MSR Hackathon 2014 Recap

MSR students working on the hackathon challenge.

For the MSR program, the 2014-2015 academic year kicked off in early September with a week-long hackathon/ programming boot camp. This event was designed to jumpstart the cohort's programming skills, to do some interesting robotics projects, and to have a bit of fun. After covering the general Northwestern orientation materials the first morning, the students spent the afternoon installing Linux on brand new laptops purchased specifically for the students' use. The second day started with a short introductory lecture on Python followed by a set of group-oriented Python programming challenges.
Two MSR students working on their ball-tracking code.

The third day was when things really got interesting. The students were told that, working in groups of three, they would have three days to build and program a servo-controlled webcam capable of real-time tracking of a red ball. They were to use the Robot Operating System (ROS), OpenCV, and Python. Each team was given a kit containing a webcam, a pan-tilt servo kit, servo motors, a servo control board, a power supply, and a red ball. Each group needed to create a new ROS package, develop the ball-tracking software in OpenCV, write a ROS-wrapper for the servo control board, and develop a controller to stabilize the camera to the ball. By the end of the three days, each of the groups had a working version of the project!

The hackathon concluded with a one-day, quick challenge where the students could put their new ROS and Python skills to use. After some morning demos and brainstorming, it was decided that they would split into four teams. One team would be responsible for adapting some code we found in a blog post to write a ROS driver for controlling a USB-based foam missle launcher. The other three groups would each be responsible for developing a different way to control the missile launcher. They ended up using voice control via CMU's Pocket Sphinx, a Nintendo WiiMote, and an ASUS Xtion PRO LIVE with the NITE skeleton tracker. By the end of the day each of the three different control strategies were demoed by controlling the missile launcher over a local network.

MSR students playing air hockey and foosball at the post-hackathon social gathering.Overall, this was a really fun week, and the students learned a lot in a very short time. It was a great way to kick off the program, and it acted as a nice lead-in to ROSCon and IROS. Can't wait to do it again next year!