Hackaday Supercon 2023 Lights Up Pasadena

Maker News
Hackaday Supercon 2023 Lights Up Pasadena

At a high table in a nondescript alley, eight hackers sit, gripping hot soldering irons, faces turned down, scrunched into expressions of intense concentration. They are competing to see who will be crowned the winner in a two-day tournament of technical prowess, testing their abilities to solder LEDs to a series of contacts that go from tiny to laughably miniscule.

Competitors race to see who can solder all five LEDs first.

Al Williams examines a contestant’s board.

The soldering competition PCB.

Their prize? Perhaps the most valuable currency in this community: the recognition that they are proficient in a skill that a mind-bogglingly expensive machine, on some factory floor, could do in the blink of an eye. This is the sort of techno-shenanigans that you can expect to see, annually, at Hackaday Superconference.

This past weekend, the 3-day Supercon took place in Pasadena, California, attracting 480 attendees from around the world. The event, currently in its ninth year, is considered a sort of hacker camp where passionate tinkerers of all skill levels converge to share projects, components and company with kindred spirits.

Al Williams, an editor at Hackaday and the judge for this year’s soldering tournament, views Supercon as being unique among hacker gatherings.

“It’s a community,” he observed. “It’s really more of a communal gathering than what you normally think of as a conference.”

Supercon comprises several key components. There are the talks, where speakers present their expertise to an audience of fellow Supercon attendees. There are workshops, where conference-goers can sign up to learn new skills in a hands-on environment. There’s the “alley,” a crowded outdoor expanse of folding tables where hackers sit in front of computers, soldering stations, electronics and each other, building and sharing hacks. And then there’s the legendary “badge-hacking,” a pastime that, for some, borders on obsession.

The main reason attendees give for attending Supercon is the opportunity to enjoy the oddball and friendly community of fellow makers and hackers. That same community had an online reckoning this year over a lack of diversity in the event’s list of speakers, a situation that did not noticeably dampen the festivities, but was obviously on the minds of attendees.

The Talks

This year’s Supercon featured a wide range of talks, from how to hack a coffee machine to intercepting deep space communications.

Cory Doctorow delivers this year’s keynote talk.

The weekend kicked off with a talk by Cory Doctorow, an author, thinker and activist critical of big tech and its impact on society. Doctorow laid out his roadmap for reversing what he calls the internet’s “enshittification.” According to Doctorow, enshittification occurs when tech companies engage in monopolistic practices, allowing them to browbeat users and customers into submission.

Doctorow implored the crowd to “build a new good internet that is a worthy successor to the old good internet” and to support legislation to “devolve control over technology from giant companies, to small companies, to coops to nonprofits to tinkerers, to communities of users themselves.”

Angela Sheehan and Nova take the stage.

Angela Sheehan shares Nova with a fellow Supercon attendee.

Angela Sheehan, an artist, maker and teacher, presented her talk on building “Cuddly Companion Bots.” Sheehan guided the audience through her process of designing and building “Nova,” a long-tailed creature that sat on her shoulder, inquisitively cocking its head and flapping its LED-lined wings.

“All companion bots have an emotional impact,” Sheehan told the audience. “You really resonate with them, you want to cuddle them, you want to take care of them, you want to hold them, you want to interact with them.”

Sheehan wanted to reach makers with limited robotics background. She hopes more people will bring companion robots to Supercon and expand the ever-growing family. 

“You don’t have to do robotics in a way that’s heavily engineered,” Sheehan explained, after the talk. “You can just try some things out that use the skills that you have, and tinker around with it.”

Marc Verdiell explains how to restore an Apollo guidance computer.

In another talk, Marc Verdiell recounted his team’s dramatic journey to restore an original guidance system from the Apollo missions. His description of the team’s multi-year endeavor caused the audience to groan at the challenges faced, laugh at unusual roadblocks, and finally erupt in applause and hoots when Verdiell showed footage of the operational guidance system. This talk was one of very few occasions to see a full auditorium break into laughter over a  1N914 diode.

At one point, Verdiell’s team spent two weeks working out of a Texas hotel room from 7am to midnight, every day. The computer’s owner, not on Verdiell’s team, sold the restored device for $750,000.

With 27 scheduled talks, and two hours of lightning talks, Supercon offered attendees the opportunity to leave with a plethora of new knowledge. All of the talks are available on Hackaday’s YouTube channel.

The Workshops

Supercon also hosts a number of workshops for attendees to receive hands-on education from their fellow hackers. This year’s attendees had the opportunity to learn everything from the basics of Git version control to assembling their own 16-bit core memory.

Matt Venn, sporting an ASIC flat hat and LED chain.

Matt Venn shares his expertise at the TinyTapeout workshop.

An ASIC chip under a digital microscope.

Matt Venn, engineer and science communicator, led a workshop for his TinyTapeout project, giving attendees the opportunity to design their own ASIC chip.  Venn, sporting a yellow “ASIC” flat hat and periodically beatboxing over his microphone, displayed a unique ability to build excitement around integrated circuits (ICs).

Venn spent three hours guiding attendees through the process of designing their own logic circuit that would be printed on a silicon chip. He hopes that TinyTapeout will bring the sort of accessibility and community to ICs that the Arduino brought to microcontrollers.

Venn wanted attendees to feel comfortable submitting a design no matter how simple it seemed.

“People naturally don’t want to do that,” he explained. “Because they see it as a special opportunity not to be wasted on something pointless. But the danger is that, then they never do anything.”

Playing dancehall airhorn sounds as each participant submitted their design, Venn led the whole workshop to submit designs.

Venn hopes universities will embrace TinyTapeout, giving students the opportunity to design their own ICs and get hands-on experience seeing how they work.

Becky Button explains the science of sound modulation at the guitar pedal workshop.

A completed guitar pedal next to an in-progress pedal.

Three iterations of the guitar pedal PCB.

For musically inclined hackers, Becky Button, Jason Garwood, and Rowan Dunlop led a workshop on assembling a DIY guitar pedal. Workshop attendees soldered components onto custom PCBs that Button and her fellow instructors had designed, housing them in laser-cut, acrylic enclosures.

According to Button and Garwood, the workshop not only gave the trio an opportunity to invite new people into their community but was also rewarding to develop.

“I just really like the sense of community I feel when I pull out a thing I made,” Button explained. “There’s always going to be people who want to talk about this, and that has been really enjoyable for me.”

“When I look at all the PCBs and I look at the changes, I feel like they’re snapshots to points in my life,” Button added.

“They’re Polaroids,” Garwood observed, gesturing to the three, colorful iterations of the pedal PCB laid out on a table.

“They are,” Button agreed. “They’re Polaroids.”

Badge Hacks

One of the most beloved traditions of Supercon is hacking the event’s badge, a novel device concocted anew each year. The most passionate “badge hackers” spend most of the three days implementing their hacks, hoping to present an eye-catching creation to the packed auditorium at the “Badge Hacking Ceremony” that closes out the weekend.

This year’s badge consisted of a vectorscope display and a waveform generator, all accessible via a Raspberry Pi Pico running MicroPython. Badge-hacking perfectly encapsulates Supercon’s bold rejection of capitalistic efficiency. A huge number of person-hours go into hacking a device with one indispensable function — getting attendees through the front door — that works even if the badge is never powered on.

The polar-coordinate “Etch-a-Sketch” badge being demonstrated at the badge hacking ceremony.

The cartridge-based gaming badge being presented at the badge hacking ceremony.

Across the 5 award categories, this year’s winners included an all-vectorscope animated rendering of the hacker’s name and Hackaday logo, a video player featuring Star Trek and Rick Astley, images of each planet in the solar system (including Pluto), a polar-coordinate “Etch-a-Sketch” that erases when shaken, and a vectorscopic, cartridge-based gaming system. 

While presenting, the creator of the gaming system badge exclaimed to the audience, “You would be an idiot if you spent two days just porting Doom. I mean who would do that?”

Then he added, “So here’s Doom.” 

The crowded auditorium erupted into applause and cheers as a vectorscopic Doom played on the badge’s half-dollar-sized screen.

The Community

Attendees congregate in the alley.

According to attendees, the most valuable aspect of Supercon is how it brings together like-minded hackers from across the globe. For some, Supercon is an opportunity to meet online friends in person for the first time. For all, it’s an opportunity to make new friends.

Claire Cassidy’s laser-cut designs.

Claire Cassidy, engineer, social activist and self-taught hacker, came to Supercon to network with and support other women and queer folk in the hardware scene.

“It’s one of the few times that a lot of us, especially for the more marginalized people, get to see each other and talk in person and that’s really important,” Cassidy noted.

Cassidy observed that hacker culture “tends to attract people who do want to break things apart and make things better, or figure out how things work. And that creates a kind of culture and mindset that allows for change.”

Evan Kahn breaks out his DIY theremin.

On the first evening of the event, Evan Kahn set up his DIY theremin on the second floor balcony of Supplyframe headquarters (Hackaday’s parent company), and serenaded a small audience with the unusual electronic whine. Several observers tried it themselves.

“It has a visual indication of what pitch you’re playing,” Kahn explained. “And that is really critical for people that cannot differentiate.”

Kahn thinks that the visual component produces “a much deeper initial engagement, where folks start playing it, and then they feel: ‘Oh, I could actually learn a song like this, this actually could sound good.'”

Jorvon Moss and Binary socialize in the alley.

Jorvon Moss, a Supercon 2022 speaker, brought to the event two of the companion bots he is well-known for making. As attendees walked by, their heads inevitably turned toward Binary, a soccer-ball-sized robot in Moss’s arms, with big eyes and a tendency to blow bubbles out of its mouth.

“Supercon is the perfect excuse to get everyone together, and we all hang out for three days and just enjoy each other’s company,” Moss explained.

Angela Sheehan gives a shout out to fellow robot companion builders, Jorvon Moss and Alex Glow.

Moss, Sheehan, and Alex Glow, who make up a companion robot posse, all brought their very popular robot companions to the event.

The Backlash

Hackaday announced this year’s list of talks in October. Immediately, disappointment began spreading through the Supercon community at the lack of diversity in the lineup. The conversation about hosting more diverse voices had been raised the year prior, and there was a perception that last year’s selection had been a modest step in the right direction.

Some members of the community took to social media in the past month to share their concerns about “backsliding” and their frustration at what they saw as a lacking response by the event’s organizers.

Carrie Sundra, of Alpenglow, expressed both her love for the Supercon community and a deep frustration that the event had not proactively addressed previous concerns about representation.

Sundra described her original reason for attending Supercon.

“It was really the people and the community that brought me here,” she explained. “And everybody’s love of creative uses of technology, and creative hacking.”

Sundra was disturbed by the lack of progress she’s observed towards curating a more inclusive slate of speakers.

“It’s just disappointing that, you know, the community, basically, last year said: ‘Hey, there seems to be a little bit of a diversity issue here.’ And then, a year later, it actually got worse,” Sundra explained. “So that is really disappointing. And it just says to me that there is no effort at all being put towards outreach to attract diverse speakers.”

Joey Castillo, well-known for his LCD and E-Ink builds, pointed out how the lack of diversity in the speaker lineup seemed at odds with the diversity of the Supercon community.

“You can look around this alleyway and see there’s a lot of diversity in the crowd, in the groups of people who are here,” Castillo remarked. “And it was disappointing that there was, you know, so few women. Like no Black speakers.”

“It doesn’t feel like it has to be terribly difficult, you know,” Castillo mused. “In my mind, if someone calls me out on something, I think: Step one, acknowledge that there was a problem. Step two, commit to doing better. And step three, follow through.”

When reached for comment, Majenta Strongheart, Director of Supplyframe DesignLab and Hackaday Superconference Organizer, provided the following statement:

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are pillars of DesignLab’s programming. Every year we work hard to ensure our community is growing in a way that is representative of these pillars, whether that be through hosting events like Introduction to Wood Shop for Women and Nonbinary Folks or providing workshops to nonprofits like The Hidden Genius Project. It’s promising for me to see more and more diversity in our Supercon attendees each year, and I hope that this will result in a more diverse pool of applicants when we post the CFP for speakers and workshops in future years. Supercon first-timers often tell me how much they appreciate what a safe and comfortable place Supercon is for hardware enthusiasts of all kinds to come together and share their passions. We have plans to continue to do more to improve in the future, for example, providing speaker grants specifically for underrepresented voices, and continuing to expand our outreach into other fields in order to find a wider range of perspectives to give technical talks.

In the past, Hackaday has approached individuals directly, asking for them to submit proposals to deliver talks at Supercon.

Spending time at Supercon, it becomes apparent that hacking is an act of optimism and love; daring to improve systems and share that knowledge with a cherished community. Even those voices critical of this year’s programming diversity also made sure to express how much they value the Supercon community and the opportunity to connect in person. The drive to address Supercon’s diversity shortcomings seems to stem from that same desire to improve systems for the benefit of the community.

Sundra pondered why “hackers, who take pride in learning new things, without having necessarily a background in that thing, can’t seem to apply that same methodology, of learning a new thing, to learning about diversity and inclusion.”

“I wish people would approach it more like they do learning a new technical skill or a technical problem,” she added.

After the badge awards were announced, the event organizers took to the stage, delivering closing remarks to the packed auditorium. Once the remarks and conference had concluded, the lights turned on and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” started up over the PA system, playing the Supercon community out into the cool California night.

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Collin Blinder

science and technology journalist based in Southern California. For tips and inquiries, email: collinblinder@gmail.com.

View more articles by Collin Blinder

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