South Korea 2018 – Part 2 – ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon

Introduction to South Korea 2018 blog posts

Summer 2018, I travelled to the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC) in Daegu, South Korea, to present a surround sound version of my techno / classical crossover album Protokols. I was supported by Creative Industries Fund NL in sharing my vision on integrating ancient musical heritage into contemporary (digital) club culture. I extended my stay in South Korea to a full month, so I could immersive myself deeper into the country’s (old and new) music and culture. This gave me the chance to perform twice in Seoul.

Part 1: Daegu – ICMC 2018 Conference
Part 2: Daegu – ICMC 2018 Hack-n-Makerthon
Part 3: Seoul – Underground Electronic Scene
Related post: Reflections on my album Protokols

ICMC’s first ever Hack-N-Makerthon

Revital Hollander (photo by me)

Date5, 6, 7, 8 August 2018

C-Fab makerspace
Samsung Creative Campus
Daegu, South Korea

Initiated and organised by:

Revital HollanderColman / IDC-Herzliya / TMT-Tel-Aviv
Spencer SalazarOutput / CalArts
Christopher TignorGoogle
Tae Hong Park
New York University / ICMC
Chang Yong Shin
ICMC 2018 Hack-N-Makerthon
Counting down (photo by me)
Spencer Salazar and Christopher Tignor (photo by me)
ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon (photos⇅by Revital Hollander)

I had a great time participating in the ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon. For this I have to thank both the organisation and all of the participants (team members and and competitors alike 😉). The spirit was high, the collective skillset was rich and everybody was eager to learn.

Besides focusing on the ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon, I want to take this blog post as an opportunity to reflect on my experiences of hackathons (design sprints) in the past 8 years or so. Why do I find them interesting, inspiring and exciting? But also, why do I sometimes feel… sceptical?

As a (sound) designer and composer, I participated in about 8 hackathon-like events since 2010, for example at 4DSOUND (during Amsterdam Dance Event), Playful Arts Festival (Brakke Grond, Amsterdam), Control Gamelab (Pakhuis de Zwijger, Amsterdam) and the Global Game Jam (HKU, Hilversum). I became a fan of the passionate, social creativity they usually bring. And it remains an exceptional experience to bring a (fully) functional product/artwork to live in such a short time. Therefore I didn’t have to think long before saying yes to joining the ICMC 2018 Hack-N-Makerthon.

What set the ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon apart from other design sprints and creative jams I experienced, was its structured approach based on pre-defined (proven to work) formats and guidelines. I was wondering how this workflow would compare to the more free-form events I attended in earlier years (more about them further down in this blog post), but I can conclude that the result was refreshing. I once again learned more about planning and user-centered design. Some of the methods used in this hackathon were:

  • Product Requirements Document (PRD), a concise framework (this time based on Google’s format) comprised of questions that pierce through to the core of the design, without getting lost in technical details (they come after the design). It asks to describe for example the design’s main goal, its most essential features, most typical users, most similar products on the market and limits to available resources (time, budget, skills, equipment, etc.). All-in-all, an effective and realistic way to arrive at the next step:
  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Minimalism over complexity: every new prototype or version of the product must be fully functional and able to clearly communicate its essence. Additional features can only be built on that solid foundation, or users will quickly become frustrated and/or not interested. In the development of bigger products, this is a great way of serving early adopters or beta testers a working product, while simultaneously getting valuable feedback from them (win-win). At this hackathon, it made sure that all teams were able to give…
  • …recurring, communal, cross-team presentations, provided all teams with a steady flow of feedback to improve their works with. Also, having to prepare presentation made me more critical of my own team’s progress; it became a means of self-reflection even before receiving any feedback.

Another new experience for me was to work as a hackathon project manager. During ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon, it felt natural for me to ping-pong between design and team communication. This turned out fruitful, as I gained valuable insight on how to align the skills and interests of people from different backgrounds.

Food break: Naengmyeon, iced noodles in Daegu 🤤👍 (pic by me)

A. Thoughts on the creativity of hacking

Recently I started to wonder why hackathons are called hackathons. Don’t we owe some critical thinking to the multi-faceted and often misused term ‘hacking‘? I personally don’t have a passion for deeply technical work (I gave up on coding long ago, and I’m happy about it). Yet, hacker culture has always fascinated and inspired me in my music, sound and design works…

I believe that hacker culture wasn’t based on specific goals, but on combinations of playful curiosity and technical virtuosity, in order to achieve ingenuity. These ingenious inventions wouldn’t have to be (directly) innovative. What mattered was that they revealed something, provoked thoughts, educated, brought people together and always embraced the inevitability of change.

This relates a lot to the ‘hacker commandments’, which are explained here by Manual Morato. Summed up very roughly: don’t ask for permission (as long as you act ethically correct); share your knowledge and technologies openly (don’t have others ask for permission either). That sounds like a very effective method of (open source) design to me.

Did hacker culture develop its rules based on not wanting (too many) rules? This would sound paradoxically logical to me. It’s something one can observe in current hippie/squat-communities (or what’s left of them). And it’s a part of the DNA of the internet (or what’s left of that):

“Initially, Berners-Lee’s innovation (the World Wide Web) was intended to help scientists share data across a then obscure platform called the Internet, a version of which the U.S. government had been using since the 1960s. But owing to his decision to release the source code for free—to make the Web an open and democratic platform for all—his brainchild quickly took on a life of its own. (…) Last fall, the World Wide Web Foundation funded research to examine how Facebook’s algorithms control the news and information users receive. ‘Looking at the ways algorithms are feeding people news and looking at accountability for the algorithms—all of that is really important for the open Web'” – From the “I was devastated” interview with Berner’s-Lee in Vanity Fair (2018)

We can keeping assessing new technologies in the light of hacker culture. Take for example cryptocurrencies. Surely Bitcoin has become the embodiment of criticism on our ruling banking system, but does it truly embrace egalitarian education and the inevitability of change? How is it developing? What kind of hacks can its users (and the general public) build on top of it?

Old school hacking constitutes primarily bottom-up design: a lot of the motivation (curiosity) comes from the limitations (and thus challenges) of a system/design. Reverse engineering that system from its smallest parts “upwards” can play a key role in making ingenious discoveries.

But I would argue that every act of creativity involves some level of bottom-up design / reverse engineering. Or as Kirby Ferguson said: everything is a remix. What makes hacker culture unique in that respect is that it actually fully embraces that credo. It tries to let itself not be hindered by rules or laws, only by subjective ethics.

Hip-hop too, illustrates very clearly how a bottom-up creative approach can innovate and inspire the arts at large. Especially hip-hop’s golden age, where sampling was diverse and unrestricted.

Wikipedia: “The term “Golden age hip hop” frames the late 1980s in mainstream hip hop, said to be characterized by its diversity, quality, innovation and influence (…) due to their themes of Afrocentricity and political militancy, their experimental music, and their eclectic sampling. (…….) the golden age of hip-hop sampling spans from 1987-1992. Artists and record labels were not yet aware of the permanence of hip-hop culture in mainstream media, and did not yet accept it as a legitimate institution. They believe the ruling made in Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. marked the end of the golden age of hip hop and its sampling practices.

Karaoke break in Daegu (photo by me)

B. Thoughts on playful creative jams
Particularly my experiences at the Global Game Jam (2010, 2011, 2014, 2017) have lead me to believe that playfulness and freedom can be key in coming up with uniquely creative inventions… as well as nonsensical creations. Isn’t it impossible to always score?

Anyway, I think I always had such a great time participating in Global Game Jams because of its ‘jam’ approach, which seems to set it apart from the majority of hackathons? Jams (like in music) don’t revolve around the completion of a specific (pre-defined) assignment. The central elements that bind all participants of the Global Game Jam together (globally) are a common theme, a 48-hour countdown and passion for creating games. This is similar to the 48 Hour Film Project.

That isn’t to say that my GGJ teams functioned without structuring. I noticed that for group creativity to blossom, it was vital to have clear communication among the team members, and to have all members feeling comfortable in their roles (naturally, everybody wants to feel useful). I also learnt that when presenting any kind of progress (concepts, snippets, mockups, test-setups, prototypes, etc.) to other teams, they’ll perceive your work in a way you can’t.

You might be presenting your work-in-progress to fellow designers, but they will judge your work from the perspective of a potential user, at least to a degree. Their feedback will be less biased than that of your team members, allowing you to temporarily free yourself from self-blinding psychological traps. I think that hackathon design is – just like any other design method(?) – about trying to put yourself in the shoes of your user. But the crux (and fun) of some hackathons (or at least of non-goal oriented jams) is that there’s no crystal clear picture of the user yet.

GGJs also gave me the chance to develop myself as a hybrid composer-designer. When all team members are actively involved in the core design of a game jam, their disciplines can intertwine in a much more symbiotic manner. The teams I joined gave me the chance to co-design at least the essence of the interactivity (game mechanics), the narrative, the emotional/philosophical intent and more. The best example of this was GlitchHiker, the game that went extinct (in line with that year’s GGJ theme). Its interactive sound design made the music fall apart when the player wasn’t playing well enough. This adaptive music system ruled out the need for additional sound effects.

GlitchHiker – a game I co-created at Global Game Jam 2011

C. Thoughts on the relationship between art and design 
So how does design compare to all of this? And could it be that hackathons have the potential to fuse hacking, jamming and designing? For starters, I once again tried to design my own definitions of art and design. Although one can perhaps never be sure, I currently believe that:

→ Design = the act of arranging cultural artifacts and/or natural elements in ways that appeal to our objective stability, with the goal of communicating specific messages or aesthetics. If our instincts weren’t (more or less) universal, design couldn’t be intuitively (and collectively) understood. Therefore, design tries to rule out confusion that can arise from subjectivity (such as taste, imagination, opinion).

→ Art = design (see above definition) + to appeal to our emotional subjectivity (not in its dramatic sense, but rather referring to its constant state of flux): if our instincts weren’t (more or less) universal, art couldn’t be intuitively (and collectively) understood, and if our emotions were static, art wouldn’t be able to evoke a subjective meaning (emotion, imagination, opinion).

Gyeongsang-Gamyeong Park, Daegu (photo by me)

But what about design that appeal to our taste, our personal emotion? I believe that this is an effect of art built on top of design. Take all the beautiful aesthetics out of such a design, and it will still stand on its functional foundations. Yet it might not stand out in the crowd anymore, or offer no features distinct from its competitors.

But isn’t design’s function to bring improvement to a specific situation? Yes, but an improvement for one can be a disadvantage to another (this might become one of the main challenges in designing A.I. things). And art too, can bring improvement to a specific situation, without having specified it. For example making and listening to music generally improves our well-being and learning abilities. Another similarity between art and design (and hackathons) is that they rely on resource management. Think of factors like skills, time (planning), energy, money (budget), space, tools, people (hr), etc.

Food Break, Daegu (pic by me)
Dinner time with hackathon colleagues (pics by me)

D. Some thoughts on fluidity between hacking / designing / making / playing / profiting…
It seems that different hackathons adhere to different philosophies…

← in various gradations between →

PlayfulGoal Oriented
No Target AudienceSpecific Target Audience
Competitive (Protective)Collaborative (Open)
For Commercial ApplicationFor Non-Profit Application
Artistic End GoalPractical End Goal
No Prize MoneyFocus On Prize Money

I want to dive further into this topic in the near future. In any case, I think it’s valuable to be aware of such differences, and cherish a level of variety in the scene of hackathons, design sprints and creative jams. Let’s get to the ICMC Hack-N-Makerthon now…

At the Hack-N-Makerthon

Kicking It Off
As you can see in the 4 day schedule above, the hackathon kicked off on Sunday with a set of activities that would define the course of every team. Hackathon organiser Revital Hollander motivated us to keep an explorative mindset, to discover intrinsic motivation and to collaborate creatively. Guidelines and programme were explained by the other mentors: Spencer Salazar (CTO of Output) and Christopher Tignor (composer, musician and software engineer at Google). The final phase of this kick-off was a quick guided tour through the Samsung Creative Campus Maker Space with its various 3D printers, woodworking machines, meetings rooms, etc.

Breaking The Ice
To break the ice, we played a language game: we were challenged to teach each other a few words from our native languages and then try to present the freshly learned words by heart.

Beginning of the hackathon (photo by Spencer Salazar‎)
On the Samsung Creative Campus (photo by me)

Brainstorming could commence after getting to know ICMC’s Hack-N-Makerthon set of challenges, which was quite broad:

1. Asteriks: experience, art and biz that involves any topic in sound and/or music.

2. Experience: brainstorm new formats & designs, create crowd-engagement concepts for live performances or develop new ideas to play & interact with music – anything that changes the experience of playing music.  

3. Art: use technology to drive your inspiration and make some noise – data sonification / controllerism / sensors & music visualization – this category is as free as only art can be – take your art to the next-tech-level.

4. Biz: create industry-changing prototypes – invent a new business venture that helps musicians grow and prosper / develop a new tool or service made for musicians or music lovers / come up with a new idea to re-invent the music industry / reconnect with talents and audiences – here we try to make music an even better business.

Prizes: Three winning teams/individuals in the three challenge categories totalling $2,200.

Pitching Ideas & Forming Teams
Pitching small ideas to all other participants was a key in getting to know each other’s interests and skills. As a consequence thereof, teams could form more naturally. I noted that two factors were decisive in how teams formed: a common interest in specific idea(s), and a wide enough distribution of skills.

(photo by Revital Hollander)


“Public Chatting”
🇦🇺🇰🇷 Deborah KIM
🇨🇳🇩🇪 Dong ZHOU

Deborah and Dong worked on an interactive installation / communication interface, designed to test how people can communicate through sound only, without speaking.

🇦🇺🇳🇱 Anne Veinberg
🇲🇽🇳🇱 Felipe Ignacio Noriega
🇹🇼🇳🇱 I-Lly CHENG
🇨🇳🇺🇸 Jeena YIN
🇨🇳 Jiawang LI

Team CompasSonic worked on an intuitive navigation system that projects recognisable, location-specific sounds into the user’s headphones, and pans them around like augmented reality audio.

🇨🇳 Yongbing DAI
🇰🇷 E Hwa HONG
🇳🇱 Rutger Muller
🇲🇽 Hugo Sólis

Our team worked on ICM-chi: a witty robot-toy that functions as a conversational ice-breaker, as it asks its current owner to record a sound and to pass it on to a stranger.

I’ll describe how I experienced the projects of the other teams, and then I’ll move on to our team’s ICM-Chi project.

TEAM 1: Public Chatting

Team Public Chatting presenting (photo by me)

Deborah Kim and Dong Zhou became the winners of the ICMC 2018 Hack-N-Makerthon. Their Public Chatting installation consisted of two closed-off rooms, inviting people to send messages from one room to the other, by using a keyboard that triggered only sound effects (mostly funny and weird ones, perhaps equivalent to the vibe of emoji). In a third space, spectators could follow the behaviour of the two chatters. Paradoxically, the strength of Public Chatting was its “inability” to let users convey any clear messages, thereby forcing the users to re-think online chatting and even language itself. A short but powerful tabula rasa.

Christopher in one of the isolated Public Chatting spaces (photo by me)
Public Chatting spectator space showing users in their rooms (photo by me)
Deborah Kim and Dong Zhou receiving the first prize at the ICMC 2018 banquet (photo by ?)
Dong Zhou and Deborah Kim + father at the ICM banquet (photo by me)

TEAM 2: CompasSonic

CompasSonic logo

(video by Felipe Ignacio Noriega)

Third-prize-winning team CompasSonic created a sound-based navigation app that used neither an on-screen map, nor written directions, nor voice directions. CompaSonic took a more playful, explorative and sort of analog/vintage-radio approach: load the app, put your phone in your pocket, wear your earplugs, and then rotate yourself slowly until you hear the sound of the place you want to go to… let it attract you… keep moving towards it… dodge traffic… climb some rooftops… sneak through alleyways… and finally you’ll reach it (slightly dramatised).

I think that the most exciting challenge for this team was to explore the symbolic or even iconic nature of sound. Which sounds do we typically relate to certain places, situations or activities? An interesting interface that had me thinking about playfulness and exploration (escape games, sound walks, geocaching, augmented reality, dowsing rods 😉), and about accessible design for the visually impaired.

Team Sound Compass sparring with Christopher Tignor
Professionals (photo by Anne Veinberg)
CompasSonic “inception” (photo by me)

Team 3: ICM-Chi

Dong Zhou testing ICM-Chi test version 2 (photo by me)
Dong Zhou testing ICM-Chi test version 2 (photo by Christopher Tignor)

Team composition

🇨🇳 Yongbing DAI – Sound Design
🇰🇷 E Hwa HONG – Interaction/Product Design
🇳🇱 Rutger Muller – Interaction/Product Design
🇨🇳 Xu XIAON – Product Design
🇲🇽 Hugo Sólis – Design & Programming

Early Phase – Brainstorming
Inspired directly by the conference, we brainstormed about the potentials of a small robot / puppet that would encourage interaction between strangers. We soon figured that the most practical device to use would be a smartphone, but…

A) …we wanted it to look surprising, attractive, or cute; this way it could break the ice like a puppy that enters a room full of people. (Hence the name ICM-Chi being a spin-off of Tamagotchi.)

B) …we wanted it to be able to move around, or be passed around, thereby instigating spontaneous, random encounters.

This meant that we had to deal with two design trajectories:
– its exterior (looks, materials, etc. – yet no screen interface)
– its behaviour (coded interactivity, movement, sensors, computer, etc.)

Quote from our PRD (product requirements document):

ICM-Chi is cute creature that helps to break the ice between people in groups and gatherings. Like a pet animal, it immediately attracts and relaxes everybody in the room, or at least brings the attention of some people together.

ICM-chi is sociable and likes to share. It becomes happy when it’s passed around from person to person to record and pass share sounds.

IMC-chi speaks always its mind, it’s easy to understand.

ICM-Chi is very curious, if tells you it want to be passed on, you’ll have to do it quick, or it will become unhappy.

Top-Down & Bottom-Up

Screenshot from our Product Requirements Document (PRD)

It’s arguably more important than ever for designers to be aware of the ethical and ecological impacts of their products. Think of for example our overconsumption. Do we need more gadgets? How can we design something that (in all its simplicity) contributes to finding solutions for complex (societal) issues? And does the product stimulate (cultural) creativity; does it inspire others?

An example of company that I find inspiring is Active Cues, who made Tovertafel (which translates to Magic Table), a gaming installation for people with cognitive disabilities.

Through Tovertafel’s co-creation platform, designers and researchers are invited to contribute to the project. This also made me wonder about the potentials for hackathons that collaborate closely with for example the elderly, visually impaired, or other groups that can benefit from inclusive, accessible design.

For this hackathon, I tried to make a simple top-down + bottom up flowchart for ICM-Chi. Culture at the top, users in the middle, product at the bottom. The top part touches on sociology, the bottom part on psychology. This made me think how interesting it would be to involve psychologists, sociologists, etc. in hackathons.

Interaction Design
Because we didn’t want the device to look or feel like a smartphone, we had to come up with a different interface. ICM-Chi’s anthropomorphic (creature-like) design of course calls for speech interaction, yet that would be too complex (out of scope) to program in these 4 short days.

The solution we came up with in the end was simple but effective: ICM-Chi simply loops its behaviour over the course of 2 minutes, and it communicates its current state through recorded narration and sound effects. The worst case scenario is when the user misses a queue, yet this would correct itself again within 2 minutes.

Hugo coding (photo by me)

From the PRD document

1 ⤍ Say “Hello, how are you? I’ve made many many friends, listen to some of them…”

2 ⤍ Play max 2 recordings, randomly, from the library (= max 20 seconds). Pre-recorded sounds will play in case of the first user.

3 ⤍ Say “I want to hear an interesting sound. Please look around and record something for me. I will countdown from 60 seconds, OK?” *countdown sound*

4 ⤍ Record 10 seconds.

5 ⤍ To prevent empty recordings: Analyse last recording. If the average dB of last recording is lower than X, then delete that file and go back to step 1.

6 ⤍ Store the recording in the library.

7 ⤍ Say “Wow! That’s cool. I want to share it with somebody else. Please give me to somebody else within 1 minute!” *countdown sound*
8 ⤍ Go back to step 1 (loop)

This list of steps functioned much like a flowchart. Because of the simplicity of ICM-Chi’s interaction, the list was a clear enough guide for Hugo to code the software.

For the recording countdown (step 3), our sound designer Yongbing experimented with layering pitch-up voice sounds with ticking clocks, which helped shape the cute and impatient character of ICM-Chi significantly.

Related product designs (also from our PRD)
Despite finding only a few “competing” examples, it was good to be sure weren’t reinventing the wheel. Perhaps we could’ve look into chatbots, team building and icebreaking activities and sports. But at least we were able to come up with a design inspired by small robots, yet without its mechanic feel. We looked at:

Material (exterior) design
This turned out to be the most difficult part of the design trajectory.

From our Product Requirements Document:
looks funny/interesting (makes people want to play)
hides the phone (doesn’t look at all like everday tech)
can be opened/closed easily to replace the phone/system
prevents the phone from being (water/beer) damaged
has a look that appeals to diverse people
doesn’t block the speaker & microphone
is cheap and easy to protype at the hack-n-makerthon

Wood or slime?
Woodworking tools and scrap pieces of wood were available in the makerspace. We considered constructing a wooden case/creature to hide the phone in, but we eventually opted to make a case from “slime” (that viscous “clay” for children), as this would be easier to do (we could buy it ready-made) and potentially easier to (re)shape. It would also draw attention because of its peculiar look. Not all of these predictions came true, but it did stick well:

mixing of blue and green slime (photo by me)

Using slime, we needed to waterproof it (also protective against conference beers of course), so we went out to buy a few of those plastic phone pouches for use at the beach. We estimated that some sound would be able to travel through the thin plastic (for speakers and microphone), or that we’d figure out a way to make suitable holes in it. In the end this didn’t work out well, so for the final presentation a re-design was made by placing IMC-Chi in a plant pot.

E Hwa Hong with the ‘slime’ in waterproof bag (photo by me)

Fabric Design
Xu did a great job on bringing ICM-Chi to life with the help of recycled fabrics from the makerspace.

2nd Prize!
We won the second prize and had a great party all together (all teams) at the banquet. I’m thankful to have worked and talked with so many interesting and nice people.

My ICMC 2018 participation was made possible by:

Logo Stimuleringsfonds