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The winning team, Beach Boys, develop a virtual reality application at WeAreCode VR Hackathon this weekend.

Tech event exposes Oakland youth to virtual reality

on September 7, 2016

High school students filled the rooms at the East Oakland Youth Development Center over Labor Day weekend to learn about virtual reality technology.

Among the 45 attendees was fourteen-year old Oakland-native Gabriel Sanchez, who participated on a team that was working to incorporate virtual reality (VR) technology in simulating the Oval Office. He said he signed up for another hackathon last year and enjoyed it so much that he decided to be a part of this one.

The two-day event called WeAreCode VR Hackathon was the first hackathon focusing on VR in Oakland. It was aimed at nurturing an interest in the technology among minorities.

The hackathon comes amid rapid growth in Oakland’s technology industry. As big name companies such as car hiring service Uber moves into the city, local residents have been concerned that they would be marginalized and driven out because they wouldn’t qualify for jobs in the industry.

The organizers – a partnership of educational organizations including non-profit tutoring program the Bay Area Tutoring Association and Oakland-based tech training center the David E. Glover Education & Technology Center – said they wanted to make sure that the local community didn’t get left behind.

“The tech sector in Oakland is just starting to boom, to the point where folks are eventually going to get priced out of their neighborhoods,” said lead organizer Chris Norwood, founder of Bay Area Tutoring Association.

He said they decided to focus the hackathon on virtual reality because of the billions of dollars being invested in the sector and its projected growth. Virtual reality is a simulated 360 degree experience that often involves computer generated, interactive elements. The sector has received a lot of attention since Facebook acquired Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset company, for $2 billion dollars in March 2014.

VR developers are highly sought after, and the organizers said they wanted to urge students to get a head start in the market.

At the event, participants began with a crash course on what the process might look like to develop a VR application from pitching and design to storyboarding and video-editing.

Student tried out prototypes of headsets by Oculus Rift and Taiwanese electronics maker HTC. They also learned how to use 360 degree cameras. Many of them tried Tilt Brush, a popular 3D painting app that puts you inside a 360 degree virtual canvas.

Then they spent the rest of the weekend developing a VR app of their own to enter into a final competition.

In one corner of the room, Ivory Senegal, 14, another Oakland native, huddled with her teammates as they worked on a virtual presentation on gun violence that highlighted recent shootings.

Calling their project “Art n’ Soul,” they designed it so the viewer first hears music. When they turn around, they see people dancing in between photos of shooting victims like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. Two of the five – Davon Ellis and Reggina Jefferies – died on the streets of Oakland.

“Instead of keeping our pains inside,” said Senegal, “It gives us a chance to expand on it and let people know how we feel.”

Sanchez’s team, which nicknamed themselves the Beach Boys, won the competition with its Oval Office app. Led by Adam Brown, a 14-year-old from Berkeley who has been programming for over two years, the team wanted to show the power of the ballot box ahead of the November elections in an entertaining way. The app they developed had the viewer walk inside the office, and find the nuclear reactor button to destroy the White House. They wanted to forecast what might happen if the wrong candidate got elected in the White House.

William Hammons, director of the David E. Glover Technology and Education Center, said that he was excited by the students’ inventiveness.

“It’s really about creating your own environment and learning and developing yourself,” said Hammons.


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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