Future Engineers Make with Maxim at Yale’s YHack Hackathon

December 21, 2016

Kris Ardis By: Kris Ardis
Executive Director, Micros & Security Business Unit, Maxim Integrated 


From November 11-13, roughly 1,500 university students from the U.S. and Canada gathered at Yale University for its annual YHack international engineering competition. YHack pits teams against each other to create cool stuff—maybe it’s a new web application, a new algorithm for creating a music playlist, or a new hardware gadget. In the end, all the projects were judged and the best ones got to make a pitch to the entire crowd for cash prizes.

Figure 1. The view from the running track above the gym at YHack, which attracted 1,500 students from universities across the U.S. and Canada. Diversity was on display as well: 40% of the participants were female!

Starting at 9pm on Friday and running non-stop to 9am on Sunday morning of the event, the students—in teams of up to four people—tackled their projects inside Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium (see Figure 1). Inflatable pool floats were available upstairs when they needed naps, but the hacking and working went on around the clock.

Students napped on the running track of the cold Payne Whitney gym.

Figure 2. Students napped on the running track of the cold Payne Whitney gym.

As one of many sponsors of YHack, Maxim showed up with lots of prototyping-friendly hardware, including microcontroller boards, sensors, and reference designs. We also provided technical support to teams that were using our hardware. Most of the attendees were computer science majors, so we saw lots of great software projects. There were also several teams of computer engineering majors who decided to venture into the world of hardware. One funny observation: the gym was cold and we noticed that some of our Maxim tablecloth covers disappeared over the hours, presumably to keep students warm during their naps (Figure 2)!

In addition to the overall YHack prizes, Maxim offered awards to teams that built the best projects based on our hardware. The following three projects received Maxim awards.

Braille Board

This team used the MAX32600MBED ARM® mbed™ enabled development platform and the MAXREFDES99# LED array shield to prototype a system to help blind people read signs around them. Using images that could be captured by a cellphone, they sent this content to Google’s Cloud Vision API to obtain text from the images and then convert it into Braille. Then, they used the MAX32600 microcontroller to output a Braille image to the LED array. We liked their project (Figure 3) because it aspired to make a meaningful impact in people’s lives, and we could see the path of moving from the LED prototype to an actual programmable Braille terminal. 

Braille board prototype at YHack

Figure 3. Braille board prototype, using an LED array instead of a mechanical Braille board. The team implemented the image-to-text functionality using Google cloud tools, as well as features on the MAX32600 microcontroller to allow a user to scroll through longer text.

Team Maximum Inertia

Aside from picking a great team name, we thought the “virtual tape measure” from Team Maximum Inertia (Figure 4) could have lots of applications. Using a MAX32630FTHR rapid development platform (which has an on-board Bosch accelerometer and gyroscope) and an Android phone app to communicate with the board, they used the gyro and accelerometer to measure distance as you move the MAX32630FTHR board through space. You could get distance measurements over non-linear surfaces. We also talked about applications like creating architectural drawings by touching their virtual tape measure to the corners of rooms.

Team Maximum Inertia built a virtual tape measure

Figure 4. Team Maximum Inertia

Team Blur

Team Blur created PulseLock, a clever idea that tries to change our sedentary working lifestyle (Figure 5). While working on your computer for some period of time, the screen eventually blurs, locking you out until you raise your heart rate with some exercise. They used a MAX32630FTHR board combined with the MAXREFDES117# reference design, a heart-rate and pulse-oximetry monitor, to measure heart rate. To demonstrate their system, they had the judges do jumping jacks to unlock the computer. Sure enough, after about 20 jumping jacks, you’re able to get back to work!

The PulseLock application at YHack blurs a computer screen to get a user moving.

In addition to winning a Maxim prize, Team Blur was also one of only eight finalists selected to present their project to the entire hackathon audience. In the end, they won third place (out of 150 finished projects). 

Frederik Jensen, Team Blur member, said, “I was a little surprised that we did so well. It convinced me of how important it is to have a good teamwork spirit and to know and draw on the potential of every team member.” Not to say it was easy, Frederik continued, “None of us had experience with microcontrollers. Luckily, the Maxim staff was very supportive and helped us a great deal. Once we understood the basic concepts of the online console and installed the heartbeat measurement algorithms, we had no trouble connecting the microcontroller to our desktop application and reading from the serial port!”

In the end the event was a great success: we got to introduce Maxim to a lot of tomorrow’s engineers, and we saw some very cool Maxim technology-based projects. We also found one of our 2017 interns, and, perhaps most importantly, we got to test our collateral with new engineers.