Last Christmas, We Gave You Our Heart - And A Virtual Reality Experience

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Author Image - Aaron Holtom-Cook

By Aaron Holtom-Cook

Skilled digital developer with experience spanning from advanced Node.JS RESTful APIs to 3D game programming and mobile apps

In December 2014, Leighton presented a number of valued clients with a Christmas gift. As a technology business, we were all very keen for the gift to make a statement about who we are and why we love what we do, as well as reflecting some of the innovation and ingenuity we inject into our day-to-day work.

As a result, we chose to give clients a Google Cardboard virtual reality headset, to be used with a specifically developed Leighton Christmas app.

Product selection

Whilst there's a wealth of possibilities available when looking at the virtual reality industry, the reason we chose Google Cardboard was largely due to its low-cost and high availability, meaning the turnaround time from idea to reality is considerably quicker than other counterparts - we could start and finish the whole project in less than two weeks.

gpWhat's more, a host of relevant and suitable apps already exist in both Google Play's store and Apple's App store, not only enhancing the development process, but allowing for wide-scale, on-going use of the headset.

Plus, there's an element of self-build for the headset itself, which is always something of interest to those in the digital technology industry!

Developing the app

Using our in-house talent, I'm proud to have led the project, and having the need to create a Christmas-based, Leighton-themed app that could be deployed to both iOS and Android, we utilised three key products:

  • Unity - a game creation engine and integrated development environment, the core features of the app - the environment, lighting and world - were created using Unity. Utilising C# coding, I was able to draw on my related experience to create some of the app's interesting features, such as that of the user appearing to walk up to the door of a festive wooden cabin.
  • Blender - popular, open source 3D computer graphics software, Blender provides the ability to complete everything from 3D modelling, UV unwrapping and texturing through to raster graphics editing, particle and soft body simulation and sculpting and animating.  For this project, Blender was used to create numerous custom 3D models found throughout the app.
  • Logic Pro X - as a famed digital audio workstation and MIDI sequencer, all of the app's audio effects and background music, from the Christmas-style bells to the trickling waterfall, were developed using Logic Pro X.

What's more, as the Unity tool has its very own 'Asset Store', whereby numerous readily created products can be purchased, several items - such as the alpine trees seen within the environment - were purchased from the store and then enhanced before entering the app.

Whilst without doubt enjoyable, the project wasn't without its hurdles and one of the most difficult aspects was gaining approval of the app in Apple's App store.  The issue wasn't that the app wouldn't meet their strict guidelines, but that the review process can take weeks, as opposed to Google Play's hours.

As we wanted to ensure all recipients could enjoy and share the experience, we overcame the hurdle thanks to iOS 8 and used TestFlight, which enables users to send beta versions of an app to testers - and though beta versions of apps still need to be reviewed by Apple, the review process is usually no longer than 24 hours.

The result

Although the project focus was to create a lighthearted, entertaining app, we took the process as serious as we would any other. Going through a rigorous testing procedure and having several iterations produced, numerous teams came together to create the end result, which proved to be an outstanding product.

We're happy (and a little bit proud!) to say that a number of clients expressed their delight at using the device and app in unison, whilst marvelling at the technology involved (and of course, getting into the festive spirit!), it's without doubt set the bar high for Christmas 2015!