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Reality, Virtually sets record for largest AR/VR hackathon

Steven Max Patterson | Oct. 13, 2016
Five floors of the MIT Media Lab were occupied last weekend by developers, designers and storytellers building open-source AR/VR projects

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.


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