Baby’s First Hackathon

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Presenting our paw-ject to the audience and judges panel

Weekend, what weekend? There was a weekend??

Immediately after my Friday class at General Assembly, I walked over to the Microsoft Reactor building downtown for my very first hackathon. There, I met up with my two friends from AR/VR Academy, Estella and Nidhi, for opening ceremonies for the San Francisco Virtual Reality Hackathon. After eating refreshments (provided by Samsung!), we learned about the contest logistics, prizes / entry categories, and then did a lightning round where we were able to go to the front of the room, state the project we wanted to work on and which skill sets we were missing (so anyone with those skills could join our group if interested). Nidhi and I pitched a Hololens application to help teach/learn American Sign Language, and were quickly approached later by many industry experts who let us know the technical limitations of such an idea. Oh well. Fail fast and fail often, am I right?

Anyway, after that, we all kinda split up to explore what other teams were doing, and when nothing really piqued our interest, we reconvened and decided to pursue our own project together.

We discussed our skill sets (me = product/UX design, management, presenting; Estella = studio art, animation, front-end dev; Nidhi = software engineer, full-stack with JavaScript focus). We then explored a couple more project ideas that could revolve around social justice concepts, empathy, or integrating haptic technology into a social VR space, and then eventually settled on, well, a “pet project” of mine: a holographic puppy that you can play and interact with. And just like that, “Holo-Dog” was born!

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Clear eyes, full coffee cups, can’t lose!

Bright and early the next day, we snagged the last room with a door available, I wrote “Top Secret Paw-ject” on the whiteboard, and we all then got to work. Luckily, we all ended up having similar goals and work / communication styles, which made working as a team highly enjoyable. We began by identifying our team objective, project inspiration, problem and solution statements, target users, and brand. We listed out our ideas for future iterations, and then organized our short-term and long-term goals, as well as check-in points to review each other’s progress and challenges. From there, we all started learning how to adapt our current skill set for an Augmented Reality environment (me =  adapting user flow/prototypes for emerging technology; Estella = learning Maya, coding Unity prefabs to animate in reaction to voice recognition; Nidhi = learning C# and Hololens-specific coding environments).

 

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I have such smart friends

Around 9pm, after a taco dinner and a boba break, we had an actual breakthrough: we could get the dog model to sit when we pressed the spacebar on the keyboard. Despite all of our high and mighty talks all day on how much we valued work-life balance, we all were like “ahh!! it works!!” and then all ended up staying up later after we left the Reactor at 10pm and collaborated remotely until… 1am. 1:30am?

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Anyway, like an hour later we were back in the room for Day 2, where we had only 5 hours left to finalize our project and presentation before giving a 3-minute pitch to the audiences and judges. Those 5 hours flew by in a second. It was mildly stressful, but also so, so rewarding to be working on projects again where I could just totally immerse myself and feel like I could work for hours without noticing the time pass.

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TL;DR — We won 3rd place for the Best Social VR category for our pitch/concept art on virtual Adoption Events using AltspaceVR environments. When our team name was called, we were caught so entirely off-guard that we all went “Wait, what??” at once, making the whole room laugh with us. We hadn’t been banking on winning anything at all honestly; we were working more under the premise of “if you had fun, you won.” Maybe they just ahem, threw us a bone, but whatever — woohoo!!!

 

Key Learnings:

  • With all decisions, always keep the end user in mind! Tie everything back to the solution, brand identity, and target audience
  • UX/UI design for AR is a lot different than what I’m used to for mobile app or web environments, since the user already has an environment: their actual physical environment
  • My prototypes for AR experiences were a lot more imagery-centric and involved a lot more detailed sketches to fully convey the user experience
  • Now that I have more experience with the Hololens, I think next time I will draw my prototypes inside the outline of the Hololens glasses to convey what the user will be physically seeing at any given point in time

Other thoughts:

  • Hackathons are so much fun! It was so gratifying to see an idea I’ve had since April actually come to life before my eyes
  • We were 3 of maybe … 10-12 women there, total. We ended up being interviewed by a Canadian radio show about the struggles of women in tech
  • All the product people / engineers kept complimenting me on my crazy detailed whiteboard
  • I really enjoyed producing this; I think I would definitely enjoy long-term creative projects (technical artistry, product design). Maybe I’ll learn Maya next one day when my brain has some bandwidth
  • Teamwork and communication is super important!
  • I’m going to make the phrase “Death by a thousand micro-agressions” happen. Oh the joys of being a woman in a male-dominated space. My favorite micro-aggression (ie, the one I’m still fuming about) was when a man came to check out our demo and asked, even as Nidhi was debugging our script on the computer, “where our developer was.” RAAAGE.
  • However, it was SO nice and a breath of fresh air when men made the effort to be allies and inclusive of the ladies there. For example, making efforts to call us “ladies” or “women” instead of “girls,” sitting near us and engaging us in conversation, allowing us to participate and share perspectives, voicing hope to see even more women in the industry and brainstorming ways to make events like this… those gave me hope! 🙂
  • It was 5pm on Sunday before I remembered to check my Fantasy Football scores. That has NEVER happened before

 

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