Finding Zen in 48 hours: The 2018 Moog Hackathon

The Moog Hackathon, sponsored by Moog Music, allows students the chance to build their own musical instrument with a Moog synthesizer for cash and prizes. The winning instrument, "The Zen Garden," was a waterwheel merged with a synthesizer that plays its own music.

"Some people say, 'My instrument is my friend, or my brother,' but you don't place your brother in some empty space or container, and only when you want it, do you bring it out again. We don't want this to happen. That's why this instrument plays by itself. No matter if you play it, or don't interfere with it, it plays anyway," explained Ning Yang, who drew inspiration from the many zen temples in his hometown of Hangzhou, China, to create the instrument.

There were two major differences to this year's Moog Hackathon. The first difference was a change in venue: The Hackathon moved to Georgia Tech's Invention Studio, a maker space for the Georgia Tech Community. The competitors took full advantage of the studio's arsenal of 3D printers, water jets, and woodworking equipment to create an impressive array of prototypes in only 48 hours.

The second difference was a massive expansion of the competitors. This year's Hackathon was anything but a local affair, seeing student maker groups come to compete from as far away as Virginia Commonwealth University, The University of Florida, and even a very dedicated and innovative group of instrument makers from the University of Michigan.

Returning judges Chris Howe and Aaron Lanterman noted that the bar for the competition keeps rising every year, while new judge Christina Choi, a professor from the Georgia Tech School of Industrial Design, stressed the importance of the user experience and ease of use of each instrument. Her expertise encouraged an extra emphasis on an instrument being a complete product before judging, and that showed in the finals.

The Invention Studio allowed students to press the boundaries of their imagination for what they could create. The instruments ranged from one that interfaced with iPhones, one whose tunes changed along with the local train patterns of MARTA (Atlanta's transit system), and even one that a user can ride!

Once the finals were over, Gil Weinberg, the director of Georgia Tech's Center for Music Technology and the runner of the Hackathon, announced that the winners would be decided in fifteen minutes. In reality, it took the judges over half an hour to decide on placements. The competition was the closest a Moog Hackathon has ever seen, and all anyone could talk about afterward was what creations they can looking forward to seeing next year. We can hardly wait!


Created by Yuxin Zhang, second from left, Zichen Wang (Master of Science in Music Technology, Georgia Tech), and Ning Yang (Mechanical Engineering, Georgia Tech), their instrument was an elegant mini-garden with a water wheel that turns and creates music with minimal required input from a user. The judges were Chris Howe, far left, Christina Choi, second from right, and Aaron Lanterman. The team was awarded entry into the Margaret Guthman New Musical Instrument Competition, and a $3,000 cash prize.


Created by Master of Science in Music Technology students Lamtharn "Hanoi" Hamtrakul, Zachary Kondak, and Lien Tran, their instrument is a scooter that plays musical notes as the rider moves forward or backward. As they noted in their presentation, their instrument not only plays music, but is also road legal, with a Moog Werkstatt mounted to the back of a license plate on the handle bars. Hanoi, Zach, and Lien were awarded a $2,000 cash prize.


Created by Bachelor of Science in Music Technology Students Adlar Tuten, Daniel Kuntz, and Carter Culwell, their instrument interfaces with an iPhone X to play different musical notes depending on the facial expression a user takes when they look at their phone. They were awarded a  $1,000 cash prize.


Created by Georgia Tech Computer Science majors Mariam Marzouk, Bethany Sumner, and Wilson Gao, their instrument uses the presence and duration of light to produce sound. This is accomplished with a spinning disk, onto which different aural patterns can be encoded. The speed of spin also affects the sound produced, and the light-sensor wand can be moved around to influence the beat or melody heard. 


The judges wished to recognize the MARTAphone, the creation of University of Michigan students Sophia Mehdizadeh, Ethan Brown, and Kiran Thawardas. The instrument changes its tones and tunes according to the rhythm and pattern of MARTA trains in the Atlanta area.