About a hundred students, programmers and media artists recently gave up a perfect beach weekend to gather in a kitted out workshop on the Greenwich Village campus of NYU and take part in a virtual reality hackathon sponsored by Samsung, Littlstar, Oculus, Unity 3D and a handful of Silicon Alley new media companies. The theme of the event was "Mythos & Moxie," and the objective was to use VR technology to tell stories.
Like a poetry slam or an open mic, the event provided a forum for creative programmers to pit their storytelling skills against their technical chops and present the results to an audience of their peers. Many of the participants came out of the telecommunications program at NYU.
"I found out about the hackathon at the IO Festival," said Ayanna Seals, a student in NYU's Integrated Digital Media Program, at the start of the two-day event. "I'm hoping to work with the landscape a little, get out and shoot some film and integrate it into whatever project I happen to create. Hopefully, I'll be working as part of a team."
In addition to providing VR developers with an opportunity to network and sharpen their skills, the event gave many a chance to mock-up germinating ideas.
"I want to start integrating some more haptic tactile feedback systems into VR experiences," said Christopher LoBello, a graduate of NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering who is currently working as a software designer. "I'm trying to bring in more interesting and dynamic controllers that don't just vibrate but that give you a real sensation of what they're doing."
An intensive, two-day huddle of creative developers using their programming skills to tell stories using VR technology is a dream scenario for large corporations facing a content void when trying to market VR hardware. Consequently, one of the perks of taking first prize in one of the five hackathon categories ("Best Narrative," "Most Heart-Wrenching VR," "Best VR Made With Unity," "Best Wow Factor" and a "Wild Card" winner) was release of the project on Littlstar, a Samsung-compatible 360-degree video platform, for two weeks.
"With the Gear VR, one of the key things for us is about content and how to make sure that we get enough eyeballs to get people's heads around it," said Tom Harding, Samsung's director of Immersive Products & Virtual Reality, at the hackathon kickoff party in Samsung's Soho retail store. "We've learned that experiencing 360-degree video and experiencing content in Gear VR is a game-changer for many people. They get it once they've tried it."
Like Samsung, increasing numbers of tech companies are coming to recognize hackathons as prime outlets for promoting their products and great recruiting grounds for the next generation of tech professionals.
"I think that's a really exciting thing about virtual reality and where we're at with this technology," says Justin Hendrix, executive director of NYC Media Lab, an agency that brokers collaborations between New York City universities and tech companies, and one of the hackathon's sponsors. "There are a lot of people who have an opportunity to pick up these tools, to try to build things and to build new experiences that have never been seen before."
The importance of creative talent to the future of VR technology is indisputable. Not only are creatives the developers, they're also the end-users.
"VR has enormous potential as a new medium, even for traditional storytellers like playwrights and screenwriters and filmmakers and interactive theater artists," says event organizer Dakota Powell, who heads LoNyLa/TimeWave, the new media arts collective that partnered with Samsung, NYC Media Lab and Littlstar to produce the event. "We need to develop a new language for VR, and to give people development vehicles to experiment with VR I think is key towards advancing this media."