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Extended Reality technology — XR — has had a lot of hype in recent years thanks to the concept of the metaverse. But bold visions of the future can obscure the reality of what engineers and organizations are doing today.
In this episode of the Technology Podcast, Scott Shaw and Birgitta Boeckeler are joined by Cam Jackson and Kuldeep Singh to discuss the XR work Thoughtworks has been doing with clients. Together they explore what it means for engineers and how the future of the technology might evolve.
Scott Shaw: Hello everybody and welcome to the Thoughtworks technology podcast. My name is Scott Shaw and I'll be your host along with Birgitta Boeckeler. We have with us today Cam Jackson and Kuldeep Singh who will be discussing the topic of XR and hopefully we'll find out a little about what that actually means in a minute. Brigita, would you like to introduce yourself?
Birgitta Boeckeler: Hi everybody, my name is Birgitta. I'm the second host for this podcast episode today, and I'm a technical principal based out of the Thoughtworks Berlin Office in Germany.
Scott: Cam, how about introducing yourself?
Cam Jackson: Hi everyone, my name's Cam Jackson. I'm a Lead Developer with Thoughtworks in our Melbourne Office. I've been spending some time looking into XR for Thoughtworks, figuring out where the industry is at, and what it means for us and what it means for our clients.
Kuldeep Singh: Yes, so my name is Kuldeep Singh, and I am leading some of the XR initiatives at Thoughtworks India and a couple of XR projects we have experienced with and we have been sharing the learning around it and this is a time we should share with a wider audience.
Scott: Maybe we could start out with some definitions. I thought X in the XR was a variable, but that's my math background, I guess, but I've heard it referred to differently. Cam, can you give us a little tutorial on what XR means?
Cam: It definitely can be a bit of a placeholder, XR just being — The R is definitely reality. XR can be something reality. It can also be extended reality but it's an umbrella term, which refers to augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality. Maybe some other new ones might come up as well, but those are generally the three that we think of.
Scott: I think we have to get this out of the way whenever this topic comes up, are we going to be talking about the metaverse at all?
Cam: I think we have to talk about it at least a little bit today. It would be an omission if we didn't at least mention the metaverse. It might not be the main focus of the discussion. It's obviously become a pretty big topic over the last, however long it's been since Facebook decided to rebrand themselves as a metaverse company.
Scott: It does seem to me like there's a lot to talk about even without the metaverse, so maybe we'll just focus on the XR aspects of the problem for now. Perhaps we ought to talk about the different types of XR and the different ways it can present itself. Kuldeep, maybe you could give us a rundown on that.
Kuldeep: Yes, sure. As Cam talks about this XR gets hype when this meta word gets together and the center of the metaverse is still XR because we are talking about changing the reality, extending the reality, which XR word more being used. When we talk about types of reality — for example, augmenting the reality — you overlay digital content on top of the real world environment. That's the augmented reality AR stands for. VR is when you don't see the real world; the whole environment is also computer generated and you overlay content on that computer generated environment and program that digital content — that's what's your reality.
Mixed reality is the term which combines both the worlds together. We have devices that can smartly understand the environment, that can understand the lighting condition, that can understand the depth of the wall in front of you, and you can design a better experience using those devices. That's a mixed reality experience. Then there are a number of other definitions that are coming, like assisted reality where Google glass projected a display just near to your eye; that was assisted reality because it helps your working, it assists you. That is assisted reality’s definition. There are now more of these with this X word, that's why we are putting a lot of X words here and anything which we are changing reality is XR.
Scott: Do I need to have a headset? Do I need to have some specialized device to take advantage of it? Cam, you've talked about different modes of programming XR.
Cam: It's an interesting one. For virtual reality, yes, you're going to need a headset because as Kuldeep said, we're creating an entirely fictitious environment or taking you to a different place than where you currently are. You will need a headset and they're still quite expensive. There are consumer level ones, the meta devices or the Oculus devices cost around on par with a gaming console. They're within reach for some people.
Augmented reality is a little bit different. There are certainly augmented reality and mixed reality headsets, like the HoloLens and the Magic Leap, for example. Those are very much industry-grade devices that cost several thousand dollars and people aren't going into shops and buying them.
Where augmented reality really becomes in reach for people is mobile phones. There are already a lot of augmented reality applications out there that can run on phones — not every phone, it does need to be a relatively high powered device — but I think that is going to be for 90+ percent of people, their first experience of any XR is going to be on their phone, so it's really interesting seeing people get into the space, get into XR through AR on their phone.
At the same time, though, there probably will be a lot of people whose first real serious use of it will be in the workplace because companies will be the ones who do have the money to be able to afford to invest in purchasing expensive high level hardware as an investment for their business and making their employees more effective or unlocking new ways of working for their employees. Just like we had with the internet and with personal computers, a lot of people's first exposure to using it seriously is probably going to be through the workplace.
Birgitta: Then when it comes to phones, is it still mostly augmented reality? Like you hold up your phone and you see with your camera what's around you and it's augmented, or is it also still a thing like there used to be this Google — what was it called? — Google Cardboard or something like that. Like have something on your face and you put your phone into that. Is that still a thing that is also being pursued or...?
Cam: Yes, those still exist and a lot of people have tried those. I would say it's a completely different experience. I had played around with the Google Cardboard and I was like, "Oh, this is pretty cool. It's VR with my phone." The first time you put on a proper VR headset, it's mind blowing. It's a really completely different experience. The smartphones, I think, are for doing real useful things. Augmented reality is probably where they're going to be useful for. They'll continue to be useful for it because even once the AR or mixed reality headsets come down in price, it's probably still going to be a niche product for the foreseeable future. Whereas everyone, well, most people have a smartphone.
Scott: I know I've used the measuring app on my iPhone and I wonder if it'll come into our lives in subtle ways like that, where it's just a really useful thing to be able to see both the digital world and the physical world and overlay it.
Birgitta: Interesting. I hadn't even thought of that as an augmented reality thing.
Cam: It's interesting; I think in some ways the sign of a technology really being mature is when not all of its applications are really mind blowing. That's when it really has arrived is when it's just one of really simple things that you can use it for.
Scott: Speaking of industrial applications, I think Kuldeep has been working on something like that. Do you want to tell us about your project?
Kuldeep: Yes, of course. We are really building an enterprise-ready XR product shoot for one of our customers, Lenovo. We are building their ThinkReality XR Platform. That comes with out of the box solutions — for example, Remote Expert. We are experts sitting remotely and you are wearing the smart glass, which always has a camera at the center. You can share your environment while working with your hands. Your hands are free to work, and you can share your environment with the expert sitting remotely where the expert can guide the person sitting in the field and can guide step-by-step and not just that, there are a lot of other use cases like auditing.
You can build an audit application automatically. Your camera is always there while you are working — it can guide you, it can improve your efficiency and it can give you all the additional information you need. You want to run a video, it'll be available on your voice call; you just say to the device and it will bring that video or bring the PDF document in front of you where you don't need to really open a manual, which is a multipage manual. You don't need to switch the context of your work. These are the use cases which are out of the box on the solution, which we are building.
Scott: They're counting on there being an enterprise market. This isn't a consumer device. This is something that all businesses would buy.
Kuldeep: Right. This is actually an enterprise XR solution and there is a slight difference between enterprise and consumer, because on the enterprise side, you still have a controlled environment. You can provide the right training, you can provide how the devices are to be managed, what permissions are to be given, all the existing mobile device solutions like MDM solutions. The organization’s policies can apply to these devices, but content needs to be displayed, but not all these things can be maintained well in an enterprise setup. That is the immediate need. That is not a very important factor on the consumer side.
That's where a lot of concern is also in XR; like how all this thing will be maintained — how the content will be maintained. In the controlled environment enterprise side, it is still the same set of standards that we have built in years. Similar standards of software can continue working on the XR side as well. That's where organizations like Lenovo are pitching heavily. Qualcomm is pitching heavily in this area.
Birgitta: This example you just described, that's about the person in the field is wearing some smart glasses or —
Kuldeep: Right. The product which we are talking, ThinkReality here, that is a smart glass. Part of it is a smart glass. Then there is a cloud solution which can provide all the provisioning services, what could be needed. Then there is an SDK component, which is for developers to build applications for these devices.
This is a similar setup for any smart or HMD glasses, head mounted glasses, be it Microsoft HoloLens, be it Oculus; every device comes with their own software development kit for developers to build solutions for these devices. There are some common programming environments which can be used by developers to build their solutions. This is how this whole ThinkReality program works. I am part of that project.
Scott: That's a lot of specialized hardware for a developer to get started with. Are there ways to get started that are cheaper or easier?
Kuldeep: Yes, if you look at these devices, not just this Lenovo device, I have explored around 200 plus devices in XR, around 70% of them are still on Android devices. All of your skills coming from Android development will continue here. All of the development, for example, Unity, the gaming side development gaming — Unity is being used for game development for ages now.
All that experience and skill can continue working here. This is just another Android or similar device. We can build software on top of that. The same knowledge can continue, but of course, there is a lot of other things people need to acquire to build solutions. Because it's an Android, there are simulators available. You can try those things directly in the simulator. If you don't have a device still, you can build applications and once you access the device, you can, of course…
Scott: Can I get started just on the web? Can people just access the web through these devices?
There's just a lot of problems that are solved problems in a lot of other programming, which you have to reinvent some solutions to. WebXR is a really good way of being able to get started in the XR world as a developer who hasn't played in that space very much.
Scott: If I was just a React developer and I wanted to start working in 3D, is there a migration path for me?
Cam: Yes. That's one of the coolest things; there's a project called React to XR, which allows you to build a React application, create React components, just like you normally would.
Birgitta: Of course there is a project like that.
Cam: Yes, you can do anything with React — I've even seen you can create your infrastructure using React if you really want to. It's become the hammer that people want to use on every single nail, but you can create regular looking React components that function as normal React components do. The only difference is instead of spitting out HTML, they spit out 3D elements.
Instead of a div or an H1, or a table, it's creating a light or a camera or a mesh — and it's a really approachable way to take all the skills that we already have and start doing XR. It's still not that easy, and as Kuldeep said, there will be a lot of extra skills that you will need to pick up along the way, but it's a great way to get started.
Cam: Yes, and the biggest one that you'll run into fairly quickly is needing to make updates to things in real time. When you're building a web application or even if you're building an API on the backend, usually your code only ever runs in response to something having happened. A user has clicked on a button or an event has come off a stream or NGTP request has come into an API, like your code is responding to a thing that happened, it runs, it executes, it gives the response and then it finishes and it's done.
As soon as you get into XR, and this is true of game development as well, you're operating in real time. You've got code that needs to run continuously. It needs to be able to run 60 times every single second in order for the experience to be good enough for the user. It sounds like a small thing, but it's a really significant shift going from my code just runs and then it finishes to my code is running constantly over and over and over again, many times per second. You'll run into that fairly quickly as soon as you start trying to create an interactive 3D or immersive app and it definitely takes a different mode of thinking to be able to operate in that way.
Scott: On the Lenovo project, you must have had to address continuous delivery issues like how do you deploy to a device like that?
Kuldeep: Very interesting. We had a lot of challenges when you really build a solution, and especially in pandemic, we started this project almost at the peak of pandemic and everyone was not having those devices, even how to test this whole thing. Forget about the continuous delivery. How to test our regular XP practices, how can we do test-driven development when people can't see other people's what they are seeing.
The first product we need to actually introduce in the product is how we can share the mixed reality experience on a browser. That person who is not wearing the device, that person can also see what is happening in the device. That helped us a lot in our development and not just development, of course — sales demonstration and everywhere the product is helping. That gives us how the whole product can be developed. That helped us or in test driven development.
Birgitta: Sorry. Just a quick understanding. A gaze click would be: I look at something and then something happens in the glasses, yes?
Kuldeep: Right. It's like a laser beam coming from your head, but you don't see the laser beam — it's like that. That is clicking all the virtual elements. To simulate this, we actually introduced, in fact, developed Arium platform which we open-sourced also. That's an automation testing platform for Unity applications and it's a general platform. We open-sourced it.
We have been using this heavily in other projects also to simulate all the mobile interactions, all the device-based interactions and plugin can be written on that platform. It's an extendable just like Selenium and other open-source products do. This helped us to do automation testing and once the product is out, then it can follow the standard mobile development based practices, because eventually this is a mobile device which runs on certain Android devices and software can be posted the same way as any mobile app can be posted.
Scott: I suppose it's a lot easier on the web. Is that right, Cam? You probably had a breeze testing. I know Cam just also delivered some work, 3D bathroom planner and experimented with putting that on a VR headset. Was testing easier there?
Cam: It's definitely easier. At a high level, you can bring a lot of the same tools, especially because we were using React-based tools using React Three Fiber for that. You can still use the React testing library for a lot of it. You can use Jest as a testing framework on a lot of the same tools that we usually use. You definitely still run into lots of unknown problems. As Kuldeep said, you've still got the… what does TDD mean for something which is moving in a 3D space and how do you simulate basic things like clicks? I'd say it's probably easier in a web-based environment than with Unity because it's closer to the tools that we usually use, but there's definitely still unsolved problems there.
Scott: Suppose I was a developer and I wanted to get started doing this, what skills should I learn? Do I have to learn Unity or what's the basics?
Cam: I think it depends on what you already know. My advice to people when they want to get into something is often, find something which is at least a little bit familiar so you're not starting from scratch. If you're a web developer, I would say you can get started pretty easily with WebXR. If you've played around with game development before, I know a lot of developers think it would be cool to make a game one day and they download Unity and have a play with it. If you're already familiar with Unity, then that's probably a great way to get started with XR as well.
I would say the best way to start learning it is to just start making stuff. Go ahead and start playing around with it. You'll definitely find pretty quickly there are extra skills that you might not necessarily have. You're probably going to need to start brushing up on your maths skills, learning some linear algebra, auto matrix, autovector, how do I transform something in 3D space? A lot of problems that most developers, unless you're in games, don't have to deal with on a daily basis. It can be tricky stuff, but there's a lot of great tutorials out there and it can be really fun to pick up once you get the hang of it.
Scott: Do the frameworks shield you from some of that? I would have thought that would have been worked out already?
Cam: The frameworks shield you from having to implement the maths yourself. All of the functions are there. There's great libraries and APIs for multiplying two matrices together. The hard part is still knowing which function to call. There are a lot of different operations you can do on a matrix, there are a lot of different ways you can combine two vectors together. Knowing which one to call is probably the hardest part. Once you know what operation you're trying to do, yes, the libraries have solved a lot of the lower level maths for you.
Kuldeep: To be a true XR developer or a gaming developer also, I would say you need to be an artist, you need to be a scientist, you need to know maths, you need to know geography, you need to know physics, the complete and you need to be a movie director who can work on scene actions. This is how any XR project is defined. It is not defined in terms of screens, like traditional 2D development is defined, this screen and on clicking on a certain button, another screen comes…
Here it is all about scenes just like movie making. You define a scene, you define actors, you define what will happen after that, who will do what dialogue and what action will happen, same way the XR project is defined.
Eventually, the person who is driving needs to know all these things. Yes, the tools will help us. For example, any gaming engine, if we rely on that, can solve a lot of things from maths, a lot of things from physics, gravity and all those calculations, at least everything will come in the gaming engine and that can be the backing of any application which we are building. Yes, tools can help, but of course you need to gain gradually on those skills where you can get better at this.
Cam: I think it's a great point. It really speaks to not just the new skills that developers will need, but the new capabilities that organizations are going to need. If you're a company who's really getting into this stuff seriously, there might be new roles and new capabilities that you didn't have before in your organization that you're going to need to bring in. A lot of companies, they might not have used to afforded themselves as a technology company and they realize how important technology is to them. They need to hire a lot of developers.
If you're now getting into XR, do you need to hire directors and artists and producers and storytellers and all these extra roles that you didn't use to have in order to take advantage of the technology to its fullest?
Scott: It seems like it's almost like an architecture problem, as opposed to design like visual design. You're designing spaces, aren't you? It's the whole thing of moving around and what's an ergonomic way to do that. I'm not sure we know how to do that yet.
Cam: Yes, it's very multidisciplinary, and you're right. There is a lot that we can probably learn from architecture and interior design in terms of designing spaces.
Kuldeep: We are talking about extending reality. We are talking about changing the belief. Now the biggest challenge we have faced in — of course we learned with time that in XR, when we talk about design, the product design, if people do not believe in the product you have designed, if the virtual content which we are showing a person cannot believe it is a real product, then it's not a great immersive experience people will want to. This is all about changing the belief. Changing beliefs is not easy. It's lot of things you need to do when the design comes in.
For example, if I'm throwing a metal ball virtually, now wherever the ball touches the floor, the sound needs to be exactly like a metal ball. If the sound is not coming at that moment and that sound is also, if it is afar, the sound should be a special sound. If that is not coming in that proportion, I would not believe that a virtual ball is a real ball I'm throwing. If I am not believing, I'll not use that experience. That's how these designs and the different skills are really important.
Birgitta: It also sounds like yet another one of those things where like, let's say, us in this call, we're like, let's say application developers, web application developers, whatever. We're now moving into yet another like different area like you're starting with Ops, right, and then it turned into this whole DevOps movement and then it's happening right now with things like data mesh where we are always like the elephant in the China shop going into the data space saying oh, why don't you automate these things and how do you test this? Now it's like this area as well, where there are actually lots of experts who can do 3D modeling and all of those things and now we are coming in and discovering all these things and talking about testing.
I always find that fascinating how as application developers seem to move through all of these areas and try to see how we can make them better, but also often approach them naively as if nobody has done this before, but actually people have been doing 3D modeling and stuff like that and perfecting it for years, right?
Cam: Absolutely. I've spoken to a few game developers in part of my investigation. One of the things that they say is you can tell really quickly just from little basic language things about whether someone is coming to XR from a web application or a "corporate environment" or whether they're coming to it as a web developer. It's a place where I think we're going to be meeting in the middle for a lot of — two industries, game development and then all other development that seem to not really overlap that much, I think they're about to be thrown together in new ways that they haven't before and there's probably going to be some culture clash.
Like you said, Birgitta, we've seen it before with DevOps and with all of the other spaces that developers have a habit of infiltrating and acting like they just invented it. It's going to be interesting to see how we learn from each other.
Scott: This seems like it’s something that's been talked about for years because I'm old; I remember when Jaron Lanier first started talking about virtual reality. What is it that's stopping it from more general adoption?
Cam: I'm not as old as you, Scott, but even I remember in the '90s going to a little Nintendo exhibit in a shopping center and I think the Super Nintendo was about to come out. The guy at the store was talking about how VR is going to be the next thing — the next Nintendo console is going to have VR. Here we are 25 years later and it's still a fledgling thing which has barely been invented. I think it has come along a lot more slowly than people might have expected or wanted it to. I think it's just a really hard problem. In fact, it's not one, it's lots and lots of really hard problems.
If you look at the marketing material from Meta when they launched their big Metaverse pitch, even they were really open about the fact that to create the Metaverse that they envision, they'll need huge breakthrough innovations in at least 10 different technology areas. You're talking about graphics, you're talking about computer vision, you're talking about all these really advanced computing areas that need a hell of a lot of research to get them to a point where this stuff is more usable. It's taken a long time I think just because they're really hard problems.
I do think we've seen big advances in the last few years like having the Oculus devices come down in price to the point where a lot more people can afford one, looking at the new things that get added into the iOS and the Android SDKs for their AR abilities. I think the pace of invention is really picking up, which is probably just a function of the amount of money that's being invested in it. It's coming along slowly, but I think we're at a pretty exciting point where things are really starting to pick up.
Scott: You think the hype is becoming reality?
Cam: Well we want it — It's impossible to know and definitely some things the hype might be a bit outpaced. Metaverse is one thing where the hype is at a pretty ridiculous level. None of us has a crystal ball. We can't really know what it's going to be. I think the hype for Metaverse, for example, is probably beyond where it's at today, maybe the Metaverse will be the huge world changing thing that is predicted in 5 years, 10 years.
Right now, the Metaverse doesn't really exist and so a lot of the hype about “you need to be in the Metaverse”, well, there isn't really a Metaverse, you can't really be in it just yet. I think the hype around XR and where XR is going and maybe that leads to the creation of the Metaverse in the future, I think there's a good reason to be pretty excited about it.
Scott: I read an article in Wired that about Metaverse is like cyberspace; we're living in cyberspace, but we don't call it cyberspace. Maybe when there is actually a three-dimensional world that we can enter, we're going to call it something different by the time it actually becomes a reality.
Kuldeep: If I share a few of the bottlenecks in XR adoption is from the industrial side, the biggest thing that we found is the content. If you look at any industrial setup, content designing, CAD/CAM is a standard 3D content development which has been there for ages. There is a complete separate department which is building content and that content is not usable in the devices which we are talking about today, the head mounted devices where these are not capable to run that high quality content.
We need a lot of transformation from one form to other form of that content that is still not yet mature enough to really make it a real photo-realistic content. You still need a 3D designer to convert that content in a photo realistic fashion. If we are talking about content for a really big product like a car or an airplane, maybe still it makes sense to design 3D content and invest there. If I'm talking about a $1 retail product, it doesn't make sense to build a 3D design for that content, for that product.
There are so many use cases of XR in retail, for example, but if the content process is not automated, it's hard to catch there and that's where, as Cam talked about, there is a lot of innovation happening. For example, you talked about you are able to use an iPhone to scan your room, it can give you the size of your room. That's the innovation we are talking about. Your devices need to automatically scan to fit the content where it should be and automatically, if I need to bring a 3D content, I can scan the content at just a moment of time, it will bring in 3D.
A lot of development is happening, Google, Meta and Facebook earlier, if you look at their recent patents or recent research, all talking about this type of research where single image, a 2D image and converting into a 3D model automatically through a content pipeline. That's where the industry now needs to focus on. Once that problem is solved, there is a huge content available. You can just bring in these devices as tools to visualize, but they're not useful until there is the right content to show.
Cam: Interestingly, that's one of the things that we can learn from the game development industry, because it's not true for all games, but for a lot of big AAA games, the bottleneck for them is actually in content creation. These companies employ armies of artists and 3D modelers and texture artists and they also employ a lot of developers to do the transformation of those, to get those into a format where they can actually be useful in an engine. Again, this is a problem that the games development industry has been wrestling with for a while.
Scott: Okay. Maybe we'll leave it there. This sounds like there's a lot of opportunities and new job descriptions that are going to get created. Thank you and we'll see you next time.
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