I’m happy to share the news that I’m joining up with Banjo Digital, an AR/VR firm in Austin that creates experiences for simulation/training, education, product design, and marketing. I’ll be serving as Technical Director, and will be starting next week. I’m excited about the move and look forward to doing great work together there!
After 6 educational & exciting years at Mutual Mobile, I am once again officially on the job market!
My ideal position right now would be that of a Technical Director or CTO for a small company. However, I do love development, and would be glad to put my shoulder to the work in Unity, iOS, or web as well. I plan to stay in San Marcos for at least another year, so working remote, in San Antonio, San Marcos, or Austin would be my best options.
Yesterday I set myself a goal of getting Unity talking to Arduino, the microcontroller that’s hugely popular in the maker community. I was interested in doing so because several of our VR projects have been site-specific installations that could benefit from a large LED scoreboard, physical actuators (rumble motors, heat lamps, fans, etc.) to heighten the experience, or just a “This person flailing his arms around can’t see you; please stand back!” warning light.
Fortunately, given than both Unity and Arduino are very popular, this path is fairly well-trodden already. The most common approach is to establish a serial connection between the computer running Unity and the Arduino board. This is straightforward to do, though it requires tweaking a few settings in Unity to allow access to the serial libraries.
For the Arduinos that have USB port, the physical connection is as simple as plugging in a USB cable. For the boards that have only serial pins, wiring in a converter chip will be necessary to bridge the two. I used the Arduino Uno since it supports USB and I didn’t feel like soldering.
The next decision is whether to write your code from scratch or to use a library to ease this task. If you’re more of a DIY person, the amount of code you have to write isn’t outrageous. Alan Zucconi has an excellent article that will guide you through what you need on both systems.
If you’re looking to get up and running quickly, however, you may prefer one of the options available in the Unity Asset Store. These come with all the code you need for many use cases already written, a variety of examples, and niceties like custom UI in the Unity editor. I ended up using Marc Teyssier’s excellent Uduino package, which has good documentation and supports digital input and output, analog input and output, and servo motor control out of the box.
(I ended up having trouble at first, as my board wasn’t setting the pin mode to digital output when the code commanded it to. I wasn’t sure whether this was a problem with my board or with the code, but adding some additional commands to the Arduino code to make sure that the pin mode got reset cleared up the problem.)
I rigged up a simple relay circuit, created a sample scene, and before too long, had a light in my living room turning on and off with the scene lighting in Unity. Viola!
This is merely a proof of concept — a technical spike to sort out some unknowns. Now that we’ve got these waters mapped, I hope to add some production physical effects to future projects. Excelsior!
About a year ago, I decided it was time for a career shift. I managed a fabulous team of mobile developers who were a joy to work with, but I missed creating things. I talked to my boss at Mutual Mobile about the problem; he encouraged me to chart out a way back to an engineer role within the company.
I thought carefully about my options. I could go back to iOS engineering, which my previous boss had done. He was delighted with the change and had no regrets whatever about stepping down from management to an engineering job. But I enjoy learning and figuring out new things and, while iOS is a fantastically enjoyable platform to develop for, iOS 10 seemed pretty mature. I moved from web development to mobile because the web stopped feeling like the wild west. Now I had the same sense about mobile.
So I looked at alternatives. Mutual Mobile had a months-old Virtual Reality practice at that point that was gaining steam. While I hadn’t yet spent any serious time with Unity, which the team uses for its work, my son and some of my fellow engineers both had and were clearly enjoying the experience.
I floated my plan to retool myself into a VR engineer to my boss and the VR team, all of whom were gracious enough to give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. So in early 2017, I began a self-administered crash course in Unity and VR. I found Unity’s online training materials to be excellent, and by the time we executed my official transition to the VR team, I was able to jump in and contribute to the team without a problem.
(I was still green compared to the other two excellent engineers working on our projects, but made up for it by continuing to do management of our engineering and project management teams.)
I’ve now gotten to contribute to a Cardboard project and do all the engineering for an Oculus Rift project. (The former should be available in the mobile app stores soon, and the latter will be installed in the Bass Pro HQ in Springfield in a few weeks.) The team’s also doing work with several other really interesting clients; I’m excited about the work ahead.
Now that I’m past the initial hurdles in Unity, I’m learning things I think might benefit other developers and/or VR enthusiasts. Accordingly, I’m going to post things here to document my learning. My areas of particular interest include: Good Software Architecture in Unity, Cool Stuff our Team is Doing, Using Physical Props in VR, and Accessibility in VR.
If you’re interested in any of these areas or just in creating VR, please get in touch or just follow along. I’m excited about this next phase of my career, and will be happy to have company!
- Ask a specific question out loud: “Hey, I want to be doing great work here. How do you feel I’m doing, and what’s one thing I could improve?” By asking verbally, we keep it quick; answering only requires a minute or two of someone’s time. By asking for a single thing to improve, we can also remove much of the concern that our colleagues have about coming across as mean or critical. When we ask for something specific, we allow others to offer an improvement as a favor rather than a criticism. Doing this verbally means that there’s no written record of what they say, which helps ease the pressure as well.
- Ask the same questions in Email, Slack, or another written format: This takes longer, both for you and for the people from whom you’re asking for input. Colleagues will be less candid, as they might have concerns that their comments are “on the record,” and you’ll get fewer responses. On the upside, you will get more thoughtful feedback as your respondents take more time to reflect on their answers. You will also have a record to which you can refer as you’re working to figure out how to improve your work.
- Use an anonymous feedback tool: There are several that help you gather feedback while assuring your respondents that you won’t know from whom it originates. (I’ve used http://www.get3sixty.com/ and like it pretty well.) Anonymity helps your colleagues express themselves freely without putting a strain on your relationship. This results in more candid feedback. Include more questions if you want a richer picture of others’ perceptions of you and your work. If you keep the questions consistent over time, you can use the answers to track your own progress. But remember, the more information you ask for, the fewer people will likely respond. Keep the time needed to respond under a minute to get the most results.
- Ask your manager: Why do I list this last? Because of the telephone game. You’ve played it as a kid. A line of people passes a message, whispering it from one to another. By the time it gets to the end, what emerges often has hilariously little to do with the original meaning. Likewise, the fewer people between the source of feedback and its recipient, the clearer the message you receive will be. Having your manager gather feedback for you is useful for performance appraisals, other situations where you need an official record, or when you’re having a tough time getting candid feedback on your own. But the closer you can get to the source, the better the feedback you will receive will be.
(This is the non-illustrated semantic HTML edition. Also available: the fancy photos-included PDF edition.)
Dear family and friends,
It has been quite a year for our family. We’ve enjoyed some great times together with family and friends, a few promotions, a terrific (though slightly bittersweet) family vacation, a visit with alligators, an eviction from our house, a repatriation, and a new addition to the family. Read on for all of the details!
Kathy began the year working at Horizon Bay, an elder care facility around the corner from our house, as a caretaker. While she has a fantastic affection and gift for interacting with older folks, this was not a completely ideal appointment: it demanded a fair number of overnight shifts and other times that were inconvenient for her and the family, and it didn’t make much use of Kathy’s Therapeutic Recreation degree. After proving her worth and presenting her case to her boss, he appointed her Program Director for Clare Bridge, the Alzheimer’s community at Horizon Bay — a role that hadn’t existed before. She has received a number of accolades in her new position and, more importantly, loves it.
Emily continued her schooling, taking a few more art classes at ACC where she turned in some excellent work and continued to expand her artistic skills. In the middle of summer, she completed a long-planned move to Baltimore, which has the dual attractions of an art school that she’s interested in and portions of her family that she wanted to spend more time with. Her first few weeks there were a trifle rough: her car was broken into the first day she was there and the rougher sections of the city had her feeling a bit ill at ease. After selling the car and moving to a better section of town, she began to feel much more comfortable with the city, and is now enjoying it a great deal. She’s taking classes there and has been working a job at The Pratt Street Ale House for several months now, and has enjoyed the opportunities to visit with family and friends up in that part of the country.
Abigail is now in her Senior year at the high school. She’s taken up swim team this year, and has done quite well. She is turning in solid times on her events and enjoying her team and teammates a good deal. She has also been learning ukulele (it’s easier on her fingers that guitar was) and continuing to do some singing. One of her favorite classes at school has been a Special Education PE class, where she helps the kids there to stay fit and engage with others. Her plans for next year are still a bit murky, but we’re talking about and weighing the advantages and expenses of work, travel, college, etc.
Liam is halfway through his Freshman year. He has found the transition to High School easier than he expected, though the demands of marching band came as something of a surprise to him. In the month before school started, the band would arrive at 7:30, march until noon, and then practice inside until 5:00. During the first week of that, he would come home, eat a bit, sit in a chair in the living room answering questions in monosyllables, and stumble off to bed around 8:00. His playing is excellent, and he earned second chair among all the French Horn players at his school, beaten out only by one senior. He’s pulled straight A’s so far, and has also been learning some programming in his spare time, writing a few iPhone apps with a little coaching from Dad.
Maggie is now in 7th grade. She continues be a great favorite of her teachers thanks to her sweet nature, generosity, and willingness to work hard. She loves animals, and was delighted at the opportunity to have a lengthy horse riding lesson over the summer thanks to some friends of ours. (It was accompanied by a shooting lesson as well, at which she did startlingly well.) She also continues to enjoy art a great deal, and created several lovely pieces for family members at Christmas. Stories are also a favorite of hers. She’s enjoyed reading and rereading Maximum Ride and Harry Potter this year, in addition to reading through Jurassic Park, Terry Pratchett’s Dodger, and All Creatures Great and Small with her Dad.
Sean is finishing up his second year at Mutual Mobile, where he has been writing iPhone and iPad apps. He recently moved to an Associate Director role, which means less day-to-day programming and more strategic work and caring for people there. He’s also playing music with O’Malarkey, a local Irish band, whenever he can squeeze in the time, and has been enjoying cooking for family and friends more this year. The building of a 25′ tall trebuchet, some delightful long hikes, and a train trip to Chicago with Liam and Sean’s brother rounded the year out nicely.
Over the summer, knowing that Emily was planning her move to Baltimore, we pulled together a last big family trip: a week in New Orleans, where we had spent a day as a family a few years back and all really enjoyed. The vacation was terrific. We stayed on the edge of the Vieux Carré, and enjoyed rides around town on the streetcars, trips to the botanical gardens, aquarium and insectarium, and one of the most memorable meals we have ever enjoyed. (At Jacques Imo’s — “Warm Beer, Lousy Service” and highly recommended.) A particular highlight of the trip was a boat tour through Honey Island swamp, where we met a family of friendly warthogs and saw a number of alligators up close.
Alas, when we returned to San Marcos, it was to a home with a broken toilet supply line which had flooded a good portion of the house. Some of our good friends were checking on the homestead while we were gone and discovered the problem before it got even farther along, but it still ended up causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. We moved to a three bedroom apartment for “no more than 45 days.” That ballooned to three months before we finally got home. Fortunately, USAA (our insurance company) was very helpful, one of our church friends was gracious enough to build us a beautiful new built-in bookcase, Kathy was able to replace the abhorrent pink tile that has lurked in our bathroom since we moved in, and the house now looks better than when the whole ordeal began.
During our exile, Maggie got stuck sleeping on the couch for much of time time which, understandably, became tiresome for her partway through our stay. As a thank-you for her forbearance, we (perhaps rashly) promised her a kitten upon our return home. Hewing to the family tradition of absurdly named animals (“Fluffy” the hermit crab, “Llama” the gerbil, “Hasenpfeffer” the rabbit), she christened her new black kitten “Mayonnaise”. He’s quickly made himself at home, and has even won over Liam, the most pet-skeptical among us.
As we review our year, it is apparent how blessed we are to have such terrific family, such wonderful friends — what a different year it would have been without those of us who give us regular support, and those we know are further off in the wings, ready to offer friendship when it’s needed. Thanks for being a part of our lives, and for allowing us to be part of yours.
May all the joys of this blessed season be yours in full measure. Merry Christmas!
The Clan McMains
(San Marcos Chapter)
I did a presentation at CocoaConf Dallas today on how, as a developer, to make your iOS apps usable by people with visual impairments. It was a lot of fun, and seemed to be well-received by the conference attendees. If you’d like to see the slides, you can download them here:
In addition, I announced an open source component I wrote to make accessibility testing easier for developers. It’s called SMAccessibilityOverlay. By adding it to an app under development, you can temporarily display an overlay that quickly shows what areas of the screen have been marked as accessible, and what labels are associated with those regions:
If you’d like to try it out in your app, you can download it from GitHub here. I’d also be delighted to have input on it, either in the form of suggestions (good) or code contributions (better) or encouraging beer purchases (best).
On January 2, I”ll be going to work for Mutual Mobile, an Austin-based company that specializes in application development for iOS, Android and Blackberry devices.
“But Sean!” I hear you, Rhetorically Convenient Reader, cry. “You just started working for Magnolia back in March! Why are you moving on again so soon?” That’s a good question. It doesn’t have anything to do with Magnolia: it’s a terrific company, filled with great people that I am glad to call coworkers and friends. That fact made this decision especially hard, as I knew I’d be seeing less of these people I quite like (and would, honestly, be making their lives tougher in the short term with my departure).
But as much as I like Magnolia, the nature of their business means that my work there revolved around two things: Java and Sales. Java is an industry standard for creating software of various stripes, but it’s a very buttoned-down, staid environment to work in. It lacks the creative energy and — is it silly to say this? — joy that I see in the communities that exist around some of the more dynamic, less-widely used languages like Ruby and Python and Lisp (for you AI wonks out there). I can get work done in it just fine, but the number of times a spontaneous “Awesome!” escapes my lips while doing so is vanishingly small.
The other focus of my last 9 months has been selling Magnolia to various companies. I think the software is a phenomenal piece of work, and really well-suited to a whole variety of Web Content Management scenarios. But while I can do an effective job helping to demonstrate and sell it, there’s no frisson associated with doing so for me.
I like technology for what it can do for people. I like creating it because doing so is much like fashioning a beautiful, intricate bit of clockwork, or a complex bit of musical counterpoint. There is immense satisfaction in creating something that works elegantly and beautifully. Unfortunately, telling people about how terrific other people’s work is provides very little of the satisfaction that actually doing that creative work oneself. If I’m going to be in the technology world, I want to make cool stuff for normal people, not to sell cool technology to corporations.
So, Mutual Mobile. I’ll be starting there as an iOS Manager, which means that not only will I be getting to work directly on creating some great stuff for their impressive list of clients, but I’ll also be getting to help figure out the best way to help the other developers there do their best work as well. I’ll be hanging around a bunch of really smart folks, and will doubtless be learning tons about iPhone development and other mobile disciplines. The company seems like a marvelous place to hang one’s professional hat — a vibrant company culture, entirely self-funded with no investor money involved, just named by Forbes as one of America’s most promising companies, and has its company meetings at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of my favorite places in Austin. And the downside of facing a commute again is largely ameliorated by the fact that Texas State University runs a shuttle bus from San Marcos with wireless Internet to a park 4 blocks away from the office. Sweet!
I’m excited about this next adventure, and will be posting more about it once I’ve got my feet under me. Wish me luck!
When I left Texas State University to go work for Magnolia, I decided that one last big prank was in order. My usual partners-in-crime and I brainstormed for a while one afternoon and eventually came up with a scheme we liked: we would zombify our bosses’ offices. Plan Z was born!
In order to bring this off, my compatriots Jeff and Nick snuck into our department head’s office one night a couple of weeks before my scheduled departure and, while carefully keeping their eyes peeled for building security or other suspicious types, scanned a variety of posters, awards, and family photos that adorned the office with a portable scanner and laptop they had brought with them.
We then split those scans up among several different people, at this point bringing in Cheesy Steve from the design department. After looking at several “how to zombify people” videos on YouTube, we tweaked the photos in Photoshop, either transforming people into zombies (in the case of University personnel), or simply adding shambling undead into the scene (in the case of adorable grandchildren).
We also scoured the internet for Zombie family portraits or other pictures that might not immediately seem out of place in a collection of family photos. Google image search was immensely helpful as we assembled an arsenal of assets for this mission, as was Charles, our QA guy. (By this point, I had begun to laugh about this being the first prank we had pulled that was elaborate enough to require a Project Manager.)
Next, we printed out all of the altered images on a high-quality photo printer. The smaller snapshots were no trouble, but those bigger than 8.5″x14″ were a special challenge, as we had to print them in multiple parts and then tape the parts together as inconspicuously as possible to make large-format posters that weren’t obviously printed in pieces.
Now all of the preparatory work was done. With a thumb drive full of zombie family portraits, we slipped into the office of my immediate boss. He already had a screen saver going with a bunch of his personal family photos, so we were able to slip in the additional images without any trouble, verifying that one of the new ones would come up among the legitimate ones about every fifth time the screen saver showed a photo.
Next, we snuck back into the department head’s office and replaced the original family portraits and posters on his desk and walls with our doctored images. In order to take the heat off of my coconspirators if things happened to go badly, I also put copies of my business card in the frames between the “zombified” image and the original. (We left the originals in the frames so that our work could be easily undone, as we’re big on not causing permanent damage with our schemes.)
We carefully rearranged everything, comparing the room to the reference photos we had taken before doing our original scans, to make it look as unmolested as possible, and then went home smirking, fully expecting to be called in to the office the next morning. We weren’t sure whether our department director would appreciate or deplore the prank, so it was a good thing that mine was the only name associated with it and that the following day was to be my last at the University.
Much to my surprise, 5:00 rolled around without a word from the head office. I hadn’t counted on this. One of the photos we replaced was right next to our department head’s computer keyboard, so we’d figured he would certainly see the zombie that had taken up residence there within minutes. And we had altered posters that were several feet on each side. Surely one of the visitors to his office would notice, even if he didn’t! I left the University that day with a certain amount of sadness: both because I was leaving behind a great team of people with whom I’d worked for many years, but also because our terrific prank hadn’t even been noticed.
As I began my new job, I asked my friends back at the University every day if our shenanigans had been discovered, but the answer kept coming back “nope.” This went on for two weeks, until finally we got word that the screensaver additions had been discovered and summarily deleted. (This also surprised me — who finds extra photos on their computer and doesn’t make any effort to find out where they came from?) Finally, some of my friends started dropping hints to various people around the head office, and the department director discovered the additions at last.
Fortunately, his reaction was better than we’d even dared to hope. He thought it was hilarious, brought several people into his office immediately to see our work, and decided to leave it all in place. While a few of the family photos have now reverted to their original form, I believe all of the posters are still up.
This was ultimately a very satisfying scheme to pull off. Lots of people got into it and helped in various ways, it didn’t cause any harm, and even the victims got a good laugh and some lasting pleasure out of it. Additionally, I was delighted to hear today that the team has plans to keep the pranks coming even now that I’m gone. It’s good to have a legacy!
Great big thanks to all the participants. You guys rock at your real jobs, at this sort of thing, and as friends.
Now that I’ve left Texas State University’s employ, there are a couple other pranks that my partner-in-crime Jeff Snider and I pulled that can be made public.
Prank the First
Texas State University wrestles with something of an institutional inferiority complex. This is caused by the fact that it used to have a reputation as one of the biggest party schools in Texa,s and that it’s just down the road from the similarly named, but even more enormous, University of Texas. Whenever we attended conferences, we had to explain to people that shouting “Hook ‘Em!” at us was actually something of a hostile gesture.
As part of its image rehabilitation, the marketing department began heavily pushing its new “Rising Star of Texas” slogan — verbiage that many of us thought still sent a disappointingly weak message. But they were committed to it, and plastered it on everything they possibly could, including the screen that came up on our conference room projectors while they warmed up.
One day, while sitting in the conference room, I had a thought: “If these projectors can be customized to display the logo and this unfortunate slogan, they can also be customized to display something else.” A bit of quick googling yielded a PDF manual for the projectors, which explained in detail what one needed to do to make the change. Bingo.
So Jeff and I got the University Logo, sucked it into Photoshop, did a little editing, and made a guerilla run to the conference rooms around our floor. Now, when the projectors are powering up, they proudly display the Texas State logo, but with a different caption than usual:
TEXAS STATE UNIVERSITY
A Great Plan B…
It’s pretty subtle, as the projectors get brighter as they warm up, but it’s definitely enough to catch if you’re paying attention. (Which most people apparently aren’t, as this one has been in place for over a year.)
Prank the Second
There is an architectural model that the University commissioned at some point in its history, presumably to show off the planned construction of some building or another. Since the cost of such things is substantial, the University has chosen to keep it on display in the first floor of the library where I worked. It is covered with a plexiglass box that is secured to the base of the model by nothing more than its own weight and gravity.
Since we often had to be in late at night for various maintenance activities, we took advantage of the opportunity to place all sorts of things in the model with the tiny cars and people that normally inhabit it: miniature rubber chickens, a jet fighter, a Millenium Falcon, etc. (The Falcon was especially gratifying, as it remained illegally parked in one of the car lots for several months.)
Our coup de grace, however, was a full-scale dinosaur invasion that took place one night:
This one, alas, only stayed in place for two days. It was, however, widely appreciated. Jeff was particularly pleased when, a day after the dinos has been removed, he saw a student coming down the stairs, looking over expectantly at the model, seeing that it was now dinosaur-free, and letting out a disappointed “Awwwwwww!”
These sorts of things increased my enjoyment of my tenure at the University significantly. But there was one prank that we pulled as a parting gift to my bosses of which I’m especially proud, and which I will write about soon. Stay tuned…