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Tech talk: Engineering at frog

Alan Stafford

Coderbunker had the great pleasure to welcome Alan Stafford, Senior Systems Engineer. Alan gave a talk about frog, a global design and strategy firm, and how they approach engineering. frog transforms businesses at scale by creating systems of brand, product and service that deliver a distinctly better experience. Their customers are across a diverse range of vertical industries, and range from small start ups to large global MNC’s. The types of problems frog solves are varied and they find that there is no one size fits all approach. Regardless of the type of problem, frog always starts with understanding and uncovering meaningful insights about a users’ motivations and needs.

Alan is focused on software architecture, answering questions such as which technology should be used and what developers should be thinking about when designing new systems. But Alan is not just a software architect; like all frog talent, he is a hybrid and has multiple skills he's acquired during his career, such as game development, and visual design.

The culture at frog is unique in that the team have to be able to navigate sometimes ambiguous problems, and develop innovative solutions. Faced with new, unsolved problems employees work together to solve using their unusual mix of skills to problem solve. The profile of people at frog is what Alan jokingly calls "lazy entrepreneurs"... Employees can quickly move between high level thinking and hands on execution. Whilst being exposed to the types of problems start-ups are solving without any of the risk.

One example of a recent frog project is Yibu, which includes five crafted wooden toys embedded with sensing technology, connected to a character experiencing environmental challenges on the screen. Children who play the game learn about the world around them and feel empowered to positively influence it.

The proof of concept from frog labs took about 6 weeks of work to complete with the experience being simulated by looping videos and wifi powered sensors talking to an iPad. Alan and the team worked for an additional 2 weeks to turn this proof of concept to build a complete vertical slice of the game as a prototype in Unity and using Bluetooth powered sensors. This prototype took the animated proof of concept and optimized it to get it running at 30 frames per second whilst retaining the original design intent.

The second project he talked about is a 2 day internal initiative called the "Language Learning Cafe" which turns technology into design exploration and looks at the possibilities of having simulated interpersonal communications in a foreign language. To see how useful virtual scripted agents are and test the interaction, frog came up with an experience where users could interact with a waiter in a virtual restaurant setting. In part, this was to test the state of the art of voice recognition, which they indirectly accessed by using a hack: injecting code into the existing Google Speech demo page (using Tampermonkey) well before it was actually available as an API. With a working prototype and some user testing, they came away from that project with a number of learnings such as discovering that they needed more robust scripting that would cover a wider range of ways that people order food and drinks.

Finally, Alan covered a flying bicycle project, envisioned as an immersive exercise experiment. Consisting of a bicycle feeding the user’s pedaling rate via a NodeMCU to an Google Cardboard VR app. Knowing that having the user cycling down a virtual road would lead to feelings of motion sickness, frog decided to make the experience one of riding a flying bike. Any feelings of motion sickness completely disappeared whilst still giving a thorough workout! A frog team of 2 managed to build the experience in a total of 2 days.

We followed up Alan's presentation by a workshop where Alan guided us to a key part of the project; fetching data from an external API and presenting it into the Unity development environment.

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