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When I was told there was a Virtual Reality Hackathon happening in Montreal on April 30th, I jumped on the occasion to meet the people behind this event. I discovered two women with a passion for technologies and the heart to help people. Gisele Ishema-Karekezi and Hannah Cohen are both part of the non profit organization Wearhacks, launched in 2014. Osmos Academy is an initiative by the people behind WearHacks and leaded by Gisele and Hannah.  They’re goal is to create a more sustainable and permanent environment to achieve their mission of technology education.

“The main goal [of Osmos Academy] is technology education using a framework of project based learning with social impacts.” told Hannah. To achieve this, they launch campaigns that spreads over a few months or years. Each campaigns regroup many initiatives to reach it’s specific goal, while maintaining the main goal of emerging technology education. The workshops they hosts are a great example, providing new tools and teaching new skills to attendees that they can later bring to their industry and everyday work. “We are really trying to bridge this gap between the tech industry […] and the education institutions, or the companies in general, since they aren’t able to keep up with pace at which things are changing.” added Gisele.

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Their current campaign is called VR Passport. It launched in February 2016 and has the goal to make Virtual Reality accessible to sick Children residing in Hospitals both by providing the equipment and by developing experiences that reflects their reality. The initiative started by a visit to the ”Centre de Réadaptation Marie-Enfant”, a CHU Ste-Justine readaptation center dedicated for children and teens of all ages dealing with motor deficiencies and language impairments. The teams introduced children from the age of 2 to 16 to Virtual Reality. The reactions to this visit reinforced their commitment to the cause : “They were smiling, they were laughing, they were screaming with joy. It was absolutely incredible.” explained Hannah. After their visit, they hosted two workshops to get the teams started on Unity and VR developments before entering the design sprint. One of the big challenge they have to tackle is the adaptation of the experiences to the different limitations the children have. On their second visit, they brought many different games for the children to try and gave them little passports to receive their feedback. This VR Passport was a great tool that helped understanding what type of content is appealing to what group of age. There is also issues with specific diagnostics where they have to include therapeutic tools to make sure the experience goes well. Gisele explained about three types of diagnostics where people loose the concept of time. Some kids woke up the next morning and expected the games to still be there. Talking with the Hospital personnel, they understood the importance of adding clocks and timers to help them keep track of time as they do when doing activities with those children. “It kind of solidify the therapeutic aspect that we are going to be looking into moving forward, because it something we really believe in.” she added.

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Hannah went a little further, talking about the instant therapeutic effects Virtual Reality had on three different experiences that stood out for her. The first one was with a girl who could not go to Paris with her family because of her treatment. So they offered her to Virtually visit Paris. As she removed the headset, she turned to her mother saying “I just went to Paris!”. They were also able to bring the beauty of the Cirque du Soleil experience to a child that was completely paralyzed. The last experience had a kid, who could barely say his name, go : “Encore! Encore!”. In every case, the feedback was positive. Virtual Reality helped reduced some symptoms of the conditions they fight everyday.

VRPassport
Recently, they hosted a workshop on Project Tango before the Hackathon. Project Tango is an important steps in building Virtual Reality experience according to Gisele and Hannah. When I asked them what the technology potential they immediately explained how Project Tango could speed up the development process and personalize experiences as well. “They can make their space into an environment that they can share with others. I see Virtual Reality as an empathy machine. It shares perspective.” explained Gisele. The device uses a set of different camera to track the user movement with pinpoint precision. It is also able to create a 3D model of anything you scan with it and can be easily imported to Unity in seconds. It can help create simple objects, but it also make it possible to recreate a complex environment, making it more realist. After it’s in Unity, developers can add whatever they want to make the experience magical such as special effects or game mechanics.

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The next step is the actual VR Hackathon. First, it is important to understand this is not the standard competitive type of Hackathon. They decided to make a cooperative type of Hackathon so the teams are not working toward a prize, but really cooperating into bringing the best experiences they can. This way they were able to filter out teams to only those who really want to make a difference into the community. They decided to maintain the number of participant to around 50 to create a more intimate and cooperative environment, compared to the bigger WearHacks Hackathon t that can reach up to 300 people. In both cases, the Hackathons differenciate themselves by their cooperative nature, respecting their goals to prioritize education and creation during those moments.  In my opinion, it’s a noble approach as most Hackathons out there are using a competitive approache.  Those last events are also spread only on a day or a weekend, but in this case “It’s an ongoing process and part of the VR Hackathon is showing the challenges that we’ve encounter, opening peoples minds to difficulties that are out there, beyond the stereotypical user.” said Hannah. This cooperative approach lets them have a lot more resources for everyone like Project Tango devices (courtesy of Google), but also the Nokia OZO camera, courtesy of Silex Creations. Since the equipment is not accessible to most people with it’s price tag, it will surely bring new ideas to the teams during the event. Other partners includes WearhacksStarlight Children’s Foundation and CHU Ste-Justine.  Osmos Academy’s focus is to help people learn about those new technologies, so they wish to invite anyone with a project that have a positive impact in the community to come use the resources that are provided, you MUST register for the Hackathon first from their website. If you are just the curious type and want to see the projects developed during the day, they suggest that you come around 8:00PM when the projects will be presented to the judges.
You might be wondering how you could help them by now. Well first of all, their VR initiative is all Open Source and is available on GitHub (repo HERE) so anyone can contribute or use the developed apps and bring it to their community hospital and elderly homes. Donations are also a good way to help, either monetary donations that can be done on their website (bottom) and by EventBrite or hardware donations by sending them to their address. For the upcoming VR Hackathon, they are also looking for volunteers and a few more Mentors, you can register here. If you have a company, organization and foundations having technological challenges, you can also reach up to them. In fact, if you have any initiative to bring project based learning to the community, like making workshops for underprivileged school, they are looking for people who want to make things happen. They are continually looking for partners that could bring new challenges that can be turned into campaigns. Their upcoming campaign, The Green Data campaign, will tackle a whole new challengein biodiversity. Learn more on teir website : http://osmosacademy.com/data-science

Contact Osmos Academy :
Osmos Academy
3 Place Ville Marie, Montreal,
QC, Canada, H3B 2E3
+1-514-817-9099

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