404 Dublin: Tech Geeks, Coders & Information Over-Loaders

It was a clear day at the Kilmainham Royal Hospital as hundreds of attendees, young and old, descended upon the doors of what was to be one of the biggest networking events in Dublin this year. The clear skies and sun’s shining rays reflect the tone of optimism throughout the day’s events as neither a bored nor sullen face were anywhere to be found.

All attendees are here for a purpose, be it to have their talents noticed as serious budding developers, or to attract those freshly out of college and looking for work to be noticed

The tech-meetup “404 Dublin”, named after the infamous computing error ‘404: file not found’, is an annual tech meetup for representatives of companies all over Dublin, who work to show off their best to prospective employees looking for long-term working positions.

Companies such as the Irish branch of IBM software, networking and website builders Accenture, LifeRay and of course Irish-born gaming developers ‘Demonware’ were all in attendance here to attract the best and brightest possible and shine among their competitors.

One of the flagship attractions of the tech-meetup was IBM’s presentation of the ‘Hackable City’, a remote-control 3D-printed landscape modelled after the Lunar base of the 1986 film ‘Aliens’ by Ridley Scott. The hackable city’s main purpose is to train in new employees to IBM headquarters to understand how to practice defending a series of network coding from potential hackers who will regularly change their patterns of attack.

The small landscape sports several buildings, a tower, small satellite dish, missile launch-pad and active train with two available parallel tracks.

Each of the buildings possesses a series of lights which can be hacked into to change their colour scheme through coding; the launch pad can be sent into a rotating frenzy as can the satellite dish and the model train can be derailed onto the adjacent track.

Essentially, hackers with the right knowledge of coding can affect a feature of the landscape and test the alertness of the defending hackers by forcing them to find the code which changed everything and fix it. If they so desired, the attacking party may even change a few of the model’s features at once and throw the defending team into a chaotic situation very quickly.

Maria Hyland, the presenter of the model explains that trainees are taught how to both defend and hack into the system. The Hackable City initially began as a concept with which to demonstrate the monitoring capabilities of another IBM product Qradar.

With malware built into it, the system is already filled with bugs; this, however, emulates a real-life threat that hackers would indeed use in real-life.

Maria explained: “The reason we built this was because we wanted a better way to demo to our customers and talk to them about security in a way that they could understand. This is a physical kinetic city that they can interact with and it’s a network; we have a product, called IBM Q-radar that monitors the network and so it allows us to demo the product and ultimately sell the product hopefully! But we also use it for training a lot, training in skills for defending the network.

“We would use it on these simulated training exercises called ‘Red/Blue’; they’re the attack and defence games. We divide them into two teams, the red team being the attacking team and the blue team the defence. They are immersed in a realistic simulated scenario and it would have a lot of the latest threats and malware built-in.

“They swap over, and the idea being, that if you learn more about a hacker and how they operate, the types of tools they use and how they think, well then that puts you in a better place then to defend your network. As the blue team monitor the network, they’re trying to see can they spot what’s happening, maybe they won’t? There’s a lot of noise that goes on in a network but a lot of good stuff as well, so you have to work your way thought the noise to defend the system.

“We only came up with the idea for the Hackable City in 2016. At IBM we have a summer intern program called ‘Straight Blue’ and part of that program would mean taking groups of students and dividing them into groups of four to work on a project over the summer.

“It’s something we would consider an innovative project, and this was one of the projects last year. There’s a real mix of skills, there’s electronics, there’s software development, security, design; so right across the [board] … there’s pretty good experience.”

In the world of artificial design is the Virtual Reality simulation known as ‘DEEP’. ‘DEEP’ is a simulation resembling an underwater environment with fantastical sea-life and plant-life awaiting the player. The sole purpose of the game is to explore, and this is achieved by taking in deep breaths which are monitored by a motion sensor strapped to the player’s waist.

Being virtual reality, the player is required to wear a headset over their eyes, allowing them to completely immerse themselves in the alien environment. The developer of the project, Owen Harris, has been working on the project since 2013 and developed it to help those struggling with their mental health.

“’DEEP’ is a meditative virtual reality experience that you control by breathing. You move through a psychedelic underwater world and as you breathe in you move upwards and when you breathe in you move downwards.

“It’s being used in a number of different ways; some people are using it as a hypnotic trippy experience and some people are using it for an intervention for their anxiety and anger issues. I took inspiration from scuba diving, yoga, and just wanting to create a nice space to hang out in myself,” says DEEP co-developer Owen Harris.

“Stuff responds to you in the game as you explore; the fish will get curious and swim over to look or they’ll swim away from you, also the plant’s bio-luminescence is linked to your breathing. It really is an exploration experience rather than a ‘shoot fish’ one. I myself have anxiety and bouts of depression and … ‘DEEP’ is extremely effective; on a scale of one to ten, if my anxiety is at a seven, then ‘DEEP’ will bring it down to a five.

“It’s going into a special needs school and a mental health clinic next year in the Netherlands. Hopefully one day it’ll be available for people’s homes, but we’ll have a few technical and financial challenges to make that happen such as making it run on mid-range computers and possibly the PlayStation VR.

“There’s a team of behavioural scientists over in the Netherlands who study its effects on teenagers with anxiety, depression and anger. Two papers have been published so far and it’s been researched extensively. We even have a young lady who is doing her PhD on ‘DEEP’, so we’ll learn more as time goes on.”

Aside from these featured attractions, there were, of course, the panels which played host to developers and publishers who gave their advice to the hopeful tech-heads in the audiences looking for the best way to start up their independent small-time companies.

The evening events of 404’s closing ceremony took place in the church of the Royal Hospital, its stained-glass walls radiating the perfect scene of accomplishment for the organisers of the meetup as the setting sun filtered through.

404 was kicked-off by show-stealer ‘Cello Fortress’ an interactive simulation in which four members of the audience were given video game controllers to play the role of four small colour-coded tanks. Their objective in this game was to navigate their way through a labyrinth based on the inner woodwork of a Cello as they were bombarded by the obstacles and enemy units in the game.

What truly made this game a spectacle for all, however, was that the game’s creator, Joost Van Dongen, himself controlled the enemies encountered in the game via the specific melodies he played into his cello, hooked up to a laptop. If he played a soft rhythm, then the crossbow units would fire at the player’s tanks, if Van Dongen played a strong rhythm, then the environment of the level itself could also become a hazard, shaking violently and paralysing the player’s tanks if caught in the targeted vicinity, thus leaving them open to fire from the enemy units.

Four rounds of awestruck players emerged to play this spectacle and explored far into Van Dongen’s constructed levels. His years of professional cello playing and the ability to predict his opponent’s movements proved too much for each of the players who were unable to finish this level.

Speaking to Mr Van Dongen afterwards, he revealed that Cello Fortress has never been released for commercial use as of yet, but has instead been used as his party-trick on worldwide technology and gaming tours. The reaction from the crowds witnessing the game suggested that this is indeed a wonder among even seasoned developers and programmers and had even been nominated for ‘Best Entertainment Game Design’ at Dutch game awards.

The idea of an individual hooking up a classical instrument to a computer to act as a human-controlled level is indeed a novel one. However, it is also one that will likely remain something of a niche to admirers due to the necessity of the player to be able to play the instrument particularly well.

With Van Dongen’s demonstration of this little-known wonder for the audience it was going to be difficult to live up to such a spectacle. However, on par with his performance were techno DJs ‘Live:JS’ who compose their musical stylings with specifically pixelated sounds akin to those found on the early Nintendo Entertainment Consoles.

Both hailing from England, the pair have been composing since 2010 and rather than turn-tables, utilise differing digital equipment to play and remix their music. Sam Wray, for instance, uses Gameboy Advance consoles hooked up to transformer sound systems to produce -bit psychedelic beats. With a projector above displaying clips from children’s cartoons from the 1980s and 1990s to touch their audience with a heavy dose of nostalgia, what better way to accompany a childhood gaming console’s sound effects than a stream of clips to send memories flooding back to the audience?

Since the events of 404, DCU’s Helix played host to the world-renowned Cyber Threat Summit on October 24, which featured a projector interview with none other than Edward Snowden. Further technology events are now on their way to Dublin such as the TAtech Europe gathering in March next year and the Tech Expo Dublin taking place in the RDS in 2019.

Though it was only a single day event, Dublin’s 404 Tech Meetup has indeed left its mark in the Irish technology community, attracting more international IT firms to set up in Ireland with the knowledge that a proposal to start business in Ireland will be met with passion and enthusiasm.

By Henry Phipps