Team Legion of Chaotic Evil works on their beer chiller.
Team Legion of Chaotic Evil works on their beer chiller.

It’s too early to make the call officially, but I think that what went on this weekend with LVL1 Hackerspace members and GE Appliance engineers will top the list of coolest Louisville events in the entrepreneur/tech space in 2014.

On Saturday morning, 50 LVL1 members and GE engineers (an equal mix) and a few students from Manual and East Oldham Middle School gathered at WaterStep for a two-day hackathon.

The goal: to hack improvements and innovation with GE appliances and technology.

Nine teams competed in two categories: User Experience and New Feature.

LineCook, a team of mostly LVL1-ers — Chris Cprek, Brad Luyster and Aaron Verndown, along with GE’s Tim Gillespie — took home first prize for Best User Experience. LineCook uses an embedded barcode/QRcode reader on a wall oven to scan a product and deliver a recipe from the cloud to the oven’s control panel. The oven then knows how to cook the frozen pizza or crescent rolls or what have you.

Team LineCook takes home first place in the UX category
Team LineCook takes home first place in the UX category

How does the recipe get in the cloud? The pizza manufacturer can upload it. A consumer can upload it too. Once the recipe is in the cloud, it’s available for anyone to access.

Prefer your frozen pizza crispier than DiGiorno’s instructions? You can go into the cloud database and make a one-time adjustment that the oven will remember. Don’t like to cook out of a box? LineCook has you covered there, too. You can attach a QR code to the recipe for Grandma’s Italian Pot Roast, upload the cooking instructions to the cloud once, and voila! — your oven will now recognize the recipe.

Team SinkWasher from GE wins first prize in New Features
Team SinkWasher from GE wins first prize in New Features

Winner of the Best New Feature was SinkWasher, the brainchild of a team of GE employees. SinkWasher is a double basin sink where one of the basins doubles as a dishwasher. It’s ideal for tiny apartments, though SinkWasher could be useful for a home bar or as an addition to a luxury kitchen to supplement an existing dishwasher.

The team built a kitchen island for the SinkWasher and embedded the jets from a GE dishwasher into the metal sink. Slide the lid over the sink, turn it on, and it functions just like a larger dishwasher. Emptied of dishes, it can be utilized like a regular sink.

Both teams won $500. More importantly, GE has expressed interest in continuing to develop both prototypes.

Natarajan “Venkat” Venkatakrishnan, GE Appliance Park director of research and development, said the genesis of this hackathon was at the GE Entrepreneurs’ Open House last October. GE invited entrepreneurs and members of the tech community to swap ideas with GE designers and engineers, giving them insight into some of the manufacturer’s pain points and a road map for how entrepreneurs can engage with the company.

After the Open House, Venkatakrishnan said, the LVL1 folks suggested it would be cool if GE appliances were hackable. “All the GE software is locked up,” he said. It is built to not be hacked. But still, it was something both he and the LVL1 folks were eager to see happen.

Saturday at work at WaterStep
Saturday at work at WaterStep

It took GE engineers around three months to create a kit that coders could use to “speak to” GE’s software and hack it.

But there was nothing “hack” about this event. GE put a tremendous amount of thought and resources into it. The event was originally scheduled to happen at the Appliance Park, but to simplify legal issues it was relocated to the campus of WaterStep. The building was entirely empty, said event coordinator Myles Caley, so GE came in and brought heat, water and electricity. They even built a kitchen to feed the participants.

And then GE brought in fridges, washers and driers, dishwashers, and water heaters for the hackers to tear apart, tinker with and tweak.

As with most hackathons, the event began with ideation. Some people came to the hackathon with ideas; some developed ideas after poking around the appliances and hearing from the engineers at GE. Ideas were pitched and teams formed around the most popular ideas. Then the teams got to work.

Saturday hustle
Saturday hustle

When I first walked in on Saturday, three engineers were going at a stainless steel refrigerator door with an electric saw. Two others stood on a table pouring water through a garden hose into a fridge. Daniel Johnson and Brandon Powers were hunched over their laptops coding and designing an app. Someone was talking about cooking microwave pizzas with your mind.

Ted Smith, Metro Louisville’s director of Economic Growth and Innovation, dropped by Saturday and made the rounds. When I caught up with him, it ended up not being an interview but two fans nerding out together over the crazy things the hackers and engineers were trying to do.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer also stopped by and marveled at the energy in the room. He said the city wants to actively encourage this kind of corporate-hacker partnership and that it’s educational for both sides.

“This is so not a typical GE thing to do,” said Kim Freeman, director of public relations at Appliance Park. This was a sentiment echoed by just about every GE employee I spoke to. “We’re usually so proprietary about things.”

A raspberry pie being baked with the aid of a Raspberry Pi.
A raspberry pie being baked with the aid of a Raspberry Pi.

But if this openness concerned anyone at GE, it didn’t show. There wasn’t a person in the building that didn’t seem downright gobsmacked by what was going on, including Venkatakrishnan whose job it was to work out all the legal issues.

When I returned to WaterStep on Sunday, an hour before the demo, some of the teams had worked all night.

A crowd had just started gathering around a man fussing with a bunch of wires under the careful protection of another man with a fire extinguisher. (The crowd seemed disappointed when there was no fire). The smell of a baking raspberry pie wafted through the warehouse (so clever, those LVL1-ers … raspberry pie baked by LineCook, which was made with a Raspberry Pi.) And someone’s refrigerator was talking. Bob Marley played on the sound system. Some teams were mellow and ready to go (and exhausted). Other teams were making last-minute adjustments that might or might not pan out.

In addition to LineCook and SinkWasher, the following teams presented:

User Experience:

Team GE-Fresh took second place in the UX category. GE-Fresh puts sensors in your fridge on which you place your milk carton. The sensor will send a push notification to your phone when you are low on or out of milk. There is also an app that allows you to check the level of your milk whenever you want.

Brandon Powers from GE Connected App presenting
Brandon Powers from GE Connected App presenting

GE Connected Home App Team took third and consisted of some familiar faces: Daniel Johnsen and Charles Buddeke — both of whom are involved with Open Coffee and are helping plan Startup Weekend — and Brandon Powers, whose startup, Lens Factory, we recently profiled. The Connected Home App is a cloud-empowered API that connects supported appliances and delivers the data to your iPhone.

Team DND created a gamified “healthy fridge.” The team hacked into a GE fridge and made a compartment where consumers could store healthy snacks and access them through a door within the door. A computer embedded in the door allows you to click on your user name before grabbing a snack; it then assigns points for how much you’ve taken out. You can even post your results to Facebook.

New Feature: 

GE-Fresh demonstrating their milk sensor (this fridge also doubled as the demo for Team Marvin)
GE-Fresh demonstrating their milk sensor (this fridge also doubled as the demo for Team Marvin)

Team Marvin took second place with a talking GE fridge. Again, this was a high-end fridge with the bottom freezer drawer. Team Marvin embedded speakers with treble and bass control in the freezer drawer and installed blue LED lights like you’d see on a tricked-out car. The fridge was linked to an iPad, through which you could play music. Sensors in the fridge were set up to send SMS messages (“the door is open” or “your freezer temperature is high”) to Google, which then operates a text-to-speech function. Team Marvin said that given time, any appliance could use these sensors to “talk.”

The Team of Chaotic Evil took third because beer. Kidding. Sort of. This motley crew of LVL1-ers created a Rube Goldberg-style contraption that is an in-door fridge compartment for chilling warm beers (or sodas or what have you) quickly. The machine dispenses crushed ice and water into the compartment and then circulates the ice water to rapidly chill the can.

photo 2
Kevin Nolan, vice president of Global Technology for GE

Also in service to beer (or canned beverages), Team General Ale-lectric is an in-door refrigerator can dispenser. When you bring home a case of beer (or soda), you load it into a special compartment in the door. When you want a beer, you push a button in the door and the fridge dispenses it like a gumball machine.

Team Leakers rigged up a system for appliances (they used a washing machine) to alert you via SMS or email when they detect a leak. Sensors trigger a Raspberry Pi which sends you the message.

Kevin Nolan, vice-president of global technology for GE, and Mark Hogg, founder of WaterStep, both spoke before prizes were awarded. And both, like every other person who walked through the door, were enthusiastic about the event. Hogg even suggested that perhaps WaterStep could host a hackathon around water technology soon.

Second prize and third prize in both categories was $250 and $100 respectively. But the biggest prize came at the end of the event when Venkatakrishnan announced that the teams could take their hacked appliances home with them.

Look for the LineCook-enabled oven at LVL1 sometime soon. Bring your own pizza.

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