Inside the Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon
Co-organizers Sam Lavigne and Amelia Winger-Bearskin solicit projects that use tech to critique tech culture.
"Do you ever wish you knew when you had to pee?" Melanie Hoff, co-developer of YOUrinate, asked a crowd of engineers, artists and developers last weekend. Wrapped around her head was a sensor detecting how many sips of liquid she ingests and, around her waist, an unwieldy box with a speaker. Hoff took a few drinks of water. "Sip detected," the device said. Sixteen seconds later: "It's time to pee."
Hoff was a participant in New York's Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon, a one-day event where attendees are encouraged to develop redundant, worthless technologies. As inspiration for the wearable pee-detecting device, Hoff and her co-creators considered what basic tasks bodies are already very good at. Knowing when you need to pee, they determined, requires no elaborate hack. So over the next eight hours last Saturday, they rigged one up.
"The big question with wearables is, why? I think we're providing answers with YOUrinate," co-creator "BBQ" Dave Sheinkopf explained. "Except, for us, it's more like, why?"
Featuring hacks like 3Cheese Printer, a 3D printer using Cheez-Whiz as ink, and NonAd Block, a Chrome extension that blocks all non-ad content, the New York-based Stupid Hackathon is disrupting hackathon culture. While other hackathons churn out useless projects in earnest, the Stupid Hackathon strips pretension away from tech developers' money-backed scramble to satisfy every human need. Satirizing the hackathon community's naive goals for techno-utopianism, co-organizers Sam Lavigne and Amelia Winger-Bearskin solicit projects that use tech to critique tech culture.
"Is a need being filled or is the need manufactured and then constantly reinforced?" Lavigne asked. "The Stupid Hackathon is the perfect framework for satirizing the whole tech community."
Three Stupid Hackathon teams set out to create wearables that detect boners. Categories for hacks included "edible electronics," "commodities to end climate change" and "Ayn Rand." Participants, in general, ignored them.
Lavigne and Winger-Bearskin, who met at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, became disenchanted with hackathons when they noticed that many aimed to "hack" world hunger or income inequality in one weekend. As a student at ITP, Winger-Bearskin, now director of the DBRS Innovation Lab, applied to participate in a hackathon on the theme of love hosted at ITP but was rejected.
"I couldn't even eat the food that was on the table next to me," she said, referring to the free food often provided for hackathon participants. "And I couldn't hack about love!" Lavigne has never attended another hackathon.
Co-organizers Sam Lavigne and Amelia Winger-Bearskin solicit projects that use tech to critique tech culture
Winger-Bearskin's most recent Stupid Hackathon project was "Drone Doula" (NSFW), a drone with a claw that facilitates child delivery. A video of a live birth concluded her hackathon explainer, which, she reflects proudly, horrified the whole audience.
Over the last few years, fans have spread the Stupid Hackathon to Europe, San Francisco and Canada.
Virtual reality experience "Fireplace," created by Mikei Huang, allows users to immerse themselves in a VR scenario where they sit on a couch and watch a television playing a video of a crackling fireplace. Attendees David Huerta and Cameron Cundiff developed a wedding gift registry for Crypto Market, a dark web marketplace that peddles fake Xanax pills and credit card accounts. "Soylent Dick" (NSFW), a dildo constructed out of a Soylent-oil putty, hacked "the most efficient way to consume your Soylent." A tube running through the dildo's length shoots out Soylent.
"Soylent isn't only the food of the future," co-creator Katherine Pan explained. "Soon, Soylent will be the apparatus through which you will consume Soylent."
She added, "Some people consider Soylent to be a symbol of masculine tech culture. So we made a giant penis out of Soylent."
E-book, a book crudely carved out to accommodate a smartphone, promised to disrupt the physical book market. Users can read a physical book and a digital book simultaneously or even film themselves reading. Shakie, a selfie app, requires you to vigorously shake your phone in order to take a blurry selfie.
"What task above all else takes up most of your time?" asked developer Xavier Snelgrove. "Perception!" To ease the burden of constantly looking at things and determining what they are, Snelgrove developed an augmented reality solution to the task of perception. "Signifier," with its advanced deep learning algorithm, sorts items in your line of sight into "one of the exactly 1,000 categories into which reality falls."
When aimed at himself, Signifier perceived Snelgrove as "neck brace," "wig" and "feather boa."
Capping the event was a high-tech ritual that involved state-of-the-art fun-generating hardware: a piñata full of candy, whiskey and loose cigarettes that participants hit with a stick. Obscuring their vision was an unplugged Oculus Rift acting as a blindfold.
"Artists critique art through art. Musicians satirize other musical forms with music," Winger-Bearskin said. "As people who make tech, we critique it through the medium that is our language."