Earlier this month saw the launch of Immersive Tech NI as well as a VR hackathon. The event marks the beginning of the group which is designed to bring together the most creative minds in Northern Ireland as a community to explore and expand the possibilities created by immersive technologies, including virtual and augmented reality. Attendees got the chance to try out projects run by local companies, as well as go through workshops leading up to the Hackathon, which had prices for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. We caught up with some of the winners to find out their experience of the Hackathon.
1st Place – Team Rocket
The Immersive Tech NI Hackathon started on a Saturday morning with breakfast and a brief introduction from the event organisers. After this, everyone with a prearranged group set off to find the best tables, leaving just seven of us: a game developer, a software engineer, a museum worker and three students. Only two of the group had ever actually met before, but it wasn’t long before we started sharing ideas and making decisions. The pitches ranged from a first aid instructor to a virtual riot for police trainees, but in the end the idea that really stuck out was a sign language learning tool. A picture of hands signing the letters of the alphabet would be displayed in front of the user, allowing them to practice without a teacher. We decided to go with the augmented reality of the Microsoft HoloLens over any of the virtual reality headsets, as the user would be able to see their hands as they matched the pictures on the screen.
After the idea had been decided it was just a matter of implementing it in six or seven hours, with little to no experience of working with immersive technology. Emma and Paddy worked on the product branding and the pictures of the hands signing. Clea and Rachel created a presentation to give to the judges, making sure to draw attention to why this sort of tool would be useful for so many people learning sign language. James, Michael and I handled the technical side of things. Apart from a few problems with Unity and GitHub, and a bit of a dash to get through all the letters of the alphabet (I think we only made it to N or M), a working prototype was created and the presentation went off without a hitch.
The projects made by the other teams were all of such a high quality so we were all very shocked and delighted to win first prize. I would like to thank my team mates for working so hard and everyone who helped run the hackathon for organising such a great event.
2nd Place – 5 in a Vive
At 5pm on 5th of November in The Hive in Belfast, 12 teams were watching the last hour of their immersive tech hackathon tick away while they tried to finish their demos and presentations. By 6pm the work was done, the beers were opened, and the pitches soon to start.
Our team consisted of Mal Duffin, Dee Harvey, Kris Ignasiak, Steven Kennedy, and Brendan McCourt and we worked on a fire safety app. Brendan and I took on research, idea development, branding, and strategy. As we worked, we identified the most serious fire safety hazards, the most likely audiences, how to make the game increasingly difficult so it can be played repeatedly, what the likely business models were. Steven and Kris got straight to work in Unity building a model of the interior of a house with various fire hazards needing to be neutralised. Mal was building the Reward stage of our game – the bit where you get to be fireman and put out the fire.
As the afternoon wore on, Brendan and I moved onto developing and practising our presentation, while Kris, Steven, and Mal put the finishing touches onto our demo. Powered by sandwiches, haribos, and chocolate buttons, we kept working as the deadline approached.
Delivering the pitch and demo was fun when our turn finally came around. After work stopped on the projects at 6, the judges did the rounds of the room to hear pitches and experience demos where they had been created. Following them around to hear the other pitches was too much for my delicate constitution. I love to watch a pitch, but not before I pitch myself.
We were delighted to come second. We all felt our idea was strong and worth pursuing beyond the hackathon. We make a good, productive team, so we plan to keep working on Safe as Houses. Watch this space.
3rd Place – A(rachnaphobia)
For the Hackathon we hooked up with Rachael and Zach, who brought with them her great idea of simulating vehicle safety checks for Trucks, Cars, etc. It was a great experience being able to walk around a really big virtual truck with a horn and engine sounds, take a tyre off, check indicators and open doors and load cargo. Being me, I was keen to gamify the experience and add achievements – it makes for much more effective learning. We didn’t quite get to build that into the demo, but it was in the concept.
We wrangled with the HMD camera, with teleport code, collision detection with the weird SteamVR constraints, and other code issues. We downloaded assets, made a presentation, looked up industry-specific statistics and use-cases, ate sweets and drank tea. Most of all we wrangled with the fact that four people developing on one machine is more than a little ludicrous. Nine hours of constantly being ‘on’ and thinking hard over brand new problems is tough going.
We yawned, we disagreed, we covered the white board with stuff, we tested and tested and tested, we fell out, we made up, and finally it was time for judging. Rachael gave a really cohesive presentation of the various concepts and ideas we had drummed up through the day. The judges were thankfully game for trying our (still a little clunky) demo in person, and Glenn made a good demonstration of the parts they didn’t quite manage. An hour later, after a much deserved beer and a rest and a good nosy at other people’s projects, we were delighted to win 3rd prize!
In all, it was a super experience. We have a conceptual project that could in theory be taken forward into a fully-fledged real life application. The development issues and code quirks we are now aware of, the differing experiences between the hardware, the user experience of the camera and teleport, that’s all invaluable knowledge. More than anything, though, we now have the motivation to give VR dev a go – it’s amazing fun.