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A VR Hackathon

The Cineglobe “Storytelling Science”: Oculus Rift Hackathon ( started this past weekend. It will run until the Fall, with five weekend hackathon events to develop Virtual Reality (VR) film projects based around science and storytelling. The final projects will be presented on the 7th and 8th of November 2015 at the Festival Tous Ecrans. The hackathon takes place mainly at the CERN IdeaSquare, a place for idea exchange between science, design, and society. It’s a highly engaging space, includes a London bus for meetings, an open working space, mechanical and electrical workshops, and, naturally, a small 3D printing lab with both a FDM and a Form 1+ SLA machine. There’s also an iSense 3D scanner somewhere, but I would rather use my Structure Sensor. As a mentor for the hackathon, I’m helping to guide teams on their respective VR journeys.

VR-Hackathon-09523Day 1

The first weekend focused on idea flow, team building, learning about the history and current state of VR, and testing out various devices, including Google Tango, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, etc. On the first day (Saturday) the team from apelab was there to present their project and discuss the history and uses of the Rift in art installations and storytelling projects. We then did an idea workshop focused on identifying potential inputs and outputs for VR systems, and then built a few story concepts based on those boundaries. My personal contribution was a VR concept where you are a kite flying in the sky. 3D sounds of thunder are around you and with your eyes you guide yourself towards the storm, whereby you will eventually be hit by lightning, because you are the kite Ben Franklin used to discover electricity. The goal is to empathize with the sacrifice of the kite in order to expand our understanding of science. Not sure if I’ll ever build that app, but it was a good way for everyone to interact and get to know each other.

VR-Hackathon-09565Day 2

Sunday was focused on team formation and initial idea development. We started out with some group energy exercises, sequentially counting from 1 to 4 in a giant circle and then starting to replace the numbers with actions like jumping or clapping. This was a great way to develop some good energy and set the tone for the day. Then all the participants chose a main role for themselves such as scientist, coder, designer, narrator, etc. During the process, each person explained why they chose that role for themselves, and then we did a second round of role choosing. This was done to start forming balanced teams based on the essential roles. In practice, many people are multi-faceted, but the process served to distribute the main competencies of the participants.

After breaking for lunch the teams started to work on developing three project concepts, which were to be more divergent rather than similar to one another. The goal was to encourage a wider exploration of the VR project directions early in the ideation process, and not focus on specific interaction technologies. At the end of the day each group would present their three concepts for feedback from the entire group.

Knowledge Management

As mentors, we also discussed the knowledge management strategy for the hackathon. As a multi-weekend event, the VR hackathon will generate a great deal of knowledge based around the ideation, planning, and production of VR cinema and installation applications. Therefore, it makes sense to develop an online place to store the knowledge derived from the team experiences and also to curate a toolbox of software and planning tools to aid future developers of VR projects.

VR-Hackathon-09562VR Project Development

There was a great deal of wonderful discussion throughout the weekend focused on reality, virtual, Oculus, interactivity, storytelling, science, and everything in between. One thing that was sticking in my mind after the hackathon was the direction of projects towards a VR installation or a product. We often think of VR as an isolating user experience, the view of a person strapped into the giant VR goggles and obliviously immersed in a virtual existence. When speaking about interactivity, many time projects gravitate towards the idea of a person using the Oculus, and interacting in some way with the physical space around them. However, this then limits the audience that can experience your project. If you go more in the direction of a product that can be used on any Oculus (or Samsung Gear VR) then you expand your audience beyond those that might visit an art gallery or exhibition. How should we design for the VR user experience? That’s a question we will surely learn a lot about during the VR hackathon adventure. I’m planning to present a summary at UXCamp Europe in Berlin in June.

VR-Hackathon-09561Teams and Projects

On Sunday the teams presented their projects for open discussion. There was a wide variety of themes that explored the VR space. One common thread was the question of the perspective of the user. VR allows us to more easily switch roles and look at different perspectives in the respective worlds that are built for the users. What would it be like, for example, to experience the digestive tracts of different animals? Would it be possible to integrate the participation of individuals outside of the application to work with the main user to solve a puzzle? How about a virtual exploration of CERN, allowing the user to look into different rooms and walk through the birth of the universe? What if a GoPro was attached to a drone, hovering above the user, who wears the Oculus and sees their body below like an out of body experience (yes, of course we would need a 3D model of their head to hide the Oculus in the live video feed). Changing the point of view, the perspective, the understanding of the person in their concept of reality … This is all powerful stuff to explore.