This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a home appliance hackathon at GE’s FirstBuild facility in Louisville, Kentucky. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering how anyone really could go about “hacking” an appliance. I was pleasantly surprised, and I think you will be too.

Lets start with the facility.

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This facility was a Maker’s dream. Workbenches everywhere, tools organized on shelving and clearly labelled, conference areas for planning, a shop stocked with all the large equipment you would need for bending metal and shaping wood, laser cutters, and even classrooms. If you need something to make your prototype, you’ll probably find it here.

The concept behind FirstBuild is interesting. You can walk in off the streets and use the tools and expertise available to build a prototype of your home appliance. At that point, you can walk out, or alternatively use the facility as a means to launch your product through GE. Simply building something there doesn’t give GE ownership, but ideally they want to use the facility to crowdsource appliance design.

I came for a hackathon.

At this event, there was roughly $60,000 in prizes and cash being awarded to teams based on their appliance hacks. Sponsors included Intel, Atmel, ShopBot, Makerbot, Renesas, Cypress, and many more. Each offered prizes for interesting uses of their technology. By allowing the sponsors to define their own criteria for prize giving, more teams were able to take home prizes. I thought this was pretty pleasant.

There were appliances around the building with labels explaining whether they could be disassembled and destroyed or only interfaced with software. Luckily, I got to see both in action. This was the part that really surprised me. I came to the event expecting to see people connecting to GE’s internet enabled appliances and writing apps to control them. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just personally find more pleasure in workshop construction than software. What I discovered was that nearly every entry into the hackathon involved a physical build!

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What kind of things did people make?

The projects that came out of this were really interesting. I could actually see using many of them in my daily life. There were things like hands-free refrigerator opening for people with physical disabilities, voice-controlled appliances, intelligent mobiles for the baby’s room, coffee bean roasting systems for your home oven, herb growing systems, and more. You can see the entire list of entries here, with descriptions and pictures.

Many people won prizes from individual sponsors, but the 3 main winners of the cash prize were these guys:

1st Place:  THE ROASTERS
Rob Lewis, Joshua Longenecker, Ali Faraji-Tajrishi, Nick Dillon, Rick Suel

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  • The winners adapted a conventional GE wall oven to roast coffee precisely using an Arduino control. Their invention, House Roast, adjusts the oven temperature automatically to mimic the professional roasting of coffee beans.

2nd Place: FIX OF WATER
Nelson Tanquero, Mark Shelton, Michael Large, Jose Padron

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  • Use voice commands to control the water dispenser on your GE refrigerator from a mobile device or tablet. The Fix of Water team hacked a GE fridge to provide filtered water by voice command to illustrate the possibilities for interaction with the appliances of tomorrow.                       

3rd Place: CROCK WATCH
Jason Chodyniecki, Taylor White, Bill Piepmeyer, Keith White, Eric Sage

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  • Wifi-enabled remote control crockpot with video that gives you greater control without being there. Crock Watch lets you control your crock pot from afar with an app and even monitor the cooking process with a unique video capability, so not only can you see the cooking process, when it’s done you can shut it off without being there. Slow cooking is a popular trend, but existing crock pots stay at the present temperature until you return to adjust or shut them off.

FirstBuild and the future

I could easily see many of these ideas going to market, given a little more time to refine them. It was exciting to see these concepts become reality right in front of my eyes. This event is going to grow for sure, we’ll keep our eyes on GE and Firstbuild.