Code and data are the raw materials that power the innovation economy. With no exception, all verticals in society and business are being reshaped by a new generation of solutions built around algorithms, network effects and ever-growing pools of information.
During the last few years, demand for software engineers and data scientists has sky-rocketed. With median salaries of over 103k in the US alone, talent pools across the globe are being sucked dry by both large and small tech companies.
With an education system that trains people for the long-gone industrial age, there is a growing disconnect between the skills present in today’s workforce, and those needed to grow in this new world.
At Zenva, our mission is to allow anyone, anywhere in the world, to gain the necessary skills to partake and succeed in the technological revolution. While we tackle this problem mainly through online coding courses, we decided to try something new: what if we could teach basic computer science using Virtual Reality?
Big tech came to our aid
As someone who grew up in the driest desert in the world, I’ve experienced first-hand the difficulties of being far away from where “all the action is taking place”. That is, in fact, one of the key drivers of our mission at Zenva, and it is why I accepted the invitation to join the Intel Software Innovator Program – a supportive, global community of developers, tinkerers, and builders.
Thanks to the generous support of Intel and Microsoft, our crazy idea to teach coding via Virtual Reality received the initial push it needed to become a reality as part of their Ultimate Coder Challenge initiative.
Does it even work?
The idea of creating an immersive, virtual environment where people could learn basic coding concepts had been in my head for quite a while and we were eager to begin. The tools we used were Unity, an Intel® NUC 8 VR machine, an HP Windows Mixed Reality Headset.
We built a simple prototype where people could interact with cubes and “code” different commands. What became clear really quickly is that what works well on a screen, doesn’t necessarily work in VR.
This prototype ended up being too complex, and we found ourselves replicating the screen/2D world and UI paradigm into VR, as opposed to developing something native to a virtual world. Also, this prototype was not fun to use, and that was a big red flag. It was time to start over.
Welcome to Donut World
Our second iteration was to allow the user to control a mech robot (because we could?) and have that robot solve puzzles in a dreamy Donut World. We brought in engaging characters that were part of the mythology and artwork we used in our mobile app Codemurai.
The user would be onboarded to basic coding concepts as they solved puzzles. We created a narrative, dialogs, music and made this really fun to play, even if you are not interested in programming.
The puzzles themselves involve concepts such as boolean gates and loops, and are introduced little by little so that the user gets a chance to put in practice and consolidate what they previously learned.
While completing all the levels in Zenva Sky won’t make you a coder, it is certainly a good first introduction to core coding concepts.
Going live and reception
With over a thousand downloads so far, the reception, especially in the Oculus Go platform, has been hugely positive. This hasn’t been the case on the Oculus Rift so there might be some bugs there we have to fix.
Overall, we are very satisfied with the results and are looking forward to gathering more data and receive more feedback from users. This is, after all, a first-of-its-kind application, and we are eager to learn how we can improve it.