Ellis
So to the presentation. I think it would be fair to say that it was very British, with a bundle of technical issues that meant the smoothly planned introduction and 90 seconds went a bit haywire. Still, the goal was to show how much fun we had, and there is a certain bit of latitude given to the tech going snafu at any event like this.
Personally I though this was one of the weaker hack presentations I’ve done. With all the problems it was very hard to get any flow, and improvising meant the story was told out of order. On top of not getting the VGA feed code working, to me the whole thing felt incomplete.
Turns out I’m being a bit too hard on myself, because it’s obvious that it all came together in the end for the audience. Lots of the attendees spoke to us afterwards that they loved our presentation. By the way the presentation video will follow in a few days, and if you have clips, please send them over to me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Then came something a touch unusual, because in previous Hack events my team has usually been regarded as an “out of competition” hack for various reasons (including but not limited to pyrotechnics, the appearance of Cyberman, the supply of stupid amounts of wood and LCD projectors…). Not this time. The Ben Collins Appreciation Society was a full entry, alongside 25 other hacks from some of the brightest minds in the UK mobile scene.
And we won!
The team took two prizes.
The PayPal X Challenge
The Best Mobile application on iPhone/iPad/Android embedding PayPal Adaptive Payment libraries will be awarded with an HTC Android Smartphone.
Best in Show
The big one, the overall prize which every hack is measured against all the others. Or as the website says “selected by a panel of judges, including an independent adjudicator, on the basis of the entry the Judges consider to be the most apt and original.
On the day I was shocked that we took the Best in Show, but having looked at the reactions and how people are describing the hack I think I can see why. For example, Grant Kemp notes it as iPhone Clients, Android Clients, PayPal pay per use, flying drone, bump plus wi-fi equals Best in Show in his video clip.
Thank you again to everyone involved, each year’s hacks are always a team effort, but this one really raised the bar.