Written by: Evan Koblentz

A new event on campus, Byte into Hardware, aims to remind us of the joy in exploring hacker culture’s physical roots.

The hardware hackathon will take place April 1-2 with themes focusing on accessibility and sustainability. Breadboards, microcontrollers and sensors will be everywhere, in contrast to the annual NJIT ACM chapter’s HackNJIT, which skews to the software side. Registration is here.

Student organizers are from the electrical and computer engineering department, and specifically from the NJIT IEEE chapter. But it’s open to all, as there are there are bountiful hardware angles across diverse majors such as architecture, computer science, all forms of engineering, industrial design, the natural sciences and more — for example, consider Martin Tuchman School of Management Assistant Professor Jasmine Chang, who envisions bottle-collection machines that could track the plastics supply chain.

“The main things you’ll be judged on are the prototype working, the idea and the applications,” said event chairman Raaid Kabir, an Albert Dorman Honors College junior from Nashua, N.H. studying computer engineering. “It might be some people’s first delve into hardware. You don’t have to solder, you don’t have to 3D-print. You can breadboard the first time and you might fall in love with it, create your first Arduino project.”

Raaid said that beyond NJIT, he anticipates there being teams from colleges such as Columbia University, Rutgers University, Stevens Institute of Technology and Temple University. Event sponsors include NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering, along with the IEEE Computer Society, IEEE Region 1, IEEE Signal Processing Society, John Deere, Lutron Electronics, Ranial Systems and Susquehanna International Group. Other companies and alumni are encouraged to help fund the event.

Raaid’s personal favorite hardware hack, which happened through an earlier NJIT IEEE chapter event, was when he used a Jetson Nano microcontroller to create an autonomous vehicle based on a model car chassis. “I’m interested in a robotics Ph.D., so that was super cool,” he said.

NCE’s Daniel Brateris, executive director of experiential learning, shares Kabir’s passion for hardware. He is the original designer of the NJIT Makerspace and does plenty of hardware hacking in his personal time, such as leading an annual holiday light show in Belmar. City street lights interfered with the best views of the show, so he connected transmitters to the poles, allowing communication with the holiday display software. The show was able to function in sufficient darkness by altering electrical signals into the street light optical sensors. Separately, Brateris is thinking about augmented reality methods for teaching how to use complex machinery, in support of his own Ph.D. studies.

Of the new hardware hackathon, “These are enthusiastic students who are passionate about what they’re doing,” Brateris said. “Me being an electrical engineer, I’m excited about them having an event like that … We’re trying to figure out how the Makerspace can help them and how NCE can help them.”

“The scope of engineering and computer science, none of those things exist without the physical component of them. Software doesn’t exist without the hardware. I think it’s a good idea to have students work together on hardware-based projects that involve coding, sensors and the like,” Brateris continued.

“My work, the college’s work, and the dean’s work over the last 7-8 years has all been to reinforce that fact, that you don’t do things only in simulation or only in code. You have to tie them into the real world.”