Fireside Chat with Stephen Honnan

Stephen is a recent graduate from the University of West Scotland. Though he hasn’t always worked in technology. We give you the low down on our newest team member and their journey into VR.

On a wet April afternoon, I cosied up to my desk with a cup of tea in hand. Flipping on Zoom, I readied myself to meet Stephen, a new member of our tech family. After confirming we could see and hear each other (as is digital etiquette these days), we started our chat.

Tell me about your background

Before deciding to focus on a career in technology, I worked in customer service roles in the insurance and retail sectors.  Over the 10 years to embarking on university study, I was busily mixing the decks to rock crowds across the country as a DJ.   Though in the latter half of 2018 I chose to squarely focus on his university studies, forging a career in technology and development.

What made you decide to study at university?

At 25 years old, I made the brave decision to quit my full-time job and return to college to complete a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in software and development.  So, this really set the coordinates for my entry into university.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a scary move as I spent half of my twenties in education.

I’ve always been interested in technology on the side. I had a Raspberry Pi kit – a small Linux computer – which I used to do small programming projects on.  I used to really enjoy developing on this, though was aware of wider skilled employment opportunities in the tech world.  I think I just wanted to progress into a career I was passionate about and could build for the future.

Quite excitingly I’m being considered for a PhD!   I’m currently waiting to hear back on a PhD immersive technologies opportunity at the University of West Scotland (UWS), supported by Dr Marco Gilardi.  I’m very excited about this prospect and hope to continue my learning journey into new heights and open up wider possibilities.

What do you like to do I your spare time?

I really like gaming – I have a ridiculous collection of games and just like to relax.  As technology doesn’t sit still, you need to adopt an ethos of lifelong learning.  I’m fortunate in that, I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with technology in my spare time, so it’s quite natural for me.  Recently, I’ve been learning Adobe After Effects to support my partner in her career.

What attracted you to a career in XR?

I just have a real thing for technology and, harking back to my DJ days it allows be to still be creative. I feel programming is essentially, just another creative outlet.  You know, if you get an idea for something you, can collaborate with other developers and create a number of different solutions to approach it.   Working in XR presents a set of diverse challenges, which drew me into working in this space.

I’ve always wanted to find a career that is challenging, worthwhile and provides me with job satisfaction. I enjoy the challenge of engaging in critical thinking, problem solving and developing agile technology solutions.  I particularly enjoy working with object orientated programming, which a lot of gaming engines use.

I first tried VR last year (2020), during a lecture by a PhD Associate lecturer who showed us his custom environment on Unity.   When I put the headset on all I could see was a grid, with a starry night background. Even then, I just thought it was such an amazing experience.  

Prior to this experience I had tried something in the 1990’s, which was literally a massive headset with a joystick. You had to stand on a freestanding platform to give the impression of movement – basically it was a copy of the game Doom.  These experiences ignited my passion of VR, as an emerging technology I could see the wider and future application.

Describe your biggest career achievement to date

I’m quite pleased with my Honours project, which is a rhythm action game.  For that I used an audio reactive environment, to scale objects based on how the different frequencies interact. There was some quite complex maths involved, which took me about two months.

 I’ve actually only just got a secondary schools maths qualification; I haven’t done any other maths.  I used YouTube tutorials to help me develop this, so I’m quite proud! I was actually a bit of a disruptive child at school, so came up with an agreement with the school to let me do my exams. I passed all of my exams; despite being told I would fail them. 

I think I’ve achieved a lot over time – If you have a dream, determination and passion to do something, literally anything is possible (I’m living proof)! You just need to be prepared to take the leap and believe in yourself.

How do you think VR will evolve in the future?

I think bone conductive technology, which transmits audio through specific frequency bands which is only heard by your inner ear.   I think something like that could elevate the immersive experience even more, though the fidelity of the audio isn’t quite there just yet. But I’m sure there will be development in this area moving forwards.

Haptics have also been gathering pace, offering further immersion and sense of real being in VR.  Being able to manipulate objects as in the real world, is I think quite a powerful concept. There is a lot of progress and develop on haptics at the moment, serving to deepen the level of immersion.

The Oculus Quest 2 has been an absolute game changer, in terms of providing a scalable accessible route to VR.  Ahead of PC VR, the Quest supports a growing number of social VR applications supporting collaborative working and social interactions. If facial tracking could be integrated into affordable consumer grade headsets, this would offer consumers quite a transformative experience and assist the delivery of soft skills training.

How are you finding being part of the development team?

It’s been really great; I’ve felt really welcome and supported. At the moment we’re working on VR and 360 videos. I work with some amazingly talented individuals in their own right, collectively we have a wealth of expertise.  There is a great working culture, everyone is very supportive and positive. 

At the moment my day consists of working across disciplines, so developing 3D assets, texturing, creating interactive objects and programming custom behaviours. I also do a lot of testing, so ironing out debugging issues- it can be frustrating, when you’re fixing something, but it is part of course of my role.  I feel I’ve got creative license, as long as I’m working within the brief, I can be quite creative.

What are you working on?

We’re working on a type of Escape Room-esque challenges in immersive VR, these are part of some of our demo work.  They’re multi-player challenges for teams to complete, they support friendly competition and problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills underpin the challenges.

I think these are really beneficial to employee’s, not just in terms of exposure to VR but also creating memorable learning experiences.  Too often training can be quite dull, or repetitive whereas VR offers something different; users are more likely to achieve a state of flow, or complete immersion and focus on the topic they are training. 

Furthermore, using gamification in training dissipates stress, or sense of uneasiness when trainers are assessing employee performance in training – it’s definitely more fun and less stressful compared with traditional training approaches!

Final Thoughts

Over the last 18 months or so, VR has rapidly shifted from novel, siloed experiences to a burgeoning array of use cases.  VR has to be one of the most pervasive disruptive technologies seen in our time – I can’t wait to see where it takes us!