How One College Student Helped Define the Future of VR in Taboola’s Engineering Challenge

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Here at Taboola, we’re always looking at ways to leverage future audience trends, such as virtual reality (VR) technology. So in May of 2016, in my closing keynote speech at LA West Coast Hackathon, I laid out a challenge for the engineering youth that were there to participate.

The challenge was this: Use Taboola content recommendations to create the next generation discovery experience in a virtual world.

Dietrich Anaya, age 19 and a full-time student at Los Angeles Pierce College, found an early solution to recommendations in a VR environment—as the winner of the the Taboola VR Challenge, he built software allowing the image and title of an article to appear. If you like the article, you nod and it appears for you to read. If you don’t, you shake your head and it disappears.

“I was happy just finding out I was a finalist,” Anaya said. “Just knowing I did something completely new and completely out of my comfort zone was enough. Winning—now that was a pretty happy moment for me.”

For Anaya, the engineering challenge was his focus, but it’s not all he achieved. As the winner of the Taboola VR Challenge, he received the Oculus Rift, the chance for an engineering internship with our Los Angeles (LA) team, and a flight out to Tel Aviv, Israel to work with our team of developers there.

While in Tel Aviv, Anaya continued to grow his virtual reality development skills. With the guidance of our engineers, he also built a 3D interactive map that showed in real-time how many people were discovering content on Taboola around the globe.

I must admit, the software is cool—but for myself and for Taboola, the challenge isn’t about the software. It’s about fostering an inspirational environment for our engineers and company at large, and putting resources behind the idea that we’re always looking for new and fresh ways to solve problems to prepare for mediums of the future.

We brought our open engineering culture to the VR Challenge.

taboola vr challenge

While the industry still has a long way to go in the development of a content recommendation experience for a VR environment, Anaya brought something unique to Taboola—he allowed us to leverage a fresh point of view in our industry, and get out of our day-to-day to think about the future together.

The challenge was about two things— how VR will impact recommendations on the open web, of course, but it was also about the students and giving them access to our culture and team so we can together have a fresh look into the future.

“If I had a favorite part of Taboola, it would be the culture and the cutting edge technology we get to use here in the LA Office,” Chris Germano, Technical Lead at Taboola.

“Our team is full of energetic, passionate engineers who love to build new products with the latest open source technology stacks such as React and Node JS.”

Chris says it best—for our engineers, we want an environment where they’re comfortable with new ideas and growing while solving “out of the box” challenges. For our contest, we provided them with nothing but an API, and the students went for it.

In the end, we had a lot of fun, and we learned a lot from the experience ourselves. For that I thank Anaya, who is now an intern at Taboola in our LA office.

Taboola is the world’s leading content discovery platform, serving 360B recommendations to over 1B unique visitors each month on the web’s most innovative publisher sites. If you’re interested in joining our engineering team in LA, we’re hiring.

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