I’m Mike Festa and I’m the director of Wayfair Next. We are a team of 25 engineers carrying out R&D with cutting edge technology. We partner with other leading tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Magic Leap, to bring new experiences to our customers on their emerging platforms. What are we working on, you ask? We’re excited and currently completing projects that span AR/VR, 3D Scanning, Machine Learning, Computer Vision, and 3D Tools. There is a lot in the pipeline and we’re continuing to explore the feats of these interesting technological realms.

Wayfair’s annual Summer Hackathon, affectionately known as WayfairHacks, is about to get underway and I’m thrilled to be sponsoring the event this year. In fact, it was through a hackathon just like this one that my team, and the entire Wayfair Next initiative, was able to achieve liftoff.

Hacking my way to an exciting career

I joined Wayfair at the end of 2013 as a full stack engineer on the Supplier Extranet team, which supports more than ten thousand suppliers to manage orders, inventory, warehouses, documents, and so on. I have a passion for emerging technology, and on the side I had been doing some Virtual Reality (VR) development with the first Oculus Rift (DK1). VR is great for immersion and I wanted to show how it could be used in the future by our customers to design their homes. When I heard about our annual summer hackathon, I thought that it would be a great opportunity to create a Wayfair VR demo.

The Summer 2014 Hackathon was the first hackathon that I participated in and I wanted to be well prepared for it. I had been thinking about the general idea for some time, but in order to make the most of the short time, I wrote down a list of tasks that needed to be completed, as well as some bonus objectives. I also upgraded my home PC with a new graphics card and travel friendly case, since I needed to bring it into the office on the train. When it came to tracking tasks, I just had a list in Notepad, but I’ve since discovered Trello and highly recommend it.

I chose to work as a team of one because it seemed easier to manage development with a single headset and computer. In retrospect, I should have found an artist to team up with because I spent at least half of the time creating some pretty ugly 3D models of products to place in the scene. Despite working on my own project, it still felt like a team activity because there were so many other people working on cool stuff around me, meeting up for food, and hacking late into the night.

We had only just moved into the Boston Copley office a few weeks before, so there was a lot of excitement in the air as people found interesting spaces to hang out and work in. It was a huge upgrade over our former office and being there reminded me of staying overnight in a museum as a kid – it was a lot more fun at night.

I brought a sleeping bag with me and ended up taking a two hour nap at around 5am. A word of warning: Some of the lights in the office do not turn off for safety reasons and only the wellness rooms in the space get completely dark. I stayed at the office until the basic app was working, but went home Saturday night to get some actual sleep in a bed. I spent a little additional time at home on Sunday finalizing the 3D models.

I got to show my demo to the judges on Monday. They put on the VR headset and were transported to a virtual living room, with customizable products. Each object could be cycled through three different geometries, which each had a choice of three materials to be changed. In total, there were more than 100,000 possible combinations. It made it to the final round of judging with our co-founders, Niraj and Steve, and won the award “The Future of Wayfair”.

Screenshot from my 2014 VR hackathon project.

Prepping for WayfairHacks 2018!

In 2014, Virtual Reality was too ahead of its time to have an immediate application at Wayfair, so beyond getting to know Steve, there was no outcome. The next year, I won the hackathon with an Augmented Reality (AR) app that showed a life-sized dining set on a mobile device. This experience was a lot closer to reaching customers and we started the Wayfair Next team to build it out. In addition, the team was established to stay ahead of technology trends that might be 3-5 years away. If you’re interested in seeing my 2015 AR submission, you can find it on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_z9vdvrUVk

This year’s hackathon is happening from July 20-22 and we are kicking it off with a series of workshops to help showcase technologies that could be used to create a high impact project. In addition to software demos, for the first time ever we are opening it up to business plan pitches as well! Employees have a lot of great ideas that are too large to prototype in a single weekend, so this is an opportunity to present them to company leadership. The winners will be chosen by our co-founders, Niraj and Steve, as well as our Chief Technology Officer, John Mulliken, and our Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Ed Macri.

I’m looking forward to seeing what our colleagues have in store when it comes to ideas and pitches. Be sure to keep an eye out for information about our winners and standout projects!