UC San Diego computer science sophomores Connor Smith, Kristin Agcaoili and Anish Kannan were on hand April 22-24 when UC Santa Barbara hosted the second annual Santa Barbara Hackathon. The campus group SB Hacks hosted the 36-hour marathon coding competition, which was open to college students from around California, including community college students.
CSE was represented by (pictured l-r) Smith, Agcaoili and Kannan, all members of the Virtual Reality Club at UC San Diego. The team created Chemistry Lab VR, an educational virtual-reality experience that teaches students lab procedure and safety. It could be used in chemistry classrooms to simulate real-life lab procedures to reduce the risks of working with potentially harmful chemicals. This was not the first time that the VR Club team developed a program to improve scientific instruction: at the HackingEDU hackathon in October 2015, Smith, Agcaoili and Kannan successfully coded a Cell VR program to teach cell biology and interact with a virtual human cell. They finished in third place at HackingEDU. The same team of three students also competed in November 2015 at HackSC in Los Angeles, where their application Diver -- to spread awareness about ocean pollution -- was awarded the Best VR/Game Hack of the USC-organized hackathon.
As Smith told the UC Santa Barbara campus newspaper in an interview, the team traveled from San Diego to make a statement. "There are prizes, but we don't really do it competitively," he said. "We're just trying to do something that has impact beyond this space." The team arrived at UCSB with an HTC Vive system that Smith described as a "new, room-scale virtual reality, where you can actually walk, move and duck, all within the given boundaries." Vive users are outfitted with a headset, headphones and two handheld controllers, and they interact with a programmable interface that allows "free movement between two lighthouse motion trackers that define a 16-square-foot space." (In 2015, Smith was an HTC Brand Ambassador, which paid him to demonstrate the VR system to fellow students.)
Smith told the campus newspaper that he couldn't have asked for more support from hackathon organizers. "It's just a really supportive environment," he noted. "There are mentors, there's free food, great energy and just a lot of people working on something really cool. These events output so many cool projects as well, things that maybe people wouldn't have time to do otherwise.