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Hacking Reality

By Stephen P. Kaputsos

Media technology is about sharing parts of our lives and world with one another. However, the confines of two dimensions have always posed a barrier to our senses and experiencing what’s beyond our reach. Extended reality (XR) offers technologies that push beyond these barriers, making space a tool rather than a limitation.

XR technologies exist along a spectrum, progressively blending virtual and physical realities. On one end, virtual reality (VR) immerses users in a completely virtual environment. VR’s ability to transport the user into “another world” is ideal for simulating a variety of scenarios, which may benefit fields from training personnel to treating the ill, visualizing product and architectural designs, hosting virtual events, or administering therapy.

Conversely, augmented reality (AR) introduces virtual content to the physical environment. AR’s ability to transport content into our world leverages many of VR’s strengths while remaining grounded in physicality. Essentially, AR is akin to the CG effects and green screen techniques of the film industry in real time. Visualizing content within a physical context is ideal for communicating information that natural language and traditional visual aids simply cannot convey.

In January 2020, hundreds of enthusiasts and professionals from both academia and industry came together for one of the biggest XR events in the world — MIT Reality Hack. Organized by MIT’s VR/AR group, Reality Hack is a melting pot for both seasoned and aspiring XR professionals from over 49 nations, and comprising an interdisciplinary crowd of engineers, programmers, writers, artists, and more.

MIT VR/AR is a collective of talented XR designers, developers, and researchers from the MIT Media Lab and other departments at the Institute, which is dedicated to fostering a presence for the industry across campus. The immersion and visualization enabled by XR can contribute to a wide range of disciplines, enhance cross-disciplinary innovation, and ease communication of unintuitive abstract concepts.

The five-day Reality Hack event kicked off with a full day of design and development workshops that welcomed artists and developers of all skill levels. Seasoned XR professionals from across the globe contributed their expertise to walk Reality Hack participants through using the latest XR headsets and tools. These same tools were also made available to participants during Reality Hack’s XR Hackathon, which started on the event’s second day.

During the opening ceremony, XR researchers from MIT shared their visions for the rising industry. Stephen P. Kaputsos from the Media Lab’s Personal Robots group opened with a speech highlighting the diversity of Reality Hack participants and outlining how XR can help create cohesion between varied disciplines and multiple points of view. Joe Paradiso, head of the Responsive Environments group, served as a keynote speaker, showcasing his group’s work in XR and looking forward to the coming world of ubiquitous AR. Fluid Interfaces alum Scott W. Greenwald discussed what makes Reality Hack such a valuable and memorable event, and why inclusion is critical for rising technologies such as XR.

Reality Hack also featured a three-day XR Hackathon, where teams of visual and audio artists, designers, and developers were given the opportunity to deploy an arsenal of the latest AR and VR headsets. The diversity of the Reality Hack participants made the event a unique collaborative experience that resulted in a variety of visualization, storytelling, and navigation projects.

On the fifth day of the event, the hackathon teams were invited to share the product of three days of sweat, tears, and creativity at the Reality Hack Public Expo. Visitors explored both virtual environments and a variety of enhanced versions of the physical world through multiple Reality Hack projects, many of which are now under continuing development.


XR technology is becoming increasingly important in a world where the need to know intersects with the need to experience. The ability to take virtual content into the real life space around us benefits everyone regardless of their field. VR is already revolutionizing the entertainment and training industries, and it won’t be too long until other industries follow suit. Advancements in machine vision, the core technology behind AR, are also opening up new possibilities for enhancing the physical world and augmenting human ability.

The VR/AR group plays an integral role in fostering a culture for XR at MIT, and hopes to contribute XR expertise toward enhancing research as well as events. For example, Stephen P. Kaputsos and Elena Kodama, who are both VR/AR group members and Media Lab graduate students , are conducting research utilizing XR technology. Stephen’s research focuses on AR-enhanced human-robot interaction and collaboration, while Elena’s work is centered on AR navigation and developing a virtual tour guide for the Media Lab.

What an exciting time for reality, regardless of which kind!

This post was originally published on the Media Lab website.



The MIT Media Lab is one of the world’s leading research and academic organizations, where designers, engineers, artists, and scientists strive to create technologies and experiences that enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities, and environments.

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