I recently had the opportunity to participate in the 2016 China – US Young Maker Competition as part of a prize sponsorship from the The Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China, Chinese ServiceCenter for Scholarly Exchange, Tsinghua University, Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group, Intel Corporation, and Hackster.io. The prize consisted of a week long trip to Beijing China, with an opportunity to compete in a Maker Hackathon that combined approximately 50 teams chosen from 9 Chinese regions (Beijing, Tianjin, Chengdu, Wenzhou, Xiamen, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Xi’an) and 10 teams from the United States. US contestants were chosen in a submission based contest on Hackster.io. According to the Maker Hackathon event pamphlet, over 800 teams competed for the chance to qualify for the competition. In this post, I will try to describe the experience as a whole by looking at each day of the trip in detail. Hopefully this will inspire future makers to participate in this and similar contests and give an idea on what to expect at these types of competitions.
The trip consisted of:
- Visit to the Great Wall
- Maker hackathon combining 9 districts across mainland China
- 24 hour illness
- Hacked “Lucky Cat” that warns of Bitcoin price volatility
- A featurette on Chinese TV
- Journey to find retro video games in a country that banned them up until 2015
- US team placing 2nd overall in China Maker Competition
- Meeting people who have heard of Jerry Nixon
- Selfies with Mao outside the Forbidden City
It all started in December 2014. I was making a foray into the Internet of Things based on a presentation from colleague Bret Stateham. Internet of Things or IoT, involves the use of internet connected micro controllers and / or microcomputers to allow integration of the physical world with computer based systems. I’ll be completely honest, at this time, the extent of my IoT creations mainly consisted of gathering and relaying temperature data to Cloud Services, and a non-internet connected Nintendo Entertainment System controlled using an Xbox-One Kinect. Around this time, a colleague of mine, Jeremy Foster, was offering up Intel Edison devices received from Intel Evangelist Rex St. John. To receive the device, I needed only to commit to building an internet connected project using the Intel Edison and optionally write up about the experience. The device arrived, along with a Seeed Grove Starter Kit for Intel Edison which allows for easy solderless connections of LCD screens, buzzers etc. I immediately went to work setting up the Edison as per Intel’s documentation. That same evening, around 2 am, I unveiled my creation, the Bitcoin Sensor for Intel Edison.
Here is the e-mail sent that fateful night:
The problem the device sought to solve was pretty simple. I had recently purchased a quantity of Bitcoin (not something I would recommend at this time) and was very nervous at the idea that it’s volatile price could crush my investment at any time. This is further compounded when you consider that Bitcoin exchanges operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
My idea was straightforward, connect the device to the internet to allow tracking the current price of bitcoin and accumulate that value into a moving average to use in a later formula for computing volatility in near real-time. All of this would be displayed on a Grove LCD with a buzzer sounding off when the value exceeds a certain volatility threshold. LCD color would indicate whether the index had gone up (Green) or down (Red) since last poll for price.
Here is the formula employed in the BTC Sensor:
accumulator = (alpha * currentNumericRate) + (1.0 - alpha) * accumulator
volatilityIndex = (currentNumericRate / accumulator) - 1
Six days after publishing the Bitcoin Sensor article to Hackster, I found validation for the project:
I was attending a Microsoft Employee Hackathon in Miami on December 11, 2014 when I retired to my room around 2:00 am where I was awoke by the device.
Microsoft had announced acceptance of Bitcoin as a payment mechanism and the price of BTC was producing upward volatility based on this news!
To be honest, this was satisfaction enough. I ported the project to the Media Tek Labs Link-It One and other than that I pretty much expected to retire the project.
=> Flash forward to May 13, 2016 <=
I received an e-mail suggesting I submit the project to Intel’s Co-Making the Future Contest on Hackster.io. I clicked the add submission button and added my project to be considered in the contest.
On July 11, I was notified that the project was selected as a winner which meant the project would also be considered as a Semi-Finalist for the 2016 China-US Young Maker Competition. This included an all-expense trip to China to compete in addition to planned visits to some of the best attractions in the country! The invite was extended to allow bringing a team of collaborators for the final competition. I chose to enlist Jessica Luong as my partner and teammate for the event. We also enlisted the video wizardy of Jesus Hernandez to create a quick commercial for our project:
The Journey to China
Traveling to China requires a valid Passport in addition to a Chinese Visa. The guidelines for acquiring a Visa can be found at the Chinese consulate website. If you are planning a trip, it is highly suggested to acquire the Visa at your earliest convenience. We were lucky in that we had access to one of six US consulates here in Houston, TX. Our application was initially denied on a minor technicality. Do your best to ensure you follow the rules and go through an experienced third party agent if you are under strict time. I saw people redo their applications onsite for submitting handwritten non-typed applications, typed but using lower case, not putting “N/A” in blank areas, and of course missing required documents. Intel reimbursed Visa costs for the trip which was a welcome gesture.
On August 13, with our Chinese Visas acquired, we set out at 1:00 AM to catch a 13 hour flight to Beijing from IAH.
August 13 – Arrival
We arrived at PEK airport in Beijing around 4:00 AM local time. After moving through customs with little issue, we made our way to baggage where we were greeted by Iris from Intel. The staff was very amenable and helped us to our taxi which set out to our hotel in Haidan District.
After laying down for a bit in the hotel, we decided to do some exploring around the nearby train station. Not long after, we found ourselves needing a nap to account for the time change. In the evening we explored the park near the Chinese Millennial Monument. It was surprising how many people were working out in the park, there was everything from jogging and aerobics to Tai-Chi and whip cracking at 8 PM on a Saturday night.
August 14 – Great Wall and Competition Kickoff
We began the day meeting with the other US teams. We had organic farmers from Oregon with an automated hydroponic system, high school seniors with an Automated Precision Drawing mechanism, an intelligent trash bin, an intelligent workmat for standing desks, a distress system for the elderly, a solution for saving pipes from freezing, a portable suntan monitor, a device for extracting water from air, and a device for tracking teeth grinding. We all shared a common penchant for technology and tinkering which made conversations flow very easily.
Our trek began with a journey 70km Northeast of Beijing to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall in Huairou County. Upon arrival, you will notice markets selling souvenirs. If you haggle the price with sellers and walk away you might be surprised to find that your offer is eventually accepted. I picked up a traditional sun hat and procured an aluminum “Lucky Cat” to incorporate into our hack later that evening for less than 20 dollars. There are also plenty of museums in the area, but the real show is the Great Wall itself. To get up to the wall we took a lift to go high into the mountains. My first thought on seeing the expanse of wall was that the Great Wall must have served as inspiration for the level design in Super Mario World etc. You will notice long paths which connect to “castles” along the way. Inside these fortresses, the walls are laid out to resemble traditional Chinese characters. At the end of the trip we had an epic meal at an in-home restaurant in the nearby village.
When we returned to the hotel, we got ready for the opening ceremony of the competition. It kicked off with some dancers wearing coordinated LED costumes followed by an overview of the rules. I was not feeling particularly well and retired back to the hotel where I remained sick for the next 24 hours.
August 15 – Competition Day One
I spent the majority of the day in my hotel trying to recover from my illness. It had me pretty much bed-ridden for the majority of the day. In spite of this, I made my way into the competition area to get a feel for what I needed to do and did a bit of hacking there and back in the hotel room. There were some challenges as China’s internet does not allow for access to any Google Services, Twitter, limited Facebook etc. I was able to make do as I did not have reliance on any of these services, but this is important to know if you are ever in a similar situation.
I was able to wire a servo motor up to the “Lucky Cat” we had purchased the day before which would raise and lower its arm in reaction to BTC price fluctuations. This was good for me, I had really been through a lot as you can see in the pictures. In an ideal environment I would like to have ported my code to a wearable device and spent a little more time on the presentation deck. Overall, I felt I had a solid horse in the race.
The team next to us had created an audio visualizer using LEDs and an Arduino. It was really cool to meet them and learn first-hand what life was like for them in China. They were great folks with great aspirations. For the record, “John”, I was able to take you on your recommendation of watching the new “Monkey King” movie on the flight home =)
August 16 – Competition Day Two
Day two started off with a first round of judging in the early afternoon. At this point, we had put the finishing touches on our deck and presentation. In order to advance, we needed to place top 8 out of 24 teams in our bracket. Judging was straightforward, a variety of professors and professionals would come up to the booth and allow you a 5-minute pitch. Afterward, they would ask questions about the concept.
Judging criteria consisted of:
- 40% Innovation and Creativity
- 20% Application Prospect (is there a market)
- 40% Integrity (is product solid and easy to use)
For our presentation, I wired up two BTC sensors using an Edison and Link-It One with one of the devices programmed to use simulated data to kick on the raising and lowering of the “Lucky Cat” arm. Jessica created some themed housings for the devices using on-hand legos that we had brought with us from the states. We tightened our presentation deck and memorized portions of the content the delivered and gave it our best.
Unfortunately, we did not advance.
That said, I felt our presentation went great and had no regrets on the performance. However, I feel much of our concept was lost on what exactly Bitcoin is. This is a fair question as most people have never used a Bitcoin and wouldn’t know where to start with acquiring it. I assumed this would be a popular thing in China as over 80% of all BTC transactions take place in Chinese Yuan. Perhaps we could have focused more on some of the statistics regarding Bitcoin as it relates specifically to China instead of Bitcoin as a whole.
August 17 – Competition Day Three
We were very happy to see three of our fellow US teams advance. These included Grindbit, Save the Water Pipes, and Keymat. They continued into the second round of judging which was a bit more rigorous. Teams had to bring their projects into a reserved room where judges from all group would come in to learn more and ask questions.
For those of us who were no longer in the competition, we had the opportunity to use some of our free time to explore the city. I opted to search around for imported classic video games. China is often cited as the largest video game market in the world, but console games were actually banned up until 2015. This makes finding classics very difficult. I posted the question to reddit and received some replies but an older post ended up providing a solution. A tip pointed me to a grey market shop at SoShow Mall in Chongwenmen district that deals specifically with imported classic video games. Unfortunately, the store owner only opened the store on weekends, but that did not stop me from basking in the glory of what could be seen in the window. I ended up finding some cool Lego-like Loz Blocks in the form of Darth Vader and Wicket from Start Wars for $4. That evening, we ate Dinner at Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, which we found out later, has a restaurant right here in Houston!
I had so many great pictures, but my Galaxy S6 was on in my pocket and typing passwords on its own which made it self-destruct and literally formatted all of my data right after we left the mall.
(Google, why do you employ security like that? Can you not tell when a person is typing by simply asking to enter a specific phrase!????!).
August 18 – Award Ceremony
The morning began with a Youth Innovation Forum followed by the award ceremony. The top two teams consisted of a project which allowed children to play a game while using a nebulizer and team Grindbit with their teeth grinding tracking system!
Big congratulations to the GrindBit team who ended up taking second place overall!
After the ceremony, we visited the US embassy for a presentation on Chinese Intellectual Property law. It was very informative and opened our eyes to some issues that we were unaware of.
August 19 – Final Day: Maker Faire Beijing with visit to Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven
Our contacts from Intel hooked us all up by allowing us to present our projects at the Intel Booth at Maker Faire Beijing. Having attended some of the biggest Maker Faires including Washington DC and San Francisco, this one was easily my favorite. In addition to being in a foreign land, all of the ideas were very original and fresh. There were legos with circuity inside, various VR simulations, robots, and technology galore!
Our visit to the Forbidden City started off with a full course meal at a nearby Peking Duck restaurant outside the city entrance. Upon entry, we learned that only 80,000 visitors are allowed into the city each day and the max had been met for the day. We were still able to explore significant portions and used the extra time to visit the Temple of Heaven. In spire of all the hiking and heat, we knew our time in China was cutting short so we pushed through our tiredness and made our way out to one of the night markets in the evening. Crystal and Vuy joined us where we learned that we had a mutual friend in Jerry Nixon. Amazing how small the world can be sometimes! Seeking to optimize our adventure, we took advantage of our afternoon departure the next day by waking up at 6 AM to experience the flag ceremony in Tienanmen Square and explore Gulou Street.
First off, we would like to thank our hosts Iris and Yafen for putting together an unforgettable experience. It was beyond amazing to be able to experience Chinese culture while also participating in a Maker themed Hackathon. We are also very thankful for the many great friends met along the way including our special friends John and 葛怡辰. We would also like to congratulate all the US teams for making it to China and for all your friendship and hospitality.
Now my personal takeaways:
1.) I don’t know about the other teams, but this all went down during the Olympics and I couldn’t help but feel like this was my version of that. That said, kudos to my coach David Washington at Microsoft for encouraging my foray into IoT and being fully supportive of our participation.
2.) China is HUGE, like so HUGE that you can’t grasp it when you are right in the thick of it. It really makes you think about how many humans there are in this world. 22 million alone in Beijing!
3.) I will be adding hot pot to my weekly rotation ASAP
To my fellow teammates and hosts, if any of you ever need anything that I can offer, feel free to give a shout out.
Wishing you all the best in your endeavors <3