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VR Challenge: Part One

I used to think of a ratty old box storing my old notebooks and random household items when I heard the word “cardboard.” After the VR Challenge Kick-Off on Friday, February 3rd, however, “cardboard” has a cleaner, more attractive meaning for me. Sponsored by Google and hosted by E-Club and Hackers at VT, the kick-off event began a 6-week virtual reality challenge for 94 students composing 24 teams. These teams have the opportunity to use Google Cardboard to make the best possible Virtual Reality app by the end of the challenge, though the ultimate goal of the VR Challenge is to familiarize students with VR development and instill confidence in their personal abilities.

The timeline for the event comprises three main components, beginning with the Kick-Off. Students will develop VR skills by using the tutorials offered by the challenge and by participating in “Jam Sessions” each Friday, wherein teams experience a community of developers by working with one another and bouncing ideas off of their peers, community leaders, and professors. Finally, the event ends with Demo Day culminating in a showcase of the hard work of each team and reveal the most successful VR apps[DE1] . [DE2] On March 17th, four awards will be given to the deserving teams: Best Technical App, sponsored by Google, and Most Creative, Best Market Potential, and Best Overall App, each sponsored by E-Club and Hackers at VT.

As a student who regularly falls behind the times with technological advancements, I appreciated Google’s representative Grace Kim’s presentation of the story behind Cardboard, its uses in society, and brief explanation of how it works. Announced in 2014, Cardboard began as a side project, or a 20% project that Google employees allocate 20% of their time towards to generate innovation. Google Cardboard is a tool through which users view virtual reality worlds on their phones, with a clicker on the cardboard goggles to control the user’s experience. Kim described scenarios in which VR benefits people’s everyday life, such as when Volvo used Cardboard to “test drive” their new car, the XC13 in 2015, and explained that classrooms full of children are enabled to travel on virtual reality fieldtrips to settings and places they would otherwise never have had the opportunity to explore.

After learning the background of Cardboard, the attendees were given time to get together to build teams, begin brainstorming, and receive their Google Cardboard. The room burst into a buzz of chatter immediately, with half of the students jumping up to rush the table handing out Cardboard and the other half quietly looking around for others to join up with. E-Club and Hackers at VT provided a timeline for the night including ideation sessions in one classroom and tutorials in another, but also provided encouragement and assistance as the attendees scribbled on whiteboards and tossed ideas around.

Students at the VR Challenge Kick-Off ranged from freshman to seniors, along with a few high school students getting a firsthand look at the field they are interested in studying in college. After speaking with several different teams and groups of students, I chose two teams to follow throughout the challenge.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I will introduce these students and periodically check in on them at Jam Sessions. By checking in on their progress, creation, and overall goals, we will be able to watch their apps form from an idea into something amazing. Finally, I’ll be able to witness the product of their hard work and creative abilities on Demo Day, along with several other teams. The VR Challenge has only just begun, and the excitement is contagious.

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