What happens when you let the teams at Native Instruments step outside of their usual roles and routines and try whatever they want? Given the freedom, what would they hack together?
The Hackdays held at NI in June created just this opportunity. It’s not the first time this event format has been seen in the NI halls, and these sessions have proved a great way to exploit lulls in development cycles. Ideas that might otherwise stay forever on the back burner can finally be put to the test, and totally new concepts can be born out of wild experimentation.
But this year, the hackdays were vastly expanded, opening to most of NI’s Berlin head office, across diverse disciplines – think HR administrators working alongside DSP engineers. And there was a theme, “access for all”, inspired by a previous hackday, where a team of two developed features for the KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboard so it could be used without sight. These accessibility functions are now in use by a significant number of users, allowing the visually impaired to access not only NI tools but an ever-growing library of NKS-compatible third-party software.
To stimulate creativity and involvement, the hackdays extended beyond a collaborative hackathon to include talks and presentations (followed by chances for teams to devise new ideas based on this fresh input), a skills marketplace and workshops to share skills, and more. Guests included Daniela Rubio and José Vicente González, consultants who evaluate software from companies such as Apple for vision-impaired users; Ashley Elsdon, who in addition to writing the Palm Sounds blog (now part of cdm.link) has organized accessible music-making events in the UK with nonprofit Heart & Soul; and CEO and Co-Founder of Skoogmusic Dr. Ben Schögler, a development psychologist who has developed a futuristic, squishy cube-shaped tactile interface that expands accessibility in musical expression. In addition, Andre Louis – the first user of the KOMPLETE KONTROL accessibility features, and one of the catalysts driving the accessibility features – acted as artist-in-residence; he joined the team for the whole period of the hackdays, providing the participants with advice and motivation, and jamming with the team musicians.
But anyway, about those hacks. Teams assembled and then advertised their collective skills via Post-it Notes clustered on a “skills marketplace” wall. From there, teams came together to share expertise, exchange techniques, and transform fresh ideas into fleshed-out concepts and even finished prototypes, both hardware and software. Taking a page from school science fairs, three-part poster boards were produced to showcase the results.
Some of these projects remain top-secret for now, but here’s a taster of declassified concepts that we can share with you:
- Real-time groove keeping that adjusts to your playing to keep it in time as you jam
- Experimental new hardware
- New file format support in MASCHINE
- Auto-wiring for patches in REAKTOR
- A whole list of user-requested TRAKTOR features
- Searchable online product documentation
Of course, many of the projects focused on accessibility, with many elements made usable to non-seeing users, including MASCHINE loops, additional KOMPLETE KONTROL features, and TRAKTOR’s Library.
- Other projects focused on making NI a better place to work:
- Mindfulness hacks for reducing stress and increasing focus
- New prototyping tools to make hardware development faster and easier
- Bots that extend the in-house Slack chat
- Tools to make it easier to start a new job at NI
Steinunn Arnardottir was one of the organizers of this year’s hackdays. Her career has seen her rise from the depths of the coding trenches as a DSP Engineer to Director Of Engineering – a role involved with broader product, engineering and business development aspects.
“We find hackdays to be a great opportunity to connect people in conversations and problem solving in an environment that generally is not present on a daily basis,” says Arnardottir. “The hackdays are the time where we break up the ordinary and have a lot of fun together.”
But fun as they are, you can expect this event to have a serious impact on NI. Arnardottir says: “Not only are we excited to see many of these projects become the basis for future products and features, but I am convinced that the learnings and inspiration from the input sessions and internal knowledge sharing will live and contribute to our creations far beyond these Summer Hackdays.”
And ultimately, it all comes back to the one thing that ties together developers, musicians and producers of all levels: a love of music.
“Being an extreme music enthusiast, it is a privilege to develop audio effects that have a good chance of ending up in the hands of musicians, producers and DJs you have enormous respect for,” Arnardottir affirms.
Peter Kirn is a writer and technologist, and director of the MusicMakers Hacklab for CTM Festival, which Native Instruments has supported.