Why you shouldn't talk yourself out of attending your first hackathon

For some reason, in my head, I’ve always had a really vivid image of what a hackathon might look like: a conference for brilliant individuals (who probably self-taught themselves how to code when they were 11-years-old), madly typing away on their computer and seeing possibilities that I couldn’t see. I’d probably meet the next CEO of Silicon Valley’s newest tech start-up. Or, meet other superhero geniuses in the form of young 20-year-old bodies.

So, when I went to my first hackathon in Los Angeles last weekend with zero coding knowledge, I was nervous. But, I quickly realized that the story I had all up in my head wasn’t entirely the truth. The event at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism wasn’t your traditional hackathon where a certain level of coding knowledge might be necessary. It was more of a pitch-a-thon full of design thinking, business planning, and learning to market your idea. I was assigned to a random team of six students and we were given the following challenge: create the next business/service/app around immersive journalism and virtual reality that would be feasible, engaging, and worthy. So, for the next 28 hours, my team and I brainstormed. And boy, did we learn some lessons.

Start off by thinking of a current problem you want to solve

In our case, we wanted to know why journalism VR content wasn’t being distributed. What were the barriers? Why wasn’t there more content out there when all that’s required to view it is a piece of cardboard and smartphone? Our frustration led to our solution: we decided that there needed to be a platform for VR content to be created and distributed. That’s how VRzine was born – a mobile magazine that would help readers use virtual reality to feel as though they’re watching moments unfold before their eyes. We didn’t want to “break” the news. Instead, we wanted to use technology to make people feel empathetic towards real-life news events. While VR content aggregating apps like VRSCE or Jaunt are in the market, they weren’t producing content on a regular basis. With VRzine, we wanted to create a new publication that was dedicated to the intersection between VR and journalism (or how we like to call it: joVRnalism).

*Update: The NYT announced on Tuesday about a new virtual reality project in collaboration with Google and the distribution of free Google Cardboards to its print subscribers.

The results of our design-thinking exercise for VRzine.

Do not try to be a one-size-fits-all model

Our idea for VRzine got us really excited. We saw so many ways that our app could be used for the 23-year-old law school student by day and environmentalist activist by night. As a result, we made magazine-like sections to cover all areas of young millennial interests. You would log into the app, choose which section you want to read about, then click on any interesting headline. Next, insert your smartphone into your Google Cardboard and experience the story.

The biggest problem with VRzine was that we were spreading ourselves too thin. You can’t please everyone and that shouldn’t be your goal. The best start-ups “nicheify” their audience, meaning they focus on a smaller, more specific group of people and their interests. For example, the winning team created an app similar to ours that focused on environmental issues. In their pitch, they described how the reader would put themselves in the shoes of a plastic bottle that was thrown in the ocean and how long it would take to biodegrade. With specific examples, you’re bound to convince your judges and users to buy your product.

Don’t get caught up with the shiny object

For a good half hour or so of brainstorming, we were so caught up with the power behind virtual reality that we had completely forgotten about the journalistic aspect of the challenge. In fact, our first idea was to create a virtual reality real estate market so that buyers didn’t have physically go visit house to house, but still get a more detailed view than photos generally provide. We were so infatuated with the shiny and new technology that we had almost abandoned journalism entirely. This is dangerous. VR is there to help you tell stories, not to be the story.

Be open minded

Your teammates will play devil’s advocate sometimes while you’re brainstorming and it’s best if you don’t take their comments too seriously. They’re just looking out for you. You’ll be surprised when you step out of your perspective and see that they might have a point.

While we were doing user market research, so many of the people we talked to were trying virtual reality for the first time. Their reactions were priceless.

Have fun

Some people leave hackathons (or pitch weekends) feeling empty and disappointed because they didn’t win. It’s understandable. You spend hours non-stop perfecting your pitch, pitch deck, prototype, and business plan but you still can’t swallow the sweet taste of victory. Although a shiny medal and bragging rights may seem ideal, humble lessons aren’t so bad either. They’ll prepare you mentally for your next hackathon – and maybe next time you’ll win.

About the author

Eunice Lee

Student Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • How to translate live-spoken human words into computer “truth”

    Our Knight Lab team spent three months in Winter 2018 exploring how to combine various technologies to capture, interpret, and fact check live broadcasts from television news stations, using Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant device as a low-friction way to initiate the process. The ultimate goal was to build an Alexa skill that could be its own form of live, automated fact-checking: cross-referencing a statement from a politician or otherwise newsworthy figure against previously fact-checked statements......

    Continue Reading

  • Northwestern is hiring a CS + Journalism professor

    Work with us at the intersection of media, technology and design.

    Are you interested in working with journalism and computer science students to build innovative media tools, products and apps? Would you like to teach the next generation of media innovators? Do you have a track record building technologies for journalists, publishers, storytellers or media consumers? Northwestern University is recruiting for an assistant or associate professor for computer science AND journalism, who will share an appointment in the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School...

    Continue Reading

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More