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MIT “Reality, Virtually” hackathon explores new possibilities in virtual reality technology

A participant at the “Reality, Virtually” hackathon held at MIT experiences virtual reality through a pair of goggles. PHOTO COURTESY SARAH PILLAI
A participant at the “Reality, Virtually” hackathon held at MIT experiences virtual reality through a pair of goggles. PHOTO COURTESY SARAH PILLAI

Virtual reality and augmented reality technology not only aid in people’s day-to-day routines, but they also infiltrate human vision, immersing mankind into a new technological reality that seemed impossible until very recently.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab hosted the “Reality, Virtually” hackathon Friday through Monday, with the goal of allowing participants to exhibit their own talent in VR and AR programming.

The last day of the hackathon, Monday, was an expo open to the public in which participants displayed their VR or AR applications. The hackers were not allowed to bring any of their own pre-made code bases to the hackathon, so all codes and applications were created over the course of the weekend, according to Danielle Goldschneider, the marketing lead for the hackathon.

Jacob Loewenstein, the founder and co-president of VR at MIT, the VR/AR community at MIT, helped organize the hackathon. He said virtual reality allows the viewer to “escape” into a simulated experience that is different from the real world, while augmented reality means adding aspects to the real world as people experience it.

“We’re on the precipice of AR having relevance, not just in the lives of people in industry, not just in the lives of hardcore gamers, but in everyone’s life,” Loewentein said. “In the same way that mobile phones started off as something only stockbrokers had to trade stocks on the weekends, AR starts off with a small market, and now it’s really climbing into the mass market.”

Goldschneider said more people are getting involved with VR and AR technology, whether that means coding the technology itself or simply admiring it. The hackathon was able to attract people from a wide range of ages, genders and races, disproving the myth that this technology only appeals to a younger audience.

“We think that if we can get people from all walks of life,” Goldschneider said, “we’ll be able to create applications in a much more interesting way than if we were getting people who came from one particular perspective in their life.”

One of the participants in the hackathon, Emily Van Belleghem, was the lead developer of the VReam Team. The team created a program that aids individuals with composing their own music. Using VR technology, VReam Team makes composition a more visual practice, allowing it to be a more accessible task.

“We’re hoping that this program will help composers and people who had not ever done music alike to understand it in a whole new way,” said the MIT School of Engineering senior. “We’re hoping that it gives them a new respect for how music and color are just math: music is just wavelengths, and color is just wavelengths. They can map together and create something beautiful.”

To meet the educational needs of students, AR and VR technology has branched into other areas besides entertainment and music composition. Christina Gill, 28, of Cambridge, highlighted the Genome program designed at the hackathon for its purpose of lending a visual aid in teaching human physiology and anatomy.

“This would really help me out personally as a student if I’m trying to learn, let’s say, the anatomy and physiology of somebody’s DNA chemistry,” Gill said. “I think it’s really helpful, if you’re a very visual learner, to be able to access that and tap into those resources.”

Loewenstein said he believes the hackathon played a significant role in showing just how the advancement of AR and VR technology can aid society in various aspects of life other than gaming and entertainment.

“This hackathon, if anything, has shown that VR as an interface can change everything,” he said. “It could be used in medicine, it could be used in learning and education, it could be used in fitness. It’s just a whole new way of visualizing information, so there’s no reason why we can’t use that across a lot of different categories … It really takes hackathons like this to explore all those possibilities that would make it relevant to the average consumer.”

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