August 20, 2019
2017 – 2018
Think back to your first junior high school dance: a lot of kids standing around looking at each other as the band plays on. You want to dance, but are not sure how, don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone, and really wish someone else would be the first one to step out onto the dance floor. A college campus can feel a lot like that junior high dance when faculty and students are curious about virtual, augmented and 3D technologies, and intrigued by the possibilities, but unsure how to get started.
Our solution? Hackathon!
Hackathons are events where participants build technology projects — apps, programs, websites, et. al. — to solve challenge problems within a set time limit. The final outcomes are judged and prizes are awarded. Success often comes to cross-disciplinary teams with a range of skill sets. The events are intense, engaging, and a lot of fun.
The challenge of effectively communicating the impact of global climate change is a good fit for the types of immersive experiences possible in virtual and augmented reality. And that topic would prove to be a draw for student and faculty environmental scientists, data engineers, creative writers, visual artists, media producers, and others. For this first time planning a hackathon, we figured that attracting 20 – 30 participants would be considered a success. But as our speakers took the stage of February 9, 2018, at the opening meeting of the hackathon weekend, over 60 people sat in the audience, ready to create mixed reality experiences from climate change data: an overwhelming response to what would end up being a fantastic event.
A broad range of partners came forward to help with the hackathon. Providing expertise on climate change were people from Yale organizations — Center for Climate Change Communication, Data Driven Yale, and the Center for Business and the Environment. Staff from Climate Watch were also on hand to help teams and provide data sets. Technical expertise came from Yale’s Information Technology Services and Center for Collaborative Arts and Media. Technical staff from local New Haven software developer Spheregen and Microsoft’s mixed reality team were also on hand. Logistical and financial support came from Yale TSAI CITY, Connection.com and Microsoft. Much of the hackathon’s success is owed to these contributors.
Ten teams of students and faculty formed during the Friday evening kickoff and started work on selecting a climate change challenge/dataset and planning their approaches. Most teams used the Unity game engine as their development platform, rendering the project out to play within a Vive or Hololens headset. A few participants attended a quick start Unity boot camp on the Friday afternoon preceding the hackathon. Others relied on guidance from the roaming technical mentors. As breakfast was served on Saturday morning, teams began creating their projects, working through the day until judging started at 5:00 pm.
The main goals of the event were to get Yale faculty and students exciting about the possibilities of mixed reality technologies, and experience how these technologies could be used to communicate ideas. As the hackathon teams gave their final presentations on Saturday evening, we knew we had achieved those goals. Every team had cool 3D experiences to demonstrate, with every member of each team engaged in the creation process.
One example: the winning team created an experience called “Climb-it” (pun intended.) The “Climb-it” virtual reality environment was set inside a giant water tower. At the start water was flowing from pipes in the ceiling, each pipe representing one of five countries, at rates proportional to the level of annual greenhouse gas emissions from each country. The player would staunch the flow of water from each pipe by selecting a map of the country from the ground, climbing up the side of the tower, and stuffing the country map into the corresponding pipe. While climbing the player heard a narrative of climate change impacts from that country, drawn from current news reports. The judges felt the overall experience put the audience inside the climate change data in a playful and engaging way, and used the immersive qualities of mixed reality to build a memorable user experience. The best indicator of the success of this type of activity is whether you would do it again. The overwhelming response from our support team, sponsors and participants was not if, but when. Planning is already underway for a repeat experience next year.