Get Your Hack On: Detroit Geeks Make Finals of National Hacker Contest in New York

5/20/11Follow @xconomy

A few weeks ago, I asked tech entrepreneur Dug Song, co-founder of Arbor Networks, what Michigan needs in order to build its own Silicon Valley. He did not hesitate.

“Hackers,” Song replied.

No, not the kind that breaks into the Pentagon or Federal Reserve and initiates Doomsday. Rather, tech geeks who fiddle with stuff in their spare time to create innovations that may or may not have a commercial purpose or any purpose for that matter. They do it for fun and curiosity, not money.

Sadly, Song says, such mentality doesn’t come easy to pragmatic Michiganders, who value stability over spontaneous creativity.

So it was a pleasant surprise to learn a group of Detroit-based hackers recently made the finals of a national competition for…uh, hackers. I3Detroit, a self-described “collaborative environment for people to explore the balance between technology, art and culture,” will join nine other hacker teams around the country in New York this summer for the Red Bull Creation Contest.

To qualify for the finals, Red Bull required interested teams “to hack the past, create a future,” or create a futuristic version of a historical piece of technology. True to the hacker creed, i3Detroit’s idea came rather randomly.

“We were just sitting around i3Detroit the night the contest details were announced, pondering what to do,” Eric Merrill told Popular Mechanics magazine, “when one of the i3Detroit members just blurted out ‘How about a time-traveling radio? and everybody looked at each other and said ‘That’s really good!’”

The result was the ChronoTune, a vintage-looking radio that offers listeners audio from different eras. The team modified a Philco 70/90 so that users can turn the dial to a certain year, say, 1863, and hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Or push the dial to 1941 and listen to Roosevelt’s declaration of war against Germany and Japan in World War II. Or simply enjoy the latest Lady Gaga tune.

(Can you imagine Doc Brown’s ride tricked out with one of these bad boys? Sweeeeet.)

The audio comes from swappable MP3 files stored in a SDHC card located in the back of the radio. Instead of a tuner locating a frequency like in traditional radios, i3Detroit’s tuner is motion controlled. When a user turns the nob, the ChronoTune senses movement and identifies the MP3 file closest to the pointer’s location.

Another cool entry comes from 1.21 Gigawatts (another Back to the Future reference!) from Minneapolis. The team created a high tech riff on the message in the bottle theme. As it floats in the ocean, the bottle can receive text messages from the world and relay said messages, along with the bottle’s GPS coordinates when it received them, to a website.

The 10 finalists will travel to New York in July where they have 72 hours to complete an unknown task. Winner gets $10,000 in cash and $10,000 worth of tools.

Does a time traveling radio or GPS-equipped message bottle have much technological or commercial value? Probably not.

But encouraging this kind of creative thinking among our best and brightest could one day produce an innovation that changes the world.

Personally, I’m still holding out for the flux capacitor.

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