Hackathon[4]: Olson teams turn technology on its head

This year's tech attacks embarrassing doctor visits, voice technology, cravings and more.

Thinking is hard. So are erections. Talking about not having them is even harder. Technology is here to help. No, it’s not what you’re thinking… then again, it hopefully is exactly what you’re thinking, because we challenged every team for our latest Hackathon to “Think Like People." Like Erectile Dysfunction (ED), some personal topics are difficult to discuss face-to-face. If you find it tough to mouth the words, you can now engage in textual intercourse on Skype with Hackathon[4] winning project UnmentionablesMD. It's a chatbot! There’s no fear of judgement or awkward eavesdroppers, just back and forth text bubbles leading to treatment on your terms. UnmentionablesMD uses natural language processing and artificial intelligence (AI) to carry on real conversations. It’s technology that thinks like people, just as we challenge ourselves to do every day at Olson. If only it were that simple though. 


TL;DR: Watch all the presentations on YouTube

“Think Like People” is a paradox. A lot of lip service is paid to how simple everything should be with lippy acronyms like K.I.S.S. A copy of Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think was pre-emptively assigned as my parole officer by the stupid police when I started my career. But you know what? People are not simple one-dimensional beings, they are f*cking complicated. They are dynamic, funny, serious, unpredictable, opinionated, loving, purpose driven and lazy too. Ok, to call people lazy is judgmental. Instead let’s say they do what comes naturally. At face value “Think Like People” is a simple sounding distillation for complicated problem solving. In a broader sense, it’s Olson’s middle-out strategy to design experiences that fit naturally into people's complicated everyday adventures. Technology isn’t always a great fit. Forcing it on people can certainly feel unnatural. So to meet the Hackathon[4] challenge our teams had to go au naturel. 

Since people tend to do what comes naturally, our goal in building digital experiences is always to limit the need for translations from the thought of a desired outcome through the actions taken to reach it. The advancement of digital technology and the progression of our Hackathons pursue such frictionless experiences. Mobile, sensors, physical computing, Virtual Reality (VR) and AI are just components of this larger trend toward invisibility. 

Think about how many screens there are in the “convenience” of mobile check-ins. There’s at least 5: Unlock screen, Home Screen, App Startup Screen, App Home Screen, App Check-in Screen. To tell someone your intent to check-in involves fat-fingering a bunch of screens and dismissing the noise of unwanted alerts to accomplish something you would have just voiced were they standing next to you. Hackathon[4] project The Barber gets there in a one blurt process. Say “Hey Siri, tell The Barber I’m on my way.” Done. This scenario performs one translation behind the scenes though. It translates those spoken words to SMS text. There’s no app to download which is important because these days people aren’t all that into their apps. They’re more into talking to each other. With voice, The Barber achieves invisibility. From thought, out the mouth and finally to an SMS bot, it takes place in the mobile citizen’s natural world (for now). Paradoxically speaking, we can achieve this type of invisibility in VR too. 

VR is an escape, acheiving invisibility by replacing your surroundings and moving with you. Whether it’s to cope with actual reality, or to satisfy a desire for more than what your skin sack is physically limited to, VR has virtue beyond the hype it’s managed to build up. VR can put your mind at ease while simultaneously overstimulating it. We had two Hackathon projects that got inside people’s heads by putting their heads inside VR. Crave Killer went at it for all the right reasons. When every external stimuli  feeds the urge to smoke, this Oculus-Rift-come-hyperbaric-chamber wraps around the senses to take back control. A caring voice-over guide combined with serene 360˚ video landscapes and calming music,  re-centers ex-smokers through immersive relaxation. But while they were at it, our Richmond, VA based team Taste-The-VR gave the people what they wanted, a Google Cardboard candy rain shower. Thinking like people, people like candy.  If it fell from the sky they would eat it. All it takes is advanced 3d graphics support, a physics library, a visual effects artist, and a $5 piece of cardboard with $2 lenses. Taste-the-VR is simply complicated just like the people who enjoy it. 

The next wave is bringing computing closer to your standard operating procedure. As demonstrated at Hackathon[4], technology is taking steps to break past the standard Graphical User Interface (GUI). You do not think in button clicks and square boxes anyway. When tech that think’s like people you can just talk to it, text with it, or go right inside of it. UnmentionablesMD crawls through layers of neural networks to ensure that it understands boner = stiffy = erection. The Barber talks to NodeJS, Twilio, SMS and Siri in order to complete a one step process. I stand by my first sentence. Thinking is hard. At Olson we’re hard workers who think like people, so we’re up for it.