Thursday, January 24, 2019

Reality Virtually Hackathon at MIT

I am trying to process my feelings after the five day 2019 Reality Virtually Hackathon at MIT. I went into it knowing one thing about VR-that I loved writing with Tilt Brush, a room-scale 3D painting virtual reality app from google. You put on a head set, you hold a controller in each hand, and you write in the air. The lines can be narrow or thick. They can look like brush or pencil lines or like they have been made with shaving cream or electrical wire. You can make letters that surround you on all sides and over your head. You can scale them up and down and move them around. And best of all, it is a whole body experience. The gestures can be large and engage the body in a way that is hard to do with ink or paint and paper. You don’t have worry about dripping paint or climbing ladders. It is freeing in every way.

I have had two experiences with Tilt Brush. The first was guided by my son at a friend’s house. He thought I would love it and I did. I joined a VR meetup group and attended a meeting where I again got to play. To get started, I was looking for a fundable project to offset some of the setup cost. My idea was for an augmented reality project in which quotes from Jack Kerouac would be projected through an iPhone on buildings in his hometown of Lowell, MA.

VR possibilities were continuing to float around my mind when I saw the MIT opportunity online. The call made a point of saying that it was open to all. They said that they were looking for artists and writers and storytellers as well as developers and designers and that technical experience was not a requirement. They accepted 400 out of 1500 applicants and, to my surprise, I was one of them.

I applied in late December, was accepted in early January, and made my way to Cambridge on January 17. I feel like I have been slightly off kilter since the day I hit the submit button. I was nervous before I went and my fears were justified. I particularly dreaded the “Team Formation” on the first evening. I couldn’t picture how 400 people could “distill” into groups of 2-5 people without it being chaotic. The answer is they couldn’t. There were seven themes and seven signs on the walls of a long, twisty hallway. You congregated near your area of interest. You could either start a team or join a team. If you wanted to start a team, you filled out a large sheet of paper with the title, description, and a list of what kind of people you wanted in your team (developer--often specifying the platform such as unity, UX/IX, designer, sound), and carried it around trying to recruit  members. I was totally lost. No one had artist on their list. With the help of one of the mentors, I wrote up a project based on my Kerouac idea and tried to find team members. The mentor tried to help with that as well as suggest me to other teams. My skill of lettering with TiltBrush was not in high demand. I got a lot of no’s. My lack of skills was compounded by my age. No one wanted their mother on their team. I understand. I would avoid me if I were looking for technical support in a computer store.
I did find a team. We were an interesting mix: Aleli from Honduras, Melisa from Kenya, and Ryan who lived a half an hour away from me in New Hampshire. I was the odd one out in terms of technical experience but I provided the writing and narration for a VR experience to help those who are dealing with the loss of a loved one. I really enjoyed working with my team members but was overwhelmed by the schedule. Two days that started at 7 am and ended at midnight followed by a third day that started again at 7. The “thon” in Hackathon comes from marathon.

Here’s what I have come away with. I love my exact and personal experience with VR but I don’t love VR. Some of the winning projects gave me the creeps. Augmented Reality for safer driving involved seeing information in front of you on the windshield as you drive (I can’t stand to have a scrap of paper on my dashboard let alone things on my windshield) and enabled your driving to be monitored. The goal of a physical therapy VR app was to lessen the time the therapist had to spend with a patient. Another winning app enabled you to send virtual flowers to someone in the hospital. The reasoning-better because they don’t die like real flowers--makes me cringe. So much of my work is about the real world--the sticks and vines that hold within them the deep and interconnected spirit of nature and paper that is made from natural fibers by living human hands.

I’ve abandoned the Kerouac project, at least for now. There is too much to figure out that has nothing to do with what drew me to this media in the first place. I may be writing words that can only be seen with a headset but I am experiencing a more complete physical and mental involvement than I have ever had when lettering before.

Here is my question: do I invest in something that brings me personal joy and excites me creatively but has no end goal? I am inclined to say yes. It took four years for a Spirit Book to be made after I sensed the inner life of the sticks and vines from the garden. I am committed to working without a plan or sketch whether it be a Spirit Book or calligraphy. Why should this be any different? I can’t let the expense change the method of working that I have developed with care and intention over the past 40 years. We shall see.

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