On Saturday, Nov 6th, the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Lab at Alfaisal University’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Center hosted a virtual reality (VR) MakeAthon. The goal of the VR MakeAthon was to bring together minds, beyond the VR industry, to discuss how we can thoughtfully approach the design of virtual reality headsets for children. Teams and individuals were challenged to imagine and fabricate novel solutions to current ergonomic design limitations in VR headsets for user populations below the age of 12 years. The MakeAthon was organized by a multidisciplinary team of engineers and clinicians, and supported by Alfaisal University’s Dimensions Accelerator program and the College of Engineering.

The event was the first MakeAthon ever held at Alfaisal University. MakeAthons are time-bound, accelerated innovation events that introduce the hacking mindset to educators and learners – a mindset critical to implementing “agile learning” and advancing ideas towards “crystallized concepts” for innovative technology solutions in the pipeline of product development. The fast-paced structure of the MakeAthon produced an atmosphere of creativity and collaboration as makers worked in teams to create their prototype and advance their product development. The opportunity to move beyond the design stage and into implementation gave the participants confidence in new areas of engineering and design, allowing them to expand their comfort zone.

The organizing team was led by Eng. Aram Monawar, an Electrical Engineering Instructor and member of the “Mixed Reality Applications for Dyslexia” research team at the AI Center, a project supported by Alfaisal’s Office of Research and Innovation (ORI). Team members included Co-PIs, Eng. Ahmed Hamidalddin, an Electrical Engineering instructor and Rogaiyah Hamidaddin, Speech and Language Pathologist as well as the PI, Dr. Areej Al-Wabil. The event was inspired by the experience of the team in Ithra’s Creative Solutions Program (CSP) during Summer 2021 in which they were amongst 30 creative teams selected (out of 2113 applicants) in an intensive VR product development training program. In CSP’s 2021 edition, Ithra’s Creative Solutions program embraced the theme Digital Immersive Content Creation. The aim was to ignite the development of an ecosystem in Saudi Arabia of creatives and innovators that uses digital technologies, such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Realities (MR), Extended Realities (XR), Immersive Audio, and Haptics to create innovative content, experiences, and solutions.

The accelerated innovation event aimed to gather VR expertise and advice on building VR head-mounted displays for children to address the limitation of commercial VR headsets in the consumer market which are often designed for target audiences with demographics of 12+ years of age. It has been established that the earlier a child with dyslexia is diagnosed, the more effective educational interventions are likely to be. Therefore, the team sought to design and develop tools that are age-appropriate for this applied context. Eng. Aram Monawar reflected on the MakeAthon’s framework by stating, “The VR MakeAthon proved to be a rich environment where learning and discussion could be had across all disciplines. Alfaisal’s Software, Electrical, and Industrial Engineering faculty came together with Speech and Language Pathologists, Industrial Product Designers, Biomedical Engineers, and High School Students to brainstorm, research, and implement design considerations and ideas.”

The VR MakeAthon facilitated advancing design concepts that build on open-source and modifiable VR headsets, hardware, and software to create these coveted VR headsets for younger audiences. Discussions at the VR MakeAthon revealed different strategies that VR creators can apply to the design process for VR headsets. This was evident in the artifacts and discussions, as noted by Eng. Aram “My favorite outcome? I saw the way the younger MakeAthoners’ faces light up at learning Ergonomics, Human Factors, and Optics. I saw the inspiration they needed to come up with really creative solutions and reflect that in their prototypes! It goes to show that life-long sparks come with events aimed at real-world problems that are steered by the research questions and encourage hands-on making!.”

The 6-hour event started off with the introduction of the research center, event format and the teams. Following that, the organizers delved deeply into topics of VR design constraints, ergonomics, user experience (UX) design, and how to enact change in the VR technology landscape. These were not surface-level conversations but instead aimed to provide practical knowledge on how to innovate. In the second part of the MakeAthon, participants were partitioned into two teams to work on brainstorming prompts provided to them. This led to insightful discussions in ergonomics and human factors and trials of the VR headsets (Oculus, MagicLeap, HTC Vive, HP reverb) available in the HCI lab. The outcomes of this and the ideation sessions were captured on flipcharts and post-its. After the break, the Design and Fabrication session put many of the design considerations brainstormed beforehand into practice. The two prototypes each featured ideas to improve comfort and notes to improve optical presentation of the VR content. The creative works shed light on how innovation is part technology, part entrepreneurship, but it’s also part social change and really understanding the users’ requirements in human-centric design.

The event was attended by students and faculty in the College of Engineering as well as Industrial Product Designers, Biomedical engineers and VR enthusiasts, on campus and remotely via zoom. The Industrial Engineering Department’s Dr. Atef Ghaleb mentored the teams on ergonomics and human factors and provided an excellent panel alongside Eng. Ahmed Hamidalddin’s electrical engineering expertise. A testimonial from Rogaiyah Hamidaddin, Speech-Language Therapist highlights the diverse perspectives in tackling the design challenges, “It was great to see the VR community- experts and enthusiasts- come together to work on understanding and challenging the limitations in the VR realm for children today. I was also amazed at the potential and creativity of the high school students who joined us in the MakeAthon” which was echoed by pre-collegiate student, Hadeel Monawar, in her testimonial of an “Insightful and constructive” student experience.

The event concluded with an open discussion with the audience and thanking the speakers and sponsors. The MakeAthon is the first event in a series of accelerated innovation events in which the HCI Lab’s team aspires to pursue more design challenges for the emerging technologies currently being developed in the lab.