IDEA Hacks is a hardware-focused hackathon where students go to create innovative projects that revolve around a theme that is different every year. On Friday, January 13th, the LEMUR research group went to IDEA Hacks, hosted at the University of California, Los Angeles, to demo our research project. While we did not end up getting the amount of users testing our project that we had hoped, the event proved to be a useful learning experience, helping us identify the key flaws and barriers to usability in the system, giving us a clearer picture of the target audience, and allowing us to determine the direction to take the project in the future.

Our Experience

Coming into IDEA Hacks, we had hoped to introduce the system for the first time, and gather feedback about the system from users. In this way we were fairly successful. Our table at the event had many visitors, the majority of which seemed interested in the system and its capabilities. Many people gave feedback on what would make the system more appealing to them, or more useful in general. They wanted to not have to worry about the angles and have a more comprehensive list of parts so that they could get straight to making full blown robots.

However, another goal that our group had going into the event was to have users test the system and use it to create their own robot designs, something we were mostly unable to do. Some potential users express skepticism over the usefulness of our system when compared to the other available tools at the event. Others found the system interesting, but had either come into the hackathon with project ideas already in mind, or could not find a way to use the robot compiler within the confines of the theme of the event, which was sports and wearables.

Lessons Learned

Although we did not achieve all of our goals at the hackathon, the experience proved to be a valuable learning experience, as we gained insight in what aspects of the system needed to be fixed or improved, and gained a clearer idea of how to proceed with the system in the future.

One flaw that became clear quickly was the speed of the mechanical system. While it is relatively fast for small designs, the time to compile larger designs increases quickly as the size of those designs increases. If the system is not fast, usability decreases quickly, as evidenced in the interactions people had with the system.

We also realized that we may have missed the target audience of our system by presenting the robot compiler at IDEA Hacks. Currently, the system holds the most appeal as a way to make relatively simple robots with a very small learning curve. This makes the system ideal for people with low technical knowledge who still have interest in creating robots. However, the type of audience the IDEA Hacks and other hackathons tend to attract are typically people with high technical knowledge who already have experience using systems that are more complex, but also more capable. Because of this, the appeal of a small learning curve is not that big of a draw, and the fact that our system was unfamiliar may have been even a deterrent. The other main benefit of the system is the ability to rapid prototype designs with only the need for a printer. However, the appeal of this was also diminished in the hackathon setting, as other, more expensive but more robust manufacturing tools, such as 3D printers, were available for use.

Another problem was that we did not do an adequate job of marketing our systems to hackers. We waited for them to approach us while it might have been more effective to go around and tell people about our system and what it could do for them. Other companies there were doing this to an extent and were quite successful in motivating hackers to use their product.

- Ahmed, Christian, Gopi, Prathyush

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