StudyVR: A retrospective on the MIT Reality Virtually Hackathon

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Slightly over a month ago, I and a team of students from Drexel University’s VR club represented Philly at the MIT Reality Virtually Hackathon. I personally joined with the intention of giving it my best, networking a bit and connecting more with the current DUVR club members, but it became so much more than that!

We hustled hard, designed a kinesthetic VR educational tool, and were delighted to bring home First Place in the “Human Well-Being” Vertical! I’ve finally gotten around to collecting some of the media from that weekend, so here I’ll document what it was like to road-trip to Boston with my students and win the biggest VR/AR hackathon to date.

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We met at Drexel’s URBN center at 3AM the Friday of the Hackathon with all the gear we could muster — five computers, two monitors, an HTC vive, accessories and speakers, and enough clothing and hygeine supplies to brave 4 days of hacking. We loaded it up into Sean’s car, and he drove into the night while we played music loudly to keep him awake. (Most memorably, “Anaconda” by Nikki Minaj.)


[ 360 ] After eight hours of driving, we made it to Cambridge! We attended workshops on UX and VR programming, then took a group photo inside the Alchemist statue.

We didn’t do any production work before the Hackathon, but we did brainstorm a bit and generally agree on taking a “VR for Good” approach. Several of our initial ideas centered around data visualization, science, and education. Because we had the Vive and two artists on board, we wanted to do something with an immersive visual quality that played to our strengths. We began conceptualization that Friday, using the time between breakout sessions to work out the kinks.

I had already done research about science education for my Master’s Thesis and accompanying VR Documentary, so I took up the role of researcher and looked for a framework with merit to adapt to a VR platform. The rest of the team began coming up with mechanics and design goals. By polling science teachers on Reddit, I found out about the Next-Generation Science Standards curriculum, an initiative by 26 US States to revitalize science in the classroom.

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This curriculum stressed the importance of drawing parrallels between multiple science disciplines, so I pitched the idea of a modular framework that uses one Vive mechanic to demonstrate a science principle across different disciplines with immersive real-world examples. The team liked the idea and we all jumped on board! We spent many hours refining the scope and audience, arguing about the finer UX details, and preparing a content list for the next morning.

After a night of not-enough-sleep, we lugged our equipment into the MIT media lab, staked out a table with enough nearby room for the Vive, and settled in for the production work. We divided up the roles — Tyler was the main Unity dev, Sean worked on back-end integrations and updating devpost, Brendan assisted with Unity implementation and UX, Fatma worked on modeling and texturing, and I began modeling, producing, and animating.

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Here you see me modeling a telescope goldfish, the hero character of one our visualizations. We decided to use the mechanic of “Pressure” to demonstrate how systems balance in both Life Sciences and Physics. Students would begin in a Study Room with two science books on their desks, and step through the portal to access a learning module. The Life Sciences module demonstrates how a fish’s swim bladder helps it sink or float in the water, and the Physics module demonstrates how the ideal gas law can help a hot air balloon rise or fall.

We spent countless hours in a frenzy, working out mechanics, modeling and texturing, coding mechanics, and trying to get everything implemented and up in our Git repo. It’s hard to describe the frenzy with which we worked, trying to three asset-heavy levels, a teleporting mechanic, and a tangible research foundation finished and pitch-ready in roughly 36 hours.

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We spent time laughing when things worked, crying when then didn’t, and laughing while crying bugs magically fixed themselves or were not reproducible. The hackathon organizers graciously supplied us with endless coffee, snacks, energy drinks, and meals. And emoji-printed beach balls, which ended up being a lot of fun.

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Eventually the environment models were completed, textured, and animated The fish was easier than anticipated to animate, and I keyed a sine deformer down a joint chain on its spine to make it swim. The hot air balloon was animated with blend shapes imported into Unity. Both the fish and the hot air balloon were translated vertically depending on the magnitude of “pressure” variable, driven by the distance between the HTC vive controllers. We made the haptic feedback increase with pressure as well, giving the sensation of manually pushing the fish up through the air.


[ 360 ] We were lucky to meet some young friends during the first night of the Hackathon, who were glad to help test out our learning modules. They each reported having fun and learned something new along the way!

After we made the finals, we were asked to edit together a 90 second video about our hack before the final judging round. This was completed after ~48 hours of sleepless hacking, but I think it still tells the story. Here you can check out our mechanics, watch young students in our target audience try it out, and hear a bit of the narration I recorded for tutorial purposes.

(Fun fact — that narration was recorded on my cell phone in an elevator shaft, because every other room was occupied by hackers with clicky keyboards and squeaky wet shoes from the rain.) 

So without further ado — the trailer for StudyVR!

The final judging round and expo took nearly eight hours, but meeting such infuential people from the industry and watching the enjoy our hack was an amazing experience. We also got a chance to check out the other finalest teams’ projects, meet new people, and connect over the potential of such exciting technology. Winning first place in our vertical was an honor, and I highly doubt this is my last Hackathon!

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Our team is still very interested in continuing research and production on StudyVR. If you have a question, suggestion, or interest in partnership, please contact me directly or come to a DUVR meeting! More details here: www.drexelvr.com