Nearly 130 virtual reality developers from around the Seattle region gathered at the Pacific Northwest Center for Construction Research and Education last weekend for the Seattle VR Hackathon, a biannual event that encourages people with a passion for virtual reality (VR) to join forces and create VR experiences using the latest hardware and software. For sponsors and local businesses, hackathons offer an opportunity to get to know some of the talent that might someday contribute to their virtual reality investments, while encouraging learning, experimentation and community building.
Over the course of two-and-half days, these teams, many of which stayed up all night Saturday working on their code and collaborating with other teams, built collaboration tools for sharing 360-degree content in social media; created immersive puzzles; developed captivating virtual musical instruments; crafted chill listening rooms that mimic the sound of vinyl; populated educational applications focused on global health; rendered colorful, glowing 3D games; and integrated VR with the Amazon Echo designed to help teach Mandarin.
Seattle’s “grandfather” of virtual reality, Tom Furness, who runs the University of Washington’s HITLab, was a judge and coach at the event.
“I’m always humbled to see where people take this technology,” Furness said, “We are just at the beginning of figuring out how this is going to improve people’s lives. I’ve already seen VR applied to helping people in assisted living stay better connected to their families, the therapeutic benefits for those suffering from conditions like PTSD, and for anyone who watches football, they’ve seen a television spot on how VR is helping train quarterbacks to better read defenses. It’s a whole new way for people to experience computing and I just think it’s fun.”
Fellow judge Nirav Desai, the Pacific Northwest innovation group lead for hackathon sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton, said he believes that virtual reality has a critical role to play in the Seattle region’s economy.
“Seattle is the number two innovation hub in the United States,” he said. “When you look at patents, venture capital activity and growth, this is a great place to be.” Seattle, he points out, “has one of the most diverse economies.” He cited the enterprise and consumer businesses at Microsoft; e-commerce and cloud leader Amazon, manufacturers Boeing and PACCAR, federal government entities like Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and large hospital and medical research facilities.
And when it comes to virtual reality, the region has a huge game development community, and great schools like the University of Washington and Digipen, along with Valve, HTC and others directly in the VR space.
“LA will be entertainment, and will lead that,” event organizer Greg Howes added, concurring that for “gaming, and especially for enterprise, Seattle will be one of the global leaders.”
Howes sees architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) as a huge driver for VR, as well. “Seattle is one of the fastest growing cities. You have higher demand and higher price-points. You can experiment more with technology.”
Desai envisions Seattle as home to the VR platform: “Enterprise applications, distribution, testing, operating systems and utilities—a lot of that is going to come from the Seattle area.” Howes adds, “when I look at participants in the AEC hackathons we run, more-and-more people are employing VR, not because we are guiding them that way, but because they see an opportunity. In many ways the enterprise opportunity is not only bigger, but also less competitive than gaming.”
Because virtual reality delivers entire worlds, the industry will require people who create all aspects of those worlds. And that means new job opportunities. Unlike traditional technology fields focused on event-driven transactions, virtual reality will require artists and musicians, designers and storytellers, model curators and data analysts, hardware engineers and experts in curriculum design. And that is the kind of eclectic mix of talent for which Seattle is known.
Organizers Trond Nilsen and Eva Hoerth also noted that they see women not just participating in but leading VR development — a positive Seattle trait being mirrored in this community. While only about 15 percent of hackathon attendees were women, many of the winning teams included women developers. Two notable women contributors were Megan Perry, who worked as a team of one to deliver a VR storytelling project that netted her the film award. “Sportsperson” award winner Evie Powell shined with a positive attitude while she acted as coach to those with less development experience.
Although hackathons include competitive elements, they are designed to create a focal point for exploring capabilities, for experimentation, for talent discovery and learning. Howes sees them as a way for people to opt-in to something that they might not have an opportunity to participate in at their day job, or in their major. That Seattle regularly holds VR hackathons, and that they are growing, is a testament to the city’s voracious appetite for innovation and openness.
It will likely be a year or two before most consumers will be willing to plunk down money for a high-end virtual reality environment. In the meantime, content creators will develop ever more immersive, high-quality experiences to keep people hooked once they invest. And some of those experiences are going to come from one or more of those 129 people sitting in a repurposed engineering facility over a weekend in Seattle, not just imagining the future, but helping to create it.