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The VR Hackathon hacks in progress
The VR Hackathon hacks in progress at the University of Washington last weekend.

The Seattle VR Hackathon was held this past weekend in the University of Washington’s Center for Education and Research in Construction. The event consisted of two simultaneous competitions, the AEC Hackathon and the Virtual Reality Hackathon organized by Damon Hernandez, Greg Howes and others from the local AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) and VR communities. Only being able to choose to one event, I shadowed the UW’s VR guru, Tom Furness, as he judged the virtual reality projects that emerged from the two-day hackathon.

Furness was joined by Christopher Peri from Samsung and fellow judges Trond Nilsen, and Mike Lenzi. They were asked to judge the projects based on how much code they built during the weekend, the level of technical difficulty and the overall impressiveness of the project. Projects received bonus points for supporting open standards, as well as for the use of an open source model for their own code.

The projects reached across the spectrum of potential virtual reality applications, from very innovative glimpses of how virtual reality will change work, to what it will mean for entertainment, education and communications.

Bob takes control of the Wand
Tom Furness takes control of the phonetic wand.

The most immersive experience and first prize winner at the VR Hackathon drew upon Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age for inspiration. It was the most immersive because not only did the team create a VR experience, they also created real world artifacts in the form of books, to help make their bigger point: learning is a multimedia activity.

The Diamond Age team coded an interactive primer of sorts, that used virtual reality controllers as what they called a “phonetic wand.” The experience enhanced the auditory sense of language through what team leader Erika Nicole Feldman termed “phonological awareness,” which lets the “smaller sounds” in the words play through. Their project also included the ability to play with beginning letter sounds, experiment with tempos and explore rhyming words. Feldman’s vision is to “hack literacy” by using technology and other media to increase phonological awareness, print awareness (how to handle and engage a book), vocabulary, letters, narrative stills and how to just enjoy a book. The project hints at the bigger plan to leverage technology to encourage and develop literacy that reaches back-and-forth across the virtual boundary.

Next up was the winner of the mobile award, a project called the Holodeck. No, this developer didn’t create a room in which anything could appear using force fields and holography. I think he wanted to, but two days is just not enough time for such an ambitious project. The Holodeck program created avatars that represent callers in lieu of the actual caller’s face. I think this project struck a cord because I’m not the only one that ops for a landline on early morning calls to the East Coast. By creating an avatar that mimics the owner’s mouth movements, and eventually facial expressions and other attributes, you can always present a well groomed persona to conference call participants (or not, depending on how you want yourself represented). This projects invoked a future where virtual versions of ourselves don’t need to employ specialized software environments, like Second Life, to bring avatars into our lives, we’ll be able to insert them into existing virtual environments like Skype.

PILLars of Unity
PILLars of Unity

Next up was PILLars of Unity, a game where people help each other move a pill around a game written atop the Unity platform. Walk through a door unaided and you might plummet to your death. Walk into an open grid, and you will probably find yourself stuck there all day if you don’t find help. PILLars was built on the presumption of interpersonal cooperation. The main player can’t see all of their environment, so the other player helps him or her navigate to key items, like a button, that opens up a door to reach the next level.

This game had some similarities to Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a game that was shown last month at PAX. What both game share is the need to master virtual communications, which is something that hasn’t found its way to most university literacy curriculums, and is a concept still lost on many an MBA student as well. Like “leadership” experiences that ask teams to visit obstacle courses and learn to trust peers by falling into their arms from great heights, or solving physical problems, this approach presumes no potential real danger, yet the quality of the VR invokes angst nonetheless. Further, because these approaches aren’t location-centric, the “helper” player could be anywhere, just as a manager could be anywhere in one of today’s globally distributed organizations. Players must communicate effectively, collaborate and coordinate in order to reach their goals. PILLars won second prize.

Tom Furness playing virtual instruments
Tom Furness playing virtual instruments

An interesting example of exploring context in VR came from team Sonic, which offered a musical instrument platform where the instruments changed their sound based on which VR world the participant selected. Instruments confined to an office were very different from those floating in outer space or in the open spaces of the beach. While the musical instruments were interesting, the real insight was the use of VR as a controlling context for things in the VR space. Imagine a VR environment that constrains or unleashes something, in this case sounds, based on the model of the surrounding space. The same approaches could be used for objects, or light, or liquids— anything that acts differently under different physical conditions. And of course, the environment could evoke emotions or mood, which would yield very different results.

If you wanted to see what could be done in a couple of days on a video game, FMJ Games was prepared to impress with the HTC Vive-delivered game that included hi-resolution graphics and a custom score. The goals was to light torches, but this wasn’t any block world. This world took full advantage of the Epic’s Unreal Engine to combine pre-modeled elements into a very consistently spooky and foreboding world. The FMJ Games team was awarded the Most Aesthetically Pleasing award.

For those thinking about unique personal experiences that could end up in VR, the Mind Palace team created a world of virtual rooms that held memories. Enter a room and you might find your first birthday complete with video, scans of your birthday cards, 3D models of the gifts you received and other artifacts. Behind this project was categorization. Imagine a VR environment that brings in all the disparate mess that are your digital memories and lets you toss them into categories that then become doorways to what’s inside. Your imagination can take you to how charming or creepy that might be depending on how the rooms are rendered. The demo was pretty basic, but like all of these demos, it was meant to inspire future development, not be a means unto itself.

It was inspiring to see the innovative ideas, the deep teamwork, the commitment to goal, and the outstanding outcomes that were produced within the two-day hackathon framework. It will be interesting as the VR market heats up in 2016 to see how many of these ideas move from concept to implementation, and from implementation to delivering customer value. That will be the real trick VR needs to pull off in months ahead.

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