ARJUN SAWHNEY

I’m a 18 year old studying at the University of California, San Diego. I’m passionate about Computer Science, design, sketching, and building FeedOn, my social venture

Let's Talk VR: Interning with a Virtual Reality Startup

        I landed in New York on the 15th of May, an excited 15 year old, ready to spend the summer bunking with my older brother Rohan and learning about the newest frontier technology at the time - Virtual Reality. Rohan had arranged an internship for me at IrisVR, a VR startup he worked at that aimed to tackle the biggest problem in the architecture, construction, and engineering industries - what will a space actually look and feel like when it's built?

        To achieve this goal, the company was developing easy to use VR software that allowed users to experience the depth and scale of their 3D models and 360 panoramas in VR. Their desktop application Prospect converted 3D models directly into navigable VR experiences on headsets such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, while Scope, the mobile application interfaced with headsets like the Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR to display 360 degree rendered panoramas.

        Office timings were from 9am to 6pm, so I was up and ready at 7:30am on the first day of work due to the anxiety of meeting foreign faces and my own nervous thoughts - "How will they react to a 15 year old in their office? Will they give me any real work? Will I really be of any assistance in this company of grownups?" I rode the subway downtown with these thoughts in my head while Rohan calmly read a book by my side. At the time, the only work experience I had had was at an Indian food-tech startup called InnerChef in an industry completely unrelated to the one at Iris. We finally reached the office building and climbed up two stories to the office as I nervously adjusted my hair and clothes on the way up.

        It was at this point that I got the first taste of American startup culture. The day began with what the team liked to call "Standup meetings." Everyone stood in a circle and shared work related updates. The ones who worked remotely were projected onto a TV from Skype. Everything seemed so organised and proper! However, I noticed the friendly nature of my colleagues and introduced myself. I was cordially welcomed and assigned the job of designing a bookmark for an upcoming event. And just like that, my journey of learning at Iris began.


Print Items & Marketing

        I spent the next 2 days working on multiple print items - bookmarks, stickers, and pamphlets. While designing print items was not exactly what I thought I'd be working on at a VR startup, I still learned a lot. My experience with Adobe Photoshop was useful but I had to learn how to use Adobe InDesign in the printing process - a skill which has come to use repeatedly ever since. File nomenclature, Google Drive versioning, and the importance of repetition are a few other learnings that have stayed with me today as I work on bigger projects. Though the print items I designed went through several iterations, my most important takeaway from this early phase of the internship was the exposure to the hierarchy of approval in a professional setting and the value of other people's time. During the first few days, I was under the impression that I could approach anyone at any time to discuss my work. I was almost always told to coordinate a meeting at a later time and with enough notice. It was only after a thoughtful discussion with Rohan that I learned that rather than seeking clarifications or confirmations for every little thing, it's almost always a better idea to present a larger body of work in an organized manner, clearly outlining the progress made and the questions that need to be addressed.


Scope Front End

        On a breezy Monday morning the following week, I reached the office to find it void of any Iris colleagues except the front-end team. I quickly learned that most of the team had travelled to a large tech conference for the next 3 days to demo Iris' products - along with my bookmarks and pamphlets!

        I decided to take a seat next to George Valdes - the IrisVR product manager - to understand what exactly it is that a product manager does. Unfortunately, he had a busy couple of days lined up so I headed to my desk to figure out how to keep myself busy. So, with no clear work outlined, as is often the case in internships, I decided to spend the next 8 hours creating an elaborate redesign of Iris’ mobile app, making sure to use the cleanest font, the most minimal material design icons, and ensuring my alignments were absolutely pixel perfect. Once the screens were made, I made a mockup for George to prototype, double checking every link and animation so that it was on point. I was so captured by the excitement of having created something new that I had convinced myself that he'd be blown away by my minimalistic fonts, icons, and aesthetic.

"It's good...but it needs a lot more work"

        I was taken aback. How could my "clearly better" design need more work? It wasn't until later when I had a more in depth discussion with George about my design that I understood how naive I was. Front end is not just about good design. It's a very elaborate process that requires a deep understanding of what the company is attempting to achieve, and how any feature, even the most miniscule one, propels the company towards its goals.

        Despite my over eagerness to redesign an entire app, George saw potential in me. He moved me over to the front end team, where everything I thought I knew was turned upside down. My instinctive urge to move straight to designing mockups had to be replaced with a new process - the front end process. It began with discussions aimed at identifying the need for a new feature, followed by intense research on how other companies implement similar features in the search for the simplest and most efficient solution. The findings were to be discussed and debated to determine a suitable course of action. A UX flow chart had to be made and finalised to understand every decision made by the user inside the app, with elaborate comments on requirements from the backend team.

        After the front end team came up with what they believed to be a good UX flow diagram, a meeting with the backend team had to be scheduled. The engineers always provided very useful and important insights on the feasibility of features, beyond what the front end team had imagined, resulting many times in the painful repetition of the whole process. Several days later, initial mockups were made: hand drawn on paper with a pencil so that they could be easily edited, unlike my time consuming pixel perfect digital ones. It's only after these were approved that the actual design phase could begin. The mockups were then debated over, and beta tested with different types of users for their fresh take on the implementation.

        The amount I learned in this phase of my IrisVR internship remains unparalleled to any other work experiences I've been involved with so far. The front end process is embedded deeply into my mind like a nail with a hammer. It's been an integral part of each one of my projects that has followed since and has restructured my mind to take a step back to consider the consequence of every little change made, for the user and for the company. It has taught me to value the effort put into every feature of every application I have ever used, to understand the choices that have to be made in implementing the feature as well as the factors affecting every decision behind it: the bandwidth and capacity of the backend team, the strain on the actual backend, the appropriate time for launch, and much more. I left the IrisVR Scope team with new perspectives, a holistic knowledge of the front end process, and the ability to really listen to and understand people when having discussions.


Prospect & Project Library

        Days at the IrisVR office moved along at a comfortable pace. However, an important part of the New York experience was actually the time I spent with my brother. Over binge-watched episodes of "Better Call Saul," Gaming on the HTC Vive, microwaved bowls of "daal" with "naan," walks and cycling sessions in Central Park, the two of us bonded to become quite close. It would be remiss to not mention the helpfulness of his guidance during my stay in New York. My time after office hours was usually followed by thought-provoking discussions and reviews of my experiences at the office on long walks back home with him.

        Focus for the front end team started to shift in the coming weeks from the mobile app to the IrisVR desktop app - Prospect. The team needed to implement a new UX for Billing and User Trials. However, before jumping into the implementation, I spent the next few days with the backend team to learn about the 3D Geometry Processing Pipeline to truly appreciate the impact that my UI/UX changes were making. I was fascinated by the level of efficiency the backend team was striving for. Methods like culling of 3D meshes to load only what is in the user's direct field of view were ingenious and gave me a good idea of what was under the hood of this beautifully simple single-screen app where users could just drag and drop their 3D models and panoramas.

        George also decided to include me in their latest R&D project - something they liked to call "The Project Library" - a desktop platform for IrisVR users, teams and companies to manage, view, and share their 3D files for Scope and Prospect. I applied my newly gained knowledge of the front end process the best I could to develop this abstract idea from the ground up. This was my final project at IrisVR.


Final Presentation

        Towards the end of the internship, Rohan and I took a trip to Miami where we celebrated my birthday at the beach and attended the Kellogg conference at Northwestern University. The two day break over the weekend allowed me to plan out my final deliverable for IrisVR - the master design style guide.

        The style guide would be a case study of the position of the company, as I saw it, at that point in time - the design philosophy embodied in all its products, along with a critique of what I thought worked and what didn't, and future directions. I spent the last week crafting my presentation, piecing together each of my projects to highlight the need for greater design consistency across all platforms, and incorporating my design decisions into the current products.





        I delivered my final presentation to the entire team, and thanked my mentors, my brother, and the founders for having me. The presentation was well received, and I was given positive feedback. At the same time, I was encouraged to challenge myself and to work outside of my own comfort zone - I had spent a month at a VR company without really doing any VR specific design work! I was told to experiment with 3D spatial design, which opened up a whole other dimension to the 2D desktop and mobile designs I had been working on. Aw-shucks! Well, there is always a next time. My last day at Iris had crept up sooner than I had anticipated, and before I knew it, I was on a flight back home, with a mind full of new learnings and a facebook page full of new friend requests!