‘Geeky Insane Chaos’ at Berlin Hack and Tell

By Silicon Allee |

By Sam Toman

The biggest meeting so far of Berlin’s newest and wackiest high tech gathering Hack and Tell took place at c-base on Tuesday, with a hack of Microsoft’s wireless keyboard technology one of the highlights. For the uninitiated, Hack and Tell offers developers and their ilk a public forum to show off their latest hacks and side projects. The latest edition featured more than 12 presentations, a pizza dinner courtesy of sponsor Soundcloud and the realization that using a wireless keyboard in public is perhaps not the best idea.

According to the co-founder of Hack and Tell’s Berlin chapter, Stefan Hoth, the idea originally started in New York. “It just made sense to bring it here to Berlin,” said Hoth, who promoted the event on meetup.com. The concept is certainly simple enough: Each presentation gets five minutes on stage to showcase their hack, and then five minutes to explain their process and motivation and answer audience questions.

And for the 90-plus people in attendance on the banks of the River Spree, c-base proved to be the perfect venue. It is a non-profit association of about 300 members whose goal is to increase knowledge and skills in the fields of computer software, hardware and data networks. For Hoth, c-base and Hack and Tell are a perfect fit. “C-base is neutral territory for hackers,” he said. “There are no corporations here.”

In the first group to take the stage, the stand-out hack allowed anyone in a room to access a multiplayer game of tag via their laptops and phones, which could theoretically hijack any large public video screen (say, at a bar). As the assembled hackers joined in, there were gasps of glee as everyone watched colourful circles chase each other around on the demonstration screen. Though not exactly World of Warcraft, the hack did demonstrate “proof of concept.”

The real show-stopper of the evening was provided by the dreadlocked nomadic American hacker Travis Goodspeed. Using only half of his five-minute allotment, Goodspeed demonstrated how he hacked Microsoft’s wireless keyboard technology allowing him to potentially steal every keystroke from anyone on a particular wireless network. It is a complicated process – you can read off the details on Goodspeed’s blog.

In reality, the number of pure ‘hacks’, which Goodspeed defined roughly as anything both offensive and determined illegal by the state, was limited. For most participants, Hack and Tell offered the chance to showcase an array of development projects, invite feedback and perhaps solicit interested developers.

Musician-turned-developer Paul Nelligan’s Audiofu project showcased how non-developing hobbies can evolve into business ideas, while a representative from the Berlin-based communal workspace project Coworkingdemonstrated that hacking can extend beyond computers by hacking the recipe for Club Mate and brewing it at home.

Later on, developer Caroline Clifford impressed the crowd with a harried demonstration of her nascent VJ software. Nabbing semi-pornographic German teletext screens and setting their movements to music was a rousing hit with the mostly male crowd. After the presentation, Clifford explained her method and motivation.“I originally planned to make something specifically for the event which was a teletext (videotext) jquery plugin to make a website look like teletext,” she said. “While I was researching teletext pages, I found all the sexy ladies and I got the idea to use teletext as some kind of visual art.”

For Clifford, Hack and Tell was “geeky, insane, chaos” and “a really fascinating environment for any creative geeks. It’s inspiring to be around people so passionate about their work, and it gives you a real buzz to be complimented on your ideas and gives you the energy to carry on. Not to mention I got a few business contacts!”

For the event’s sponsor Soundcloud, it offered, “a chance to get involved with the Berlin tech community on a personal level. Tell a little bit about what we do, provide a platform for talented people to talk about what they are doing and kill 45 pizzas,” according to Soundcloud University and Events Program Specialist Eliot Conaway.

Hack and Tell is set to return sometime in September. If you are interested in attending you can find all the necessary details here.