ThinkNote: Make Music With Your Mind

Went to the best hackathon ever last weekend. Why? A combination of invention, skill, participation and sheer nerd energy. And a buffet (well, I am pregnant…). And, well, I really love the app we made.

“ThinkNote: Make Music With Your Mind.” Yes, that’s right. Depending on how you control your thoughts you can compose music. Electric brainwaves, picked up by the NeuroSky headset, transfers via bluetooth to our iPhone app, which converts the values to different sounds, and scales. It is very fun to play (or think?). We used a modicum of music theory and applied it to some composite algorithms from the NeuroSky API- namely, “concentration”,”meditation”, and blinking. As you concentrate more, the violins climb the scale. As you mediate more, the deep tones become enhanced. A blink clashes the symbols. It ends up sounding like the theme to 2001: Space Odyssey.

Isn’t that freaking amazing? We wrote it up in one day. Started at 10am, demo’d successfully at 6pm. My team: Stacie Hibino, software engineer at Samsung, Kyle Mock, my business partner at PickAxe and design/UI guy, Estelle Weyl, HTML5 expert and front end dev, and me, mobile engineer.

In reality, the process was something like this. We sat around wondering what to make on Friday night, from 8 to 10 PM. We played with the NeuroSky- Stacie had used it before- and noticed that when we’re playing Flappy Bird, our concentration goes way up. It’s also hard to understand feedback while you’re doing something else, because that creates a feedback loop. So, we went down the road of, well, a sound feedback would help, you could watch something and hear your levels. Then we toyed with other ideas: a meditation helper, a remote control game using the NeuroSky, etc. We went to bed that night still not deciding, but we had a lot of ideas. The next morning over bagels and hot sandwiches (food was top notch), and a good night’s sleep, we agreed that we’d start small, associating sounds, work up to some other ideas.

As hackfests go, of course it took all day to build what we thought would be easy! We spent an hour or so customizing a sample app from NeuroSky, while another built a simple sound feedback app. We merged them, and started testing simple sound playback from the NeuroSky. We tested single sound, continuous sound, and then overlapped channel sound.

We realized we wanted some visual feedback so we worked hard on radiating circles, but that wasn’t working so went back to squares that fade between colors (easy in iOS). Up until the last 5 minutes, we were coding UI changes, integrating graphics and adjusting the look and feel.

Our demo wasn’t hot- our backs were to the audience, for some reason the “blink” wasn’t working on my phone, but worked on Stacie’s. Our crowd seemed sympathetic. It’s a raw creative tool, and we intend on some improvements before we put it in the store:
– record and save, and share to social outlets “A song while I was thinking about you,” essentially.
– record your own sounds for input – small half second tones can be used to make custom music

Notes on the Hackfest
Overall the hackfest was great- there were little groups, a few sponsors offering loaner materials, from a pedometer, heart rate monitor, print-and-go api, and at&t’s medical cloud platform. There was continuous food; this is a problem at a few hackfests where food runs out, or you are given one choice – hot dogs. I actually packed snacks with me because of food limitations since I’m pregnant.

It was also a great hackfest because of diversity. I estimated half the teams were co-ed. Almost all teams were people of color, with very few exceptions. It was on the Peninsula in the Bay Area, so we got a nice mix of SF and Silicon Valley folks. Lots of kids were there- we were pitched pretty hard by a 9-10 year old girl who wanted us to help her make a pet-finding platform.

There was a bit of a learning curve with most materials- Arduino, for example- but it was a very friendly space to try out new things. My one suggestion would be to have some intro tutorials on materials offered in some of the conference rooms.

There were only 20 or so demo’s, and it was one of the best demo rounds I’ve seen in a while. Perhaps because of the learning curve, almost all demos worked, and just the fact that it was hardware, and multiple device made it fascinating.

The location had great parking, and in general nice workspace. NestGSV hosted the hackfest, and there was plentiful chairs, tables, work areas, etc. One suggestion in the future: childcare, and someone cleaning up. For some reasons hackfests always have an issue with the inherent slobbiness of nerds!