Another month, another hackathon? Apparently they’re like buses: you haven’t been to one for years and then three come along at once!

ImmersiveTechNI is a new local group trying to seize the zeitgeist of VR at the moment, and they were extremely clever to start off with a hackathon. VR is a burgeoning industry, and not a lot of people have had the chance to have a go on anything much more expensive than a Google cardboard. Having the chance to come along and try out thousands of pounds of hardware in the form of HTC Vive,  Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Hololens was a great way to get people in the door. Encouraging developers to dip their toe in the water with an eight hour hackathon gets them over the nerves – you can’t accomplish much technically in eight hours, but maybe you can think about the industry applications, what’s possible with the technology, and have exposure to some of the VR specific code you may use again another time.  I was really pleased to grab a ticket for this on time, as it ended up sold out with a fairly long waitlist.


The launch party for the group was in PwC Google Labs the night before, and gave us a great chance to try out a lot of the equipment and get a feel for it without cutting into the hack time. Glenn and I both have some Unity experience but not a whole lot, and the SteamVR plugin had a recent update with a lot of changes, so the initial basic Unity workshop was also of some use. There was a notable (and understandable, given the sponsorship) business vibe to this part with speakers focussing on industry applications and commercialisation, but I think the small dev community here were mostly just needing to have a play and cut their teeth on the platform-specific issues. Imagining how you can encourage customers to spend more or teach people new skills  is not so useful when you are still struggling to make the controller successfully pick things up and drop them again. There was no lack of technical experience in the room, but these tools and their quirks were very new to almost everyone.

As an aside, this is why groups like ImmersiveTechNI, NI Game Dev Network and our PlayMyDemo events are so incredibly important, and need funding. Developers need to cut their teeth on issues and have a chance at peer review, long before enterprise-ready applications can emerge. In VR particularly there are very few courses and it’s changing so fast. Having a go with the hardware and meeting to show your work and talk it over is vital for growth.

We were glad to have Glenn’s HTC Vive to work with. Having already done some VR dev at home, it quickly becomes clear to you that development without being able to test changes is the way to madness. It’s just too unreliable to import huge amounts of code and then spend ages working out where the problems are. Testing as you go is required. This is why so many VRdevs on Twitter have a profile photo with their HMD!


So we had the brawn, we just needed a great idea. Fortunately we hooked up with Rachael and Zach, who brought with them her great idea of simulating vehicle safety checks for Trucks, Cars, etc. We decided on a few key checks that we might be able to implement in the time, settled on a truck as our model for visual impact (and because our car model was haunted with crazy animations!), and fired the whole lot into Unity. It was a great experience being able to walk around a really big virtual truck with a horn and engine sounds, take a tyre off, check indicators and open doors and load cargo. Being me, I was keen to gamify the experience and add achievements – it makes for SO much more effective learning. We didn’t quite get to build that into the demo, but it was in the concept.


We wrangled with the HMD camera, with teleport code, collision detection with the weird SteamVR constraints, and other code issues. We downloaded assets, made a presentation, looked up industry-specific statistics and use-cases, ate sweets and drank tea. Most of all we wrangled with the fact that four people developing on one machine is more than a little ludicrous. Nine hours of constantly being ‘on’ and thinking hard over brand new problems is tough going. The old hackathon wisdom that you will accomplish less than 25% of what you set out to do is definitely true!


We yawned, we disagreed, we covered the white board with stuff, we tested and tested and tested, we fell out, we made up, and finally it was time for judging. Rachael gave a really cohesive presentation of the various concepts and ideas we had drummed up through the day. The judges were thankfully game for trying our (still a little clunky) demo in person, and Glenn made a good demonstration of the parts they didn’t quite manage. An hour later, after a much deserved beer and a rest and a good nosy at other people’s projects, we were delighted to win 3rd prize!

In all, it was a super experience. We have a conceptual project that could in theory be taken forward into a fully-fledged real life application. The development issues and code quirks we are now aware of, the differing experiences between the hardware, the user experience of the camera and teleport, that’s all invaluable knowledge. More than anything, though, we now have the motivation to give VR dev a go – it’s amazing fun.