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MakeBU Hackathon

April 22, 2015

About Me 

Jake Messner is a first year student studying Electrical Engineering at Northeastern University. In the past three years, he has undertaken many engineering projects through high school and college student run organizations, through national competitions, and personally. He has won seven medals at the New York State Science Olympiad Competition, launched three weather balloons to research Earth’s upper atmosphere, written several mobile applications, attended three major hackathons, and started a local 3D printing hub in my dorm room. Jake's interests include DIY electronics, outer space, UAVs, and golfing.  

About Me 

Maxton Connor is a first-year student currently studying Computer Engineering and Computer Science at Northeastern University in Boston, currently aiming to graduate in 2019. His interests include software and hardware design, sound recording, processing, and reproduction, web development, 3D printing, emulation, game design, music, and languages. He is proficient in a number of programming languages, including C/C++, Java, ActionScript, PHP, JavaScript, SQL, HTML5, and CSS3.

MakeBU 2015 (Jake's Story) 

At my third hackathon, MakeBU, I teamed up with Max Connor, Zach Marcus, and Kurt Jaisle to design, build and program a hardware hack to change learning the piano. We arrived on BU’s beautiful campus on Saturday afternoon and got to work. After a bit of research, we discovered that learning the piano was a task often reserved for professional teacher that charge over $50 an hour. The sparse attempts at using technology to help piano beginners involved purchasing brand new pianos or keyboards, spending an unnecessary $200 on hardware for your current piano, or spending $150 on hardware that then could not even run without being plugged into a computer. But we wanted to open learning the piano to a wider target audience – the little girl playing on her grandma’s grand piano, the teenager with a USB keyboard, and the middle aged man looking for something to do in his free time. We got right to work designing how the device would work.

Brainstorming and Hardware Design


We brought along our Solidoodle 3 to BU in order to design and manufacture hardware on site. It came in use many times throughout the project as we designed, redesigned, tested, and printed seven major components of our device, Piano Lights.

Piano Lights Case 3D Print

Zach, our expert mechanical engineer on the team, designed the components in SolidWorks throughout the 24 hours at BU and Kurt, the technology expert, operated the 3D printer and revised its settings as necessary to produce prints of optimal quality. As the casings and mounting hardware was being designed and built, Max used the Arduino IDE to create software to interface with an array of LEDs and to receive input from electronic keyboards. He wrote an application called Song Maker in Java, allowing Piano Lights users to create their own songs, which could then be shared online for other users to download and learn to play.

Song Maker Software

Out final design utilizes a TFT touch screen display to allow users to easily interact with the program and hardware. The user selects his or her desired song from a list on the display and the opening notes are illuminated on the keyboard. As the user plays the notes indicated by the LEDs, the program waits for MIDI input to move to the following note immediately when the user strikes the correct key(s) that are illuminated. The device is battery powered and could be mass manufactured for under $35 using an ATMega168 chip and MIDI breakout. Piano Lights provides a plethora of advanced functionality never before introduced, and it can be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of competing devices to teach piano.

Kurt Testing Piano Lights with Hardware Mounting 
Brackets Newly Assembled

Building Piano Lights with three awesome engineers was an amazing experience that taught us new skills using Raspberry Pi B and serial communication, and gave us an idea and device with unlimited potential for expansion and business.

See more of Jake's Blog

MakeBU 2015 Winner 

From March 28 through March 29 2015, I and three other NU Engineering students attended the overnight MakeBU Hackathon, where we designed, wired, and programmed a device to help learn songs on the piano.

The idea was simple: create a device which indicated which key needed to be pressed, and once it's pressed, indicate the next key. We knew that keyboards with lighted keys existed on the market, but there was no simple, untethered solution which could work on any piano, electronic or otherwise. Our goal was to fill that gap.

As my team members got to work on designing and 3D-printing the hardware, I programmed all the software for the device. First, I designed a binary file format which would store the data for each song. I then wrote a tool in Java to create and edit these files. Finally, I wrote a program for the Arduino Mega 2560 which ran the core logic for the device.

After 24 long hours, our project was complete, and we decided to name it "Piano Lights."

Learn more about Maxton