USC team wins third at Hackathon

With only 24 hours at hand, seniors Cherrie Wang and Brandon Cen and alumni Izzy Benavente and Jason Lin did not expect to leave the Facebook Global Hackathon with the respect of major businesses and a tangible product with the capacity to contribute to the future of technology.

Seniors Cherrie Wang and Brandon Cen and alumni Izzy Benavente and Jason Lin worked on an app at the Facebook Global Hackathon that made use of virtual reality simulations. Photo courtesy of Cherrie Wang.

The USC team received the third-place prize at the hackathon last November with their app Cue, a virtual reality simulation that targets gender bias in the workplace.

Alongside Benavente and Lin, Wang and Cen, who are both majoring in computer science, created three scenarios to educate users about bias that exists in the workplace.

The team originally went to the hackathon with the intention of addressing gender inequality in the workplace through their project. However, due to time constraints, they had to water down their focus to the kinds of unconscious biases that lead to gender and racial inequalities in the workplace instead.

“When you Google ‘VR feminism’ or ‘a woman’s perspective from VR,’ you just get a lot of porn, and that’s really disappointing as someone who is a woman and has heard a lot about workplace sexism and bias,” Wang said. “Ideally, we would’ve liked to build a perfect simulation of what it’s like to be a woman who’s harassed in the workplace or told [her] work is not as good because [she] doesn’t look like a man… but we scaled it down to focus on things [that are] conceptually easier for people to digest and easier for us to build.”

According to Wang, the team chose to focus on virtual reality specifically due to flaws in the typical bias training a company requires: a video or PowerPoint that can be easily ignored or forgotten. Instead, the value of mixing virtual reality with the training was that it added an immersive, 3-D platform, and it hadn’t been done before. Additionally, Wang said VR can be offered anywhere and is becoming more accessible.

Wang said that while working on the project, the team did not realize how much human biases can be internal as well. Wang had Cen describe two people: Dan, his mentor, and Alice, his boss.

“When Brandon was describing Alice, she was really nurturing, very supportive, a great teacher … When he was talking about Dan, he was intelligent, a leader,” Wang said. “They’re both very capable sophomore engineers, but he just associated the terms ‘leader’ and ‘charismatic’ with Dan, and Alice was just a supporting role. Seeing a very clear cut difference even with our own perception of bias got the ball rolling on how we would craft these scenarios.”

Out of the three choices, users can select a scenario. The first scenario is an illustration of the surgeon’s dilemma. Originally, the surgeon’s dilemma is a riddle that plays on people’s assumption that a surgeon must be male. In the app, they addressed a name bias; for instance, a gender-neutral name might be interpreted as male in the context of the words “engineer” or “doctor.”

“Our first scenario dealing with gender bias came from the common discrepancy of female engineers pretty much in every tech company today,” Cen said. “Especially [because of] ‘the Google memo’ that blew up in the tech community this past summer, gender bias was the first subject we wanted to tackle.”

In the next option, the app will ask the user to verbally describe a coworker. After a certain amount of time, those words will form a word cloud around the user. Seeing the words used to describe the opposite gender is an immersive, visual learning experience about unconscious bias.

“You can see what you’ve been saying, and if I saw words like ‘powerful’ and ‘driven,’ I’d feel like those are words not usually used to describe me,” Wang commented. “Likewise, if you had been saying bad things about your coworkers, that would show up around you.”

Finally, there is a conversation between coworkers about candidates for a job opening. Though described with equal qualifications and strengths, one will be old while the other young.

“This is a clear example of ageism,” Wang said. “As young people, we like to think we’re better; we think faster and know how to use technology, so we should hire the young person. It takes a lot to stand up to the recruiter and say though they may be older, they have a lot they can bring to the table as well.”

At the hackathon, the projects were presented to judges in an expo-style set up. The top five received the opportunity to live stream their creations to the world through Facebook. Afterwards, awards were distributed. The USC team won third place and received $2,500 overall and each an Oculus Rift developer kit each.

“One of the most validating moments was that the co-founder of Occulus was there,” Wang said. ”When he presented us the prize he said, ‘I think that one day in the future all training of this nature will be in VR.’ That’s a really big statement… For our app, while it was a small, tiny piece of the universe, it’s important for us to start thinking in that direction. How can VR be used that’s not just sitting in a roller coaster or simulating porn?”

Wang encourages students to begin attending hackathons as a way to gain both experience and professional connections.

“It’s hard to feel like you have a lot of tangible skill,” Wang said. “As a freshman when I went to my first hackathon, HackSC, I literally knew nothing… I didn’t really think about working on projects but really going to learn and absorb the experience. It’s because of all those times not knowing what I was doing, later on I could go in with a game plan.”

Furthermore, Wang believes that by winning hackathons, students are representing USC well.

“At USC, I think there is a very strong sense of an entrepreneurial community and culture here, and it’s really powerful,” Wang continued. “USC really has changed in the past couple of years to embrace this making, hacking culture which is really important for Viterbi as a school and us as a campus. At hackathons, there are tons of recruiters; if you build something really good, you’ve got your foot in your door.”