Reality, Virtually sets record for largest AR/VR hackathon

Five floors of the MIT Media Lab were occupied last weekend by developers, designers and storytellers building open-source AR/VR projects

Reality, Virtually sets record for largest AR/VR hackathon
Steven Max Patterson

More than 400 participants, mentors, workshop speakers, judges and sponsors convened at the Reality, Virtually AR/VR hackathon sponsored by the MIT Media Lab last weekend, setting a hackathon record with 75 open-source project submissions.

The winners were KidCity VR and Waypoint Rx.

KidCity VR, built by Anish Dhesikan, Jacqueline Assar, Theji Jayaratne, Emily Pascual and Kachina Stude, is an HTC Vive educational application for children and parents to play together in virtual reality (VR). The team won $5,000 from Samsung’s Global Innovation Center for the best VR application

Waypoint RX, built by UmarArshad, Sara Remsen, Paul Katsen, Varun Man and Jan-Erik Steel, is a Microsoft Hololens augmented reality (AR) application designed to help pharmacists reduce prescription errors by checking the medications selected against the prescription. The team won $5,000 from AT&T for the best AR application.

An infectiously crazy idea

Hackathons are all about software. Successful software projects are prototyped, iterated, improved and scaled to very large adoption. After all, what is the point of building software if a lot people will not use it?

Rus Gant, director of the Visualization Research and Teaching Laboratory at Harvard University, attended a community-organized VR code lab at Google on a beautiful and sunny July Saturday in 2015 with about 100 developers. There he planted the seed for the crazy idea to apply this model to scale an AR/VR hackathon to be very large.

The idea was iterated and improved with an AR, then VR, hackathon organized by the Google Developer Group in Boston. In January of 2016, the organizers began looking for a sponsor to host a hackathon scaled up to a large proportion.

When they approached Scott Greenwald, a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab, with the crazy idea, Greenwald did not think it was crazy—he loved it. A few hours later, Greenwald had MIT Media Lab’s approval to make the Lab the venue for the hackathon. The Media Lab had only one condition: that all hackathon projects would be under open-source license to stimulate open innovation in the AR and VR community. No surprise because Media Lab Director Joi Ito is co-author of the Creative Commons license.

With the Media Lab’s inspirational facilities confirmed, the organizers proposed the crazy idea to Ben Nelson who leads AT&T’s hackathon program, which includes the enormous hackathon at the Consumer Electronics Show. During a three-minute phone call, Ben listened to the crazy idea, loved it and committed significant financial support. And he became an advisor to the hackathon.

The challenges of diversity, openness and large scale

Most hackathon teams are composed of friends who have experience competing together in hackathons. It is an isolated experience. Teams arrive, concentrate on building their projects and miss the opportunity to interact with the other teams.

For this event, the organizers wanted a hackathon that was diverse, open and collaborative to stimulate the emerging AR and VR technology conversation. More than 1,000 people applied, and 350 people were chosen by a team of four organizers who have experience in law, software development ,and business and social entrepreneurship. They chose participants based on their merits and to achieve the diversity goal of 35 percent. Some childcare was subsidized to let as many people participate as possible.

Will Mason, editor in chief of, advised on the theme. The Reality, Virtually hackathon theme would draw on the experience learned building popular use cases, gaming and entertainment into new AR and VR applications.

Operational complexity

The usual hackathon is much simpler. Participants arrive (unaffiliated participants join partially formed teams after a short pitch session), open their laptops and start coding. AR and VR are so new that it could not be assumed that participating designers and developers would have the AR- and VR-specific domain experience to compete.

The first day of the four-day event had three tracks of workshops: AR and VR Design, Unity, and native AR and VR development. It also had platform-specific instruction for the HTC Vive, Microsoft Hololens, Samsung Gear VR, Google Tango and Google Daydream, as well as specific talks about methods and building industry-specific AR and VR apps.

Over 40 mentors with design, development and industry domain experience joined the hackathon to share their experience to facilitate and advise the teams building projects. They had as much fun as the participants.

An inclusive AR and VR hackathon needs a lot of equipment because not all participants could be expected to bring their own. Sponsors and the MIT Media Lab loaned or donated 10 Nexus 6Ps with the Daydream SDK, 17 Samsung Gear VRs, 30 Google Tango Developer Tablets, and eight HTC Vives.

With a field of 350 unaffiliated participants, forming teams posed a significant challenge because the teams had to form quickly or the hackathon would be a disaster. Two designers, Pauric O’Callaghan and Ana Huric-Robles, volunteered to design a team-formation process that could accelerate participants interaction to self-select teams among this large field. Mike Grandinetti, entrepreneur and lecturer at Hult School of Business, has experience in team formation and agreed to lead the process during the evening of the first day. To the relief of the organizers, almost all of the teams were formed by 11 p.m.

Judging a typical hackathon is fairly simple. The team leaders line up and are given three minutes to demonstrate their team project. But with AR and VR projects, each judge has to don a headset and immerse himself or herself into the experience, expanding the time needed to pick the winners. A back-of-the-envelope calculation assuming 60 to 80 project submissions produced an impossible 14-hour judging time.

To solve this problem, 15 judges were interviewed and put into five teams to pick the finalists in parallel. Many traveled to the hackathon at their own expense. All of the judges had relevant domain experience, though their unrestrained enthusiasm was a challenge to staying on schedule. On the evening of the third day, the judges convened and worked late into the evening to find and pick the finalists from the teams that had sequestered themselves in every nook and cranny of the MIT Media Lab.

Everyone reconvened Monday, Oct. 10, for final judging by a separate and august eight-person panel of judges with domain experience. They included Damon Hernandez of AEC Hackathon and Richard Marks, head of Sony’s PlayStation VR research team. The judges spent 10 minutes with each team to pick the winners from the finalists.

The result: a diverse group of people convened, generated a delightful vibe and an enthusiastic group personality, made new friends, were exposed to new ideas, had fun, and produced 75 open-source projects. All the sponsors were also delighted. Microsoft’s senior director of worldwide evangelism and developer relations, Giorgio Sardo, summed up the hackathon by saying:

“It’s inspiring to see the ideas and projects produced during the hackathon. The teams come together to break down the barriers between virtual and physical reality. We saw a diverse crowd that did not know one another a day before the hackathon come together to create impactful open-source AR, VR and mixed reality (MR) applications and fuel more innovation in this fast-developing field. I can’t wait to see what this group will continue to dream and hack together!”

See pictures from the event here:

Stay tuned for more information and videos from the Reality, Virtually Hackathon at the MIT Media Lab.

Disclosure: Steven Max Patterson was one of the organizers of the Reality, Virtually Hackathon.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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