EE grad’s cyborg glove wins Y Combinator’s first-ever hardware hackathon in Silicon Valley

While the hackathon trend may be aging, Y Combinator – a well-known Silicon Valley incubator – freshened the concept by hosting a 12-hour “hardware” hackathon in late February at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Jack Minardi wears Tactilus, a haptic feedback glove. A series of cables applies pressure to the wearer's fingers to resist motion in response to pushing against a virtual object.

Jack Minardi, a 2012 electrical engineering graduate, led a six-person team to victory in under 10 hours with a prototype for a force-feedback glove – dubbed Tactilus – a rough-looking device that allows the wearer to touch objects in virtual reality. See a Tech Crunch video interview with Minardi.

More than 130 designers worked on 32 projects. Minardi’s team won an iPad, some Pebble watches, and access to some of Silicon Valley’s top investors.

Minardi said he had the idea of a haptic feedback glove that interacts with 3-D environments a few months earlier. Five strangers who stopped at his table liked the idea, so they formed a team, according to a story in EE Times. A series of cables applies pressure to the wearer’s fingers to resist their motion in response to pushing against a virtual object.

The glove’s movements and motions are mapped to a virtual world. Imagine that a person wearing the glove could actually grasp a sword in a video game. Minardi told Tech Crunch he gravitated toward hardware hacking because “I could tell a computer exactly what to do, but I wanted to tell the world what to do.”

Team members are (L-R) Matt Bigarani, Nick Bergseng, Jack Minardi, Neal Mueller and Tom Sherlock. Not pictured: Oren Bennett. EE Times photo

Actually connecting the glove to a virtual system is a software process that will take a lot of work. Another challenge is optimization of the resistance feature. It’s certainly a new direction for Minardi, a researcher at Enthought, a company that offers open source scientific computing solutions.

The Dayton, Ohio native said he always knew he wanted to be an engineer – like his father. Minardi said, “I chose Vanderbilt because I visited and fell in love [with the campus].”

For his capstone senior design project, Minardi worked on a team to further research on how integrated circuits respond to various types of radiation. Their task was to develop a graphical user interface to provide real-time plots of a running radiation experiment as well as allow electrical control of the devices placed under test. Their senior design project – DeathRay: A GUI program to control and visualize radiation experiments – interfaced with a modular testing platform constructed by Vanderbilt’s Institute for Space and Defense Electronics.

“I do software development professionally,” Minardi said, “but I’ve been interested in human-computer interface for a while, and I just like to mess around with VR in my free time.” One of Minardi’s projects during senior year explored HCI. He designed a sort of sensory compass. “I built an ankle band with embedded vibration motors. Using GPS you could set the device to always vibrate in a certain direction.”

The hackathon was run by Upverter, a DEMO-launched company. Upverter gives hardware hackers software for creating, sharing and collaborating around hardware designs.

Upverter co-founder Zak Homuth told VentureBeat via email before the event that he expected hackathon participants to spend most of the hack designing new hardware, adding features to their existing hardware startup products, and most importantly meeting like-minded hackers.