2022 was a challenging year for the metaverse and the technologies adjacent to it. Searches for “metaverse” are down 91% from their peak in 2021,1 while metaverse related companies are losing billions of dollars.2 To some it may seem the hype train no longer has any steam.
However, if you were near Cambridge, Massachusetts from January 12th to 16th — you wouldn’t believe that there was any fear surrounding the future of extended reality. Rather, you’d see students, technologists, and hobbyists gathered to take part in the MIT Reality Hack. The annual competition, created in 2016, is now one of the foremost demonstrations of talent in the budding extended reality industry — with over 858 applicants from around the world.
So, what is it about this competition that attracted so many from around the world to apply, and why would Fidelity’s Center for Applied Technology (FCAT) want to sponsor it?
What is MIT Reality Hack?
MIT’s XR Hackathon is one of the prestigious competitions in immersive tech. A majority of applicants come from the United States, China, and India. The background of the attendees reflected the demographic change that’s occurred in the broader XR space. The hackathon had an almost even split of male and female participants, and no racial group made up more than 30% of the attendees at the conference. Moreover, there was an even split between developers and designers. In fact, Parsons School of Design — which doesn’t have an engineering program — had more attendees than any other university.
Dr. Lukasz Porwol, the competition’s Head of Sponsorship, told FCAT about the importance that diversity plays for the hackathon, telling Fidelity: “We take pride that we have people of all races, all cultures, all genders. It’s a very nice, accepting, and equal place where everybody is welcome. And I think that what makes this experience unique, people are not in there for winning. People are in there for the actual experience.”
The conference takes place over five days. During the course of the competition, attendees are tasked with meeting fellow participants, creating teams, ideating an XR-based product, and pitching it to judges. Each day is long and intense. To put it into perspective, the organization warns contestants that they can’t stay hacking past 11pm — since that is when MIT locks up their buildings for the evening.3
MIT’s XR Hack has several tracks that participants can compete in. Some tracks include: “Living Sustainably” and “Promoting Peace for All.” Competitors create projects that fall under the listed tracks and eventually pitch their final project to a panel of judges. David Martin, the Director of Software Engineering at FCAT, served as a judge in the past.
While the competition is only eight years old, long-term attendees of the XR conference highlight the tournament’s high level of professionalism. Dulce Baerga — who’s participated in this hackathon since 2016 — tells FCAT, “What was very beautiful about this year is that now that it's [the hackathon] matured, there are more precise kinds of thoughts around what we should be doing in VR and AR.”
To understand the kinds of projects attendees created, FCAT spoke with participant Rina Kim. Kim’s project, “Portal Reef,” aimed to teach tourists visiting the tropics environmental etiquette around coral reefs, a now endangered organism4. “We used the HoloLens 2 from Microsoft to build an experience where you see the coral reefs around you with the headset on, and if you touch them, they get destroyed,” Kim explained.
Despite fierce competition, every attendee who spoke with FCAT expressed that the hackathon is not mainly about trying to win money — but rather to find likeminded people in this bourgeoning community, network with potential lifelong friends and future colleagues, and most importantly have fun building and experimenting with the technologies of tomorrow.
Just over the bridge
While FCAT is no stranger to sponsoring hackathons, its involvement in the MIT XR hackathon differs from other sponsors of this event. Most of the other sponsors come to test out their hardware or software products. Fidelity’s presence at the event is more so tied to fostering the next generation of talent — and building connections with the community.
“The reason why we participate and invest in the MIT Reality Hack is to observe how people are leveraging the technologies that we are exploring.” said Jamie Barras, the Vice President of IT Product Management at FCAT.
She continued: “You've got key influencers from the industry and people that are very interested and invested from a personal perspective. They come with a ton of inspiration and ideas. The amount of energy that's there is something that we can draw on and we always enjoy the reactions we get from people when they learn that Fidelity explores emerging technologies.
Barras’ colleague Martin echoed her sentiment: “You get used to this saying: ‘Well, there’s Fidelity Investments and then there's FCAT, which is the R&D facility. Within FCAT, there's an emerging technology incubator, and that's where we are.’” Martin says.
Martin continued: “I always tell them we're right over the bridge, we're not too far away right across the river. It's in Boston. Our headquarters is right there, and it's a technology center.”
Sponsoring this event is more than just purely brand building. Despite some current negative press around the metaverse,5 FCAT believes that in the future XR will play a pivotal role in people’s day to day lives. Barras explained that FCAT has identified four specific key use cases for XR technology:
- Training Fidelity employees
- Educating Fidelity clients
- Collaborating in 3D spaces
- Visualizing data differently
Baerga and Kim weighed in as participants on how the role FCAT’s parent company, Fidelity, plays in the future of XR.
“[There’s] this theory called The Golden Circle, and how it goes is there are three pillars of circle: what, how, and why — and why is the core. I feel like what Fidelity can provide for people is ‘why’,” Kim told FCAT.
She explains that traditional tech companies focus on the new technologies —and how to build them. However, they don’t focus on the underlying reasons to use technology. Kim says that Fidelity could be the kind of company that provides meaningful use cases for these technologies.
Baerga explained a potential “why” Fidelity may have in this space. Baerga — whose hackathon project, Stone Soup, focuses on providing financial literacy to the unhoused — believes that Fidelity could be the organization that uses XR technology to provide financial literacy to underserved communities.
“Money is at the root of all of this, so you really have to understand how to utilize money. And that's been a big problem with people that are disenfranchised or do not have agency over how they're traversing into these different new technological worlds and giving them the ability to understand that they can use their money to better themselves and utilize these tool sets to better themselves, I think is very important,” she said.
Baerga continued: “Fidelity has a great opportunity to really help society through these means.”
While innovations in XR are emerging at a rapid pace, the industry still has challenges to overcome, accessibility, logistics and aesthetic appeal to name a few. Regardless, FCAT is excited to help drive this space forward and seek ways for this technology to be used to enhance associate and client experiences.
2 Rapoza, K. (n.d.). The Metaverse Is Failing, But This Is One Investment That Will Not Die. Forbes.
3 2023 Schedule - January 14. MIT Reality Hack
4 Corals (2019) NOAA Fisheries
5 Knibbs, K. (n.d.). The Metaverse Doesn’t Have a Leg to Stand On. Wired.