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GE hosts hackathon to help spur innovation

The result? In-sink dishwashers, beer-dispensing refrigerators, and even mind-controlled microwaves.

Ry Crist/CNET

What do you get when you take a room full of hackers, engineers, inventors, students, artists, and programmers, and then give them full access to the hardware and software behind an entire line of home appliances?

That's exactly what GE wanted to find out when they hosted their first ever hackathon this weekend in Louisville, Ky. After taking time to tinker with GE's appliances both inside and out, local innovators pitched their ideas for how the things might be repurposed, redesigned, or reprogrammed. One team suggested relocating the guts of a GE Monogram Dishwasher into one side of a double-basin sink. Another wanted to incorporate a beer dispenser into the door of a GE refrigerator. A group of makers from LVL1, a local hackerspace, even threw out the idea of developing a mind-controlled microwave, a slightly more practical take on a previous effort to repurpose a Star Wars Force Training toy into a mind-controlled watermelon detonation system.

It's precisely that kind of creative, outside-of-the-box thinking that GE wants to tap into as they work to keep up with companies such as Samsung and LG, both of which have backgrounds in electronics and are able to innovate fairly rapidly. It's an approach that we saw last year, too, when GE backed the crowdsourcing marketplace Quirky with $30 million and full access to its patent stash.

Thanks to the hackathon, GE was able to spur some rapid innovation of their own, with many of the ideas pitched reaching workable prototype status by the weekend's end. These included the aforementioned SinkWasher, which GE ultimately awarded with the event's "Best New Feature" distinction. As for the LVL1 team, they put the mind-controlled microwave on hold in order to focus on Line Cook, a system that would allow GE ovens to automatically set product-specific time and temperature settings simply by scanning the product's bar code. Ultimately, Line Cook walked away with the "Best User Experience" award.

Ry Crist/CNET

Coming out of the event, Venkat Akrishnan, GE's Director of Research and Development, found the results encouraging. "There's a lot of creativity outside of GE that can be harnessed," he said. "These are consumers, and I think working directly with them is a much better, much faster way of bringing new ideas to market."

So, should consumers expect to see these high kinds of high concept features integrated into GE appliances any time soon? Perhaps -- Akrishnan confirms that GE is planning to push forward on additional development of the SinkWasher and Line Cook prototypes, though he stressed that it's still early in the process. Early might be an understatement, as each idea is currently less than three days old.