September 10, 2019
Bringing a magic touch to XR
By: Jonathan Bray

Jonathan presenting at national theater

Rabbit out of a hat

As a kid I really wanted to be a computer animator working for a big film studio but, when I was in Year 9 at school my dad bought a lot of careers brochures home and pretty much all the animator jobs indicated that you had to be great at drawing and have a good portfolio - I was terrible at art! So, from there I moved over to wanting to build video games and for the next five years that was my dream job until I did some research into it. People were saying it was a brutal industry to get into, you could typically work very long hours, the pay was not fantastic but, even more importantly, you’d probably not get to do very exciting work – maybe just a bit of code that no one sees in the video background. I was advised that if I wanted to do some serious programming then I should look at a software development company and do indie video games as a hobby on the side. So that’s what I did.

I joined Accenture after university and worked in web development for the first couple of years which was really good fun. Then, I found out we had a VR/AR department that used Unity (which was the tool I had been using for the past seven to eight years to build my own games). I took the plunge and visited the department to say hello and to see if on the off-chance they had any roles and they said, ‘yes but have you got any work to show us?’. I got my phone out and showed them a couple of games I’d built and immediately they said, ‘yep you’re in’. I think it’s one of those things that if you can demonstrate a full product that you’ve built, it proves you’ve got the vision. I guess the rest is history and I’ve been working in our VR/AR department for the last couple of years as an Extended Reality Developer.

Hocus Pocus

People don’t always understand my role, so the way I describe it is first to explain what Extended Reality is. Extended Reality, also known as XR, is basically the parenting term which includes VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality). My team build a variety of VR and AR apps and the difference between them is that for Virtual Reality you will put on a headset and be fully immersed in the virtual world not seeing anything of the real world around you. Whereas with AR, you will see the real world but there will be objects added to it (like holograms for example).

We use a programme called Unity so while something like web development is generally a backend and frontend split, with XR because it’s all-in-one programming, we do a most of it ourselves (although the one thing we won’t always do is 3D modelling which would be typically done by specialist 3D Modellers). From the frontend point of view, we do the build, choose all the different layouts for the models and add the functionality and then we’ll add a script component to it which is more like backend programming.

Now you see it…

Jonathan presenting

My stand out project so far, due to the impact it has had, was the National Theatre Smart Caption Glasses. When you talk about user cases of VR/AR initially people are not quite convinced and then you tell them about the user case of providing subtitles for someone who’s deaf or hard of hearing and immediately everyone can see it.

Although it was a very challenging project it’s very memorable because it’s making a real difference in the real world. We went to the theatre a few weeks after it launched to watch a show and we just saw one person sitting there with the glasses on, so we had a chat with her afterwards to see how it was and she said it was amazing. To think she might not have been able to be there that night if it was not for the glasses we had worked on – that was cool.

Jonathan on stage

It was a challenging project because even although the product was stable throughout the development, for the press release event we needed to have 120 pairs of glasses all working at the same time and when we started testing 30 or 40 batches in unison, randomly one or two sets of glasses would break about 40/50 minutes in. This was not a problem that had been identified before – we had been testing for a year but typically with only one or two sets and the odds of it going wrong were about 0.5%. However, when batch testing one set would randomly break and it would be a different set of glasses each time and within a different random timeframe. It was incredibly challenging to solve what was causing the bug but, in the end, we found that it was a little bit of code that was filtering a small memory leak so it would overload causing a set of glasses to crash. Just trying to find that bug was incredibly time consuming because each time we did a new software iteration we had to manually put it on to 40 sets of glasses, turn on 40 sets of glasses at the same time and then pick each one up every minute to check if it was broken. Towards the end we devised a web app mechanism of finding the ones that had broken which helped as we were under a lot pressure to get this right for the press launch – with team work and hard work, we got there.

That’s magic

Jonathan as a magician

Outside of work I like doing magic and I specialise in stage magic. When I was younger, I was never very good at presenting so I would typically do my magic to music without having to speak . I made it to the finals of a couple of national junior competitions – I never won. I still do a little bit of magic today but don’t typically do stage shows anymore, although if there’s an opportunity to do a small show (say at a wedding) I’m always keen.

I’m a big fan of board games and that’s something I’ve helped set-up at Accenture and we’ve now got a board game society that runs once a month. I also enjoy 3D modelling and that’s something I’d like to do more of - we have another club here called ‘Adventures in Blender Land’ where we make different 3D models and present them to each other and that’s been good fun (note: Blender is the modelling tool). We’re a small but very social team here and it’s nice to know you’re still part of the bigger Accenture.

Accenture Board Game Club

I see my career growing with VR/AR and I’m looking forward to the day we have a big VR project for a Diamond client - we’ve not got to that stage quite yet but hopefully we will at some point.

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