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Virtual reality in the classroom? Hackathon explores ways to apply it to education

Niko Cano, 13, of Overland Park, wore an augmented reality headset during Saturday’s Hackathon hosted by KCVR at the Google Fiber Space at 1814 Westport Road, for developers to create programs to assist educators.
Niko Cano, 13, of Overland Park, wore an augmented reality headset during Saturday’s Hackathon hosted by KCVR at the Google Fiber Space at 1814 Westport Road, for developers to create programs to assist educators. deulitt@kcstar.com

Rohit Chaube and his team set out this weekend to find ways to make education fun. The team set up shop in the Google Fiber event space and went to work at Kansas City’s first virtual reality hackathon.

Hosted by KCVR, a group for people interested in virtual reality, the event was a way to make the technology accessible for developers. The goal of a hackathon is for teams of developers to start and finish a computer program over the course of a weekend.

Steve Biegun, one of three event organizers, said they wanted the hackathon to focus on practical applications, so the projects were supposed to assist educators. Teams for the hackathon formed Friday night, and they immediately began working on programs.

“It’s all about supporting you and getting you farther than where you are now,” Drew London, another organizer, told the group.

Janice Wait, who is from the Mozilla Foundation and an organizer of the event, said: “Virtual reality creates the opportunity to put the world in our kids’ hands.”

The hackathon concluded Sunday with a presentation of the projects.

“I’m totally blown away by the projects I saw,” London said.

Another team worked with augmented reality, the technology behind the widely popular Pokemon Go app. Jonathan Wagner, founder of software company Big Bang, used the Microsoft HoloLens to tap into the information and data contained in machines. For example, if you were wearing Microsoft’s HoloLens and the downtown streetcar rolled by, you could see the number of people inside. Wagner received the award for best use of technology.

Chaube’s team presented LIFE, or Learning Is Fun Everywhere, a program that used virtual reality to help students apply concepts like algebra and geometry. Chaube received the award for most engaging project.

“You always get students saying, ‘Well, what the heck does this have to do with my life?’ ” said Deborah Jones, an Avila Unversity admissions representative who worked with the people behind LIFE. “Especially in math, I think virtual reality can really bring them those practical applications every day.”

Niko Cano, 13, joined the LIFE team. She attended the hackathon because she was interested in coding. She was the youngest person there by far. On Sunday, she demonstrated how to use the program.

To an outsider, it looked as if Niko were grasping at air and moving around aimlessly. But in the virtual world, she was shopping in a convenience store. The app will help students apply math concepts in the real world.

“That’s a disruption in education,” Jones said excitedly when she got her first glimpse at the store.

Jones thinks technology should supplement the education, not substitute it.

“I can’t take my class to the moon or the convenience store,” she said.

Biegun said the hackathon exceeded his expectations, and it will likely be an annual event.

Biegun said virtual reality has increased in popularity as hardware issues have been resolved and the devices have become cheaper.

“It’s not a complete fantasy,” Wagner said. “You can wear it, and you can see it.”

Virtual reality is the next great platform, London said.

“There’s not the barrier of entry people think there is,” London said. “There’s no reason Kansas City can’t be an innovator in this space.”

KCVR hosts monthly meetups, and you can connect with them on Facebook.

Katherine Knott: 816-234-4097, @knott_katherine

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