The 2018 Hacker Games

In January  Moonpig were invited to enter the annual Hacker Games in London’s trendy Shoreditch.  The Games is an annual event organised by Knowit Recruitment in support of charity.  Twelve teams from different companies battle it out for 48 hours to develop a winning product.  Competition this year was fierce, with top tech talent from companies such as Just Eat, Just Giving and last year’s winner, ASOS.

Team size is limited to five, with teams free to choose how they use their allocation.  We settled on 4 developers and UX designer.

This year’s event was held in support of Help for Heroes – a charity that helps veterans adjust to civilian life. Their work ranges from funding rehabilitation facilities to helping ex-service men and women find houses and jobs.  The brief  was to create a digital product that would make a difference to the lives of serving and reservist personnel and veterans who have suffered injuries or illness as a result of their service in the armed forces.

With huge range of hacks to explore, we kick-started the Moonpig ideation machine.

We explored all the possibilities and came up with various ideas including:

  • A chat platform to connect veterans with other veterans that have already adapted to civilian life
  • An activity app for veterans who have lost limbs
  • An app on the basics of civilian life

The brief encouraged novel use of new tech, and we wanted to make sure we were considering some of the hyped new tech like chat bots and Machine Learning.

While coming up with ideas, we explored potential therapy for PTSD and discovered Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This treatment is designed to help with the distress associated with traumatic memories, and has been proven to help patients suffering from single traumatic events. In layman’s terms (because we’re definitely not medical experts!), the clinician will ask the patient to follow the clinician’s finger with their eyes. The clinician then waves their finger from side to side while getting the patient to recount a painful memory. This process is believed to be connected to the mechanism of REM sleep, which will help process the memories.

With this in mind, we saw an opportunity to jump on another much-hyped tech: virtual reality. We believed we could replicate this rare and expensive treatment using a cheap VR headset. We aimed to place the user in a relaxing environment whilst they followed an object in a 3d space. We wanted to simulate the therapy accurately, so we also wanted to record instructions that the user would hear whilst in the experience.

To get a working product in two days, we split the work into two streams. The first was to build an Android app that would give an overview of the experience available and other useful information. The second was to build the 3D experience in Unity.

To build the Unity portion, we chose a Google VR template for Unity . We then set about creating the scene – a beach seemed appropriately soothing. Using the terrain editor, we therapeutically shaped our world, adding hills, the sea and some palm trees for effect.

We wanted to give the ocean a sense of realism, to help with the all-important immersion aspect of VR. We did this by using a realistic water model and a backing track of beach sound effects. The backing track also helped create a calming experience.

The main aspect of EMDR is having something to follow with your eyes. We did plan to model a hand, but due time constraints, we decided to go for a purple floating ball. This would move from one side of the view to the other, allowing the user to follow it with their eyes.

To enhance the product, we wanted to instruct the user how to engage in the therapy. Fortunately, the event location happened to come with a podcast studio built in. We all auditioned to play the part of clinician, but James Spencer (now known as “Headspence”) proved to have the most soothing tones!

Testing the audio recording facilities!

Developing the Android app mostly involved using the inbuilt templates of the Android SDK and skinning them to the spec of our UX designs. The on-boarding screens flowed from the home screen, and selecting the first exercise available loaded the VR experience.

The main challenge with the Android app, was getting it to load the VR experience from Unity as a VR app. To bridge the two pieces together we exported the Unity project as an Android project. We then exported that project as an Android library and imported it into the original mobile app project. However, this resulted in the Unity application loading as a standard, non-VR application.

In the end we solved this by moving across the work we had done in the Android app to the project Unity created for the VR experience. This was a relatively straight forward process of moving items, building and fixing anything that broke. In the end, the app worked as expected.

With our hack complete it was time to see what the judges thought.  Each team had just three minutes to present their product.  There was stiff competition with some great products presented, including:

  • A service to help veterans find jobs by identifying transferable skills
  • A computer vision app that helped with physio exercises

As well as some tech heavy weights, the judging panel included ex-serviceman Jay Allen, so all the hacks came under close scrutiny.    After half an hour of judges deliberation, it was finally time to announce the winner…and it was Moonpig!

Overall it was a fantastic experience, with a total of £11,000 raised for Help for Heroes.

It was great to be involved, and we’re already looking forward to defending our title next year!

Want to be part of our winning team next year?

Moonpig is here to make someone’s day brilliant!  Our goal is to make 20 million amazing moments by 2020, and we’re looking for creative, collaborative people to help us build an awesome platform to make that happen.  If you’d like to join our team, check out our job board.

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