Do you think science is really, really cool? Do you want to just play with it, making awesome things for no other reason than because you can? You want to find a Science Hack Day, and go to it.

Tracking the real-time position of the International Space Station on a modified globe. Image credit: Matt Biddulph


Science Hack Day is a global phenomena where participants gather for 48 hours to get excited and make things with science.

It's open to anyone — you don't need to be a scientist or a hacker, just someone who is enthusiastic and eager to make things. By piling eager geeks into the same physical space with limited time and a shared mission to make cool stuff, Science Hack Days produce creative collaborations exploring all forms of science. As the official website explains, "A hack is a unique modification, an interesting mashup or a quick solution to a problem - maybe not the most elegant solution, but often the cleverest."


Testing out an isodrag typeface in a homemade wind tunnel. Image credit: Matt Biddulph

It feels like a Science Hack Day is always just around the corner somewhere. Giddy science-lovers will be spending August 30th and 31st in Eindhoven, the Netherlands making cool projects of questionable utility, while first round of registration just opened up for San Francisco's Science Hack Day on October 4th and 5th. Thanks to a variety of sponsors, the events are free-to-attend, and usually even have some food for hungry hackers. Depending on your stamina for all-nighters or enjoyment of urban camping, you can even cut your accommodation costs by staying in the venue overnight.


DNAquiri, a drinkable DNA cocktail. Image credit: Matt Biddulph

I'll be attending the San Francisco event this year, the first time I'll be showing up since 2011. Last time around, I worked with on the Quake Canary team, producing a proof-of-concept earthquake early warning system by analyzing signals from the USGS seismometer network, smartphones, and even a few geophone cores scattered around the room to detect P-wave arrival times. But by far the coolest project, and the one I still list when describing the concept of a Science Hack Day to others, is the Syneseizure mask.


The syneseizure mask allows the wearer to "see" by feeling vibrations from speakers mounted on a full-face mask. Image credit: Matt Biddulph

The team presented their work with an excellent flare for the dramatic:

Our consciousness does not contain reality – there is too much information in reality to handle, our brains would fry. Therefore, our various sensory cortexes have really complex data compression and processing algorithms to present us with the most useful information to help us kill antelopes, run away from lions and find attractive mates. This means we ignore a lot of reality. Perhaps we can see a different aspect of reality by listening to our eyeballs or looking through our nose.

Synesthesia is a condition in which one sensation (sight, hearing, etc) gets mixed up with another. This can cause situations in which someone "smells" sounds, or "sees" touches.

For this hack, we designed and built a full head mask that allows the wearer to feel images in real time. The mask is arrayed with 12 speakers that contact the skin of the face. When an image is captured with a webcam and converted into a 12 pixel black-and-white representation. The computer activates arduinos that control the speakers. If the pixel is white, the corresponding speaker is turned on. If the pixel is black, the corresponding speaker is turned off. This allows the wearer to feel (via the vibrations of the speakers) an image on their face.


You can watch the presentation including examples of visual input and a live demonstration of a user navigating while wearing the mask here. If this project is not a beautiful example of getting excited and hacking together something utterly unique with science just because you can, I don't know what is.

If you're in San Francisco, I highly recommend signing up for this year's event in October. It's an invigorating, exhausting blast of collaborations with people you'd otherwise never work with, and an opportunity to indulge in science-playtime. If you're far away from San Francisco and are currently writhing in jealousy, check the Science Hack Day site for an upcoming event near you. None listed? Here's a handy guide for starting one yourself!