How this Month’s VR Hackathon is Like BMX Trick Riding

This month’s upcoming VR hackathon (Sept 16-18) has me reflecting on how nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing in VR. That’s the beauty of this particular cultural moment. If you got into VR three months ago, you are an expert. If you can explain the difference between 360 video and room scale, you have something to teach people. If you have taken a Unity tutorial and done a few Vive demos, you’re in the top tier of people who understand VR in the world.

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That guy on the bike is Mat Hoffman. If you are going to the upcoming VR Hackathon, you are just like him, except there is a far lower chance that you’ll get a concussion.

My first immersion into the VR/AR world was the Hololens Hackathon last spring. I showed up at a sound stage in Fremont and felt immediately out of place. For starters, I was twice the age of most of the other attendees. I had no coding skills. I only vaguely knew that I wanted to explore AR as a storytelling medium. All I had was my curiosity and willingness to learn. It turns out that was all I needed.

I became part of a four-person team. And what a stroke of luck that the rest of my team consisted of Eva Hoerth, Majesta Vestal, and Tarik Merzouk. We’re all friends, we all keep apprised of what we’re doing in the world of VR/AR, and we’re all still helping each other out in little ways. That’s the most valuable thing I got from an experience that shoved me way outside my comfort zone. I’m so glad I made that leap.

This month’s hackathon is happening at Magnuson Park, and it promises to be mind-blowing. If there is any part of you that is intrigued, but you’re on the fence because you think everybody else will show up knowing more than you, understand that every other attendee either feels exactly the same way or felt that way very recently. Everybody is there to help each other learn a medium that’s so new that classes on it are just now starting to appear.

The birth of VR/AR in Seattle reminds me of a documentary I first saw a few years ago and which I watched probably six times. It’s about a subject that I had no previous interest in, competitive BMX trick riding, specifically a legendary rider named Mat Hoffman. When Hoffman started doing BMX bike tricks on a half pipe in his back yard, there was no such thing as extreme sports. He had to invent most of the tricks he performed, and in the process he injured himself hundreds of times. He grew so bored of waiting to get stitched up in the ER that he learned how to give himself stitches. And through relentless trial and error and concussions and trips to the hospital, he pioneered a whole new sport.

The local VR/AR community is doing something similar to what Mat Hoffman did, albeit with far less cranial damage. There is no rule book for creating VR apps and experiences. There are only errors and the willingness to share ideas. Try, fail, learn a little more. Launch yourself into the air, fall, get up again, try something new. We’re all teachers and student at the same time. Nobody is getting graded on any of this, so every little thing you learn is a net gain.

I still feel like I don’t know enough about VR, but when I start talking to friends and family who haven’t been as absorbed in the subject as me, I start to realize that I’ve been building up a knowledge base. The immersion that a hackathon provides is an excellent method of amassing lots of skills quickly, or at least better understanding what it is you need to know.

So if you’re looking at your calendar and September 17-19 is open, and you’re simply curious about this virtual reality thing that you’ve been hearing about, and you suspect there’s some way for you to apply your talents, even–especially–if those talents have nothing to do with coding, do consider signing up. You’ll likely learn something and teach something to somebody else.

As for me, I’ll be there, live blogging, and learning as much as I can, too. Can’t wait.