Human vision, as one of the five primary senses, is a wonderfully complex system. Biological, chemical, optical, and electrical signals in various forms are received and interpreted by the brain, enabling us to react to and interact with the world around us. As a company working on ways of interfacing human vision with the next generation of display in both VR and XR technologies, assembling a team and running a multi-year R&D project is both challenging and incredibly rewarding.
As programme director, I lead our internal engineering team and work closely with our customers to understand the big technical challenges they’re trying to resolve, aligning our team to deliver. The role is a juggling act, between finding and working with the right people, while maintaining a deep understanding of the technology, and what we’re trying to achieve, then taking steps to make it happen.
Our team is an incredibly bright, diverse and eclectic bunch. It’s made up of over a dozen nationalities with roles that include product designers, mechanical engineers, manufacturing engineers, metrologist, optical engineers, physicists, chemists and highly skilled technical operators.
It is a privilege for our team to play a role in the development of the XR/VR industry. To provide a real input into what will make the sector successful. We specialise in the optical interface which we believe holds the key to unlocking the real potential of VR and XR. We have a deep understanding of the way we see and, as a result, we are developing solutions to problems that are currently preventing VR and XR from reaching their market potential.
On a day-to-day basis, even though we have labs full of high-tech equipment, we still have daily breakout sessions that are quite ‘old school’. The physical stuff is very important. A pen, a whiteboard, drawings taped across a wall, combined with lively debate to facilitate how the team communicate with one another.
Intellect is vital but also the ability to think in innovative ways. We’re tackling problems that have never been addressed before, so we come up with ideas, define specifications and proofs of concept and design prototypes rather than designing products in a traditional way. The team have a depth of engineering and ophthalmic expertise but each person approaches problems in different ways, giving us multiple perspectives. This has proved very powerful in developing innovative solutions to the challenges we face.
By mixing up teams made up of different disciplines, new approaches are discussed and tested. We hold a daily “stand up” meeting each morning where the whole team gets together and shares their challenges. There are many examples where getting a fresh perspective on a problem has helped someone solve a technical or practical issue – from things as simple as a mechanical engineer helping out a test engineer by 3D printing a jig to hold a component during testing, to sourcing and designing using new materials. But it’s only in retrospect you can identify what those eureka moments were.
It is not all plain sailing though, and there are challenges around finding and recruiting the best talent. Visa restrictions, relocation challenges, and maintaining the personal dynamic of the team are all important. There is a definite shortage of top tier scientists, engineers and researchers. However, being one of several exciting and innovative tech companies in and around Oxford has a big pull factor for talent. It’s exciting for everyone to be part of seeing new ideas turn into prototypes and become tangible.
On a personal level, my role is part project management and part translator between our teams and customers. I have a Master of Engineering in Manufacturing Engineering, and over 30 years working on large projects, finding ways to best utilise our highly talented people to deliver the best results. But only by properly understanding our customer’s needs, and communicating those effectively to my team, do we have any chance of delivering the right solutions to each customer.
Keeping the big picture in mind is vital in my job. We are developing revolutionary solutions that could one day be used by millions or even billions of people to look at the world, both real and virtual, in a completely new way.
By Sian James, Programme Director, Adlens