This weekend I participated in the NASA Spaces Apps Challenge at the main stage in New York with a team of fellow hackers to tackle the challenge of Space Wearables. The idea was to create an outfit or accessory that might be helpful for spaceflight. My team was loaded with people that had either worked with wearables or Arduino, so we were psyched. Astronaut, Doug Wheelock was there, and we made it a point to ambush him before his big Q&A. Besides getting some great pics, we asked, “What is the thing you miss most when you’re in space. He replied, “Believe it or not, the smell of earth — soil”. He then explained how senses dull in high altitudes, and how you really miss the sensation of smell. That was all we needed to hear; we ran off to our table and started sketching a wearable that would be capable of connecting astronauts with the smells they miss. We liked the idea of a wrist band, so we started imagining how it might work. We wanted the choice of different scents at the touch of a button, and we thought Emoji icons would be easy to read for anyone on the International Space Station. We were still working out the issue of how to inject scents into the nose in a zero gravity atmosphere. However, we did finalize one thing — the name of the product was going to be called Senti8, a take on sentient beings and scent. The first prototype entailed prying some large snaps off of a teen’s white wrist band. We didn’t want anything conductive near the FLORA microcontroller we would use. Then, we added a piece of waterproof NeoPixel strip to use for lights. One of our team members is a wiz with pixel programming, and as I drew the patterns for the movement, she quickly translated them into Arduino speak. Luckily it worked like a charm. In hackathons you usually have about 24 hrs. to complete things, and that includes the pretty marketing stuff like websites, videos etc. Downtime is not an option. With the LED strip programming complete, another team member worked on creating the Emojis. It took a bit of testing to figure out whether they should be vertical or horizontal and whether they should have a color block behind them to match the LEDs. Finally we settled on the easiest-to-read vertical position, and we left them on a clear background as the LEDs already were busy looking. That left the final frontier — getting scent into the nose. I remembered that Adafruit had some spikes that were 3D printed for one of their projects, but I couldn’t figure out how we could possibly get them late at night. Would you believe one of our team members had a tiny Makerbot at his house? Needless to say, we sent him away with homework. In the meantime, one of our team members who was handy with biology had decided to take on the vaporizing that would be needed to inject the scent into the nose. She got to work on hacking an e-cigarette, which we all found quite amusing. She added a bit of soil perfume, which she found at Sephora, and actually had it working. Unfortunately, it formed a crack pretty quickly and started leaking. One of the thin wires that held the battery also broke. We attempted to re-solder it, but removing shielding off of wire that is the size of human hair just isn’t a successful endeavor. So, we decided to regroup on that the next morning. The final day was a mad rush as we only had until 2:00 PM. We got everything in place for two bracelets, but the new e-cigarette still broke at the battery connection. We finally just put it in place to show how it would work, as it was just a prototype. The best surprise is that the team member with the 3D printer had managed to create an app so we could make the two bands appear to have connectivity — so one person could send a scent to another person. With a website, social media and a video in place, we were ready to present. We were one of the last presentations, but we were certainly memorable. We created a great story to explain our product and the crowd loved it. We even handed out small samples of dirt scent to the judges. One judge said, “I want one!”. After the jitters of presenting were over, we waited for the final results. We all thought we had lost, but what we didn’t realize is that they save the best two teams for last. We ended up being one of those teams, meaning we get to go on to NASA’s Global Challenge. So, make sure you vote for Senti8 in May!
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