DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab receives first external sponsorship

DePaul designed THOTCON badges
DePaul faculty and students used the Idea Realization Lab to custom-design 1,700 circuit board badges for THOTCON, an information security and hacker conference. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
Not all conference badges are created equal, especially when faculty and students in DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab design them. 

This spring, the IRL received its first sponsorship to create 1,700 custom badges for THOTCON Infinity, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the largest hacking conference in the Midwest. Unlike your typical conference badge, a nametag in a plastic sleeve, DePaul created a circuit board that plays a video game. The badges made their grand debut this past weekend on May 3-4 at the 10th annual THOTCON event in Chicago. 

“Our driving design philosophy this year was to shift away from screen-based interaction and move toward more natural user interface formats,” says Jay Margalus, an instructor in the College of Computing and Digital Media and director of DePaul’s IRL.
DePaul THOTCON sponsorship
Jay Margalus (left) and Rudy Ristich, faculty in DePaul's College of Computing and Digital Media, held a workshop at THOTCON to share the badge design and development process, as well as the code to hack it. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
 

As speakers at THOTCON, Margalus and Rudy Ristich, adjunct faculty in the College of Computing and Digital Media, led a workshop about how DePaul created the badge.

“As screens continue to proliferate, it’s important to consider the effect they have on how we experience the world around us, and how these qualities mediate our perception of things. This led us to begin experimenting with audio,” Margalus says. “To our knowledge, there’s nothing quite like this badge out there.”

Led by Margalus and Ristich, DePaul students designed and coded the badge, as well as a video game to make it an interactive device. The badge includes a microphone, speaker and six backlit LEDs. Touch pads allow users to input interactions, and a built-in wireless antenna gives the badge the ability to communicate with other devices.

Perhaps of most interest to THOTCON attendees, Margalus and Ristich also published the code to hack the badge. Conference-goers wasted little time coming up with their own applications, including this rendition of Toto’s Africa​

DePaul’s IRL received the $40,000 sponsorship to develop the badges after working with THOTCON’s founder, Nick Percoco. 

“We are 100% Chicago focused, and DePaul is a natural partnership for THOTCON,” Percoco says. “DePaul students have been attending and volunteering at our events since the first year, and for the last few years, they have been involved hands-on in our badge creation.”

DePaul Ideal Realization Lab THOTCON sponsorship
THOTCON has used electronic conference badges before, but DePaul made this year's device unique by including a custom-developed video game on it. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
A nonprofit, noncommercial information security conference, THOTCON offers attendees a unique experience in a casual, social environment. Tickets to the event are coveted, and organizers don’t disclose the conference location until the day before. (This year, the Irish American Center on the north side of Chicago played host to the event.) Attendees range from casual hackers to corporate executives to law enforcement officers.

“Security and hacking are a very broad field,” Percoco says. “Our main goal is for attendees to get exposure into a new area and decide to contribute or dig deeper to learn more. We also hope to make connections between attendees that could result in research collaborations, career opportunities or even a new business initiative.”

In addition to providing the funding to create the badges, THOTCON’s sponsorship will go toward a new printed circuit board assembly line for DePaul’s IRL. In exchange, THOTCON will have a plaque in the IRL and board members will have access to the makerspace. 

“Sponsorships tie industry into the success of our space,” Margalus says. “Most of all, they give my students access to the industry. Companies have said they will hire any student who comes out of the IRL.”

Margalus anticipates this sponsorship will be the first of many for the IRL. 

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