At Praxent we love to innovate. In fact, we do it for fun. Twice a year we hold a company-wide Hackathon — a two-day hacking, developing, designing, building, collaborating and experimenting extravaganza. During a Hackathon, developers and software architects enjoy the opportunity to create anything their hearts desire.

Hackathon projects allow us to explore new areas of development we haven’t tried before, test innovative methods for getting things done, and most of all, have fun doing what we do best.

Here are two unforgettable highlights from this month’s Hackathon.

gNerduino: Electronic Hardware Kits for Kids

John Z. Black is an engineer at Praxent and an electronics hobbyist. His latest side project? gNerduino, a kid-friendly electronic hardware kit. A do-it-yourself kit, gNerduino provides all the tools for kids to build development boards from scratch.

The kits include a printed circuit board along with resistors, LEDs, a microcontroller, and all of the other components needed for assembly. Once assembled, the gNerduino development board can be programmed to interact with or control anything a kid might like to build, like toys, robots, remote controls, or other gadgets.

gNerduino is a work in progress. So, for this month’s Hackathon, John capitalized on the opportunity to create a prototype of the project. By the end of Praxent’s marathon design-develop-build craze, John had created his first fully functional, self-designed, hand-etched, gNerduino development board.

What goes into designing and building a development board manually, you ask? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s the short version:

Stage 1: Print Design

John created a custom design for the circuit board in an electronic design program called EAGLE. He manually edited each fine detail of the design, finally printing it as a negative, reversed image.

Circuit Board Prints
Printed circuit board design
Stage 2: Board Preparation

Using steel wool, he then cleaned and textured the surface of a copper board, following up with acetone to remove any oils or factory coating that the steel wool may have missed.

From there, he applied a dry film, photo-resistant material–a UV reactive gel–with heat, running the covered board through a laminator to affix the film and remove any air bubbles.

He placed the stacked designs onto the board, then exposed the piece to UV light.

Stage 3: Development and Etching

With baking soda, John removed the uncured gel, leaving only the design. Then, he etched the design into the board using ferric chloride. The ferric chloride removed all unprotected copper from the board. John followed this up with an acetone wash, removing the cured film on the board to reveal the shiny copper.

Stage 5: Tinning

Next, John carefully tinned the copper to help with soldering and protect the board from oxidation. To do this, he coated the copper board with thin layers of tin, creating a tinplate.

Tinning a circuit board
Tinning a circuit board
Stage 6: Inspection

At this stage, John carefully examined the board under a microscope to look for flaws or problems, and tested it with a meter to make sure it worked.

Stage 7: Assembly

To assemble the microcontroller, John first had to drill tons of tiny holes into the tinned board. After completing this step by hand, he then attached all the components to the board by soldering them in place.

Drilling holes in the circuit board
Soldering holes in the circuit board
Stage 9: Testing

John wrote a simple blink program and attached the finished board to a custom 9v – 5v power supply. He used the blink program to verify that the finished product would properly receive code and execute as expected. He then tested it to see if it would work. It did!

Testing the development board
Testing the development board
Stage 10: Refinement

In true Praxent style, John pushed the edges of his first design further, refining various components of the design before sending the prototype off to manufacture a short run of custom printed circuit boards.

All in a Day’s Work!

Impressed? We were, too. What’s next for John? A Kickstarter campaign to get gNerduino into the hands of curious children nationwide.

Tuning Your Instrument with the “Most Annoying Sound in the World”

Rico Callirgos is a lead developer at Praxent. For his Hackathon project he designed and built a custom tuning app using the “Most Annoying Sound in the World” from “Dumb and Dumber.”

Clearly positioned to soon earn the title of Apple’s most popular 5-star app, this elegant add-on for your phone has two modes: “Study” and “Test.”

Study Mode

In “Study” mode, the user can play a pitch-corrected version of the “Most Annoying Sound in the World.” The tune plays in different notes across the traditional 12-note music scale at a variety of octaves.

Test Mode

“Test” mode allows the user to test for perfect pitch. The app plays a pitch-corrected “Most Annoying Sound in the World” note and then prompts the user to guess which note is being played.

If the user gets the note right, then the app rewards them with an encouraging word from “Dumb and Dumber:” “Mmmmm… California… Beautiful.”

If they get it wrong, then the app plays a harmony of three “Most Annoying Sound in the World” tunes, simultaneously.

Creating this tuning app presented Rico with a challenging opportunity to hone in on his audio programming skills. After using Apple’s audio library and programming language, Swift, he can now apply a new level of expertise to future projects involving sound manipulation.

What’s next for the app? Uuuh…he’s not sure. He’s turning it off for now.

When you love what you do, your clients win.

If this is what we do for fun, imagine what we can do when things get serious. Over the past 17 years we have partnered with more than 300 businesses to create innovative solutions for real problems. These custom software solutions have fueled revenue growth and optimized efficiency for our partners, sometimes resulting in industry domination.

It’s our joy and privilege to be among the most passionate designers and developers in the business. Here’s to hacking!

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