Science tells us that when a software developer goes head to head with a moving car, the car wins.  This is getting expensive for us, and so the lab boys have come up with a better way.

We’ve installed portals in our two office locations in Sydney here at the Atlassian Software Enrichment Centre, saving our staff many exhilarating but risky street-crossings every day. The portals allow staff to have ad-hoc meetings and conversations by transmitting light and sound.

Physical objects do not appear to transmit successfully, however: So far we’ve tried to send through a variety of items including beer, hula skirts, companion cubes and technical writers.  Most of the beer has been recovered, but if anyone sees a dazed-looking technical writer please let us know.

So how did all this happen?

Atlassian is growing…fast.  We expanded into a new floor and I was given the challenge of making it feel more Atlassian.  I wanted to make something decorative, but also functional.  Keeping the company connected becomes more challenging the bigger we grow, we span multiple buildings so some teams can go days without seeing each other.  Staff do chat through Instant Messaging (IM) frequently, but people communicate more effectively when they are face-to-face.  We utilise video conferencing units in our meeting rooms, but these are booked in advance and don’t really allow for a more social “spur of the moment” interaction.  I thought…wouldn’t it be cool if people could say ‘let’s meet at the portal’ over IM and have an A/V bridge ready to go, with no need to dial or answer or deal with an interface – just walk up and talk.  On top of that, you even have the chance of walking past the portal and seeing someone on the other side who you can then have a quick chat with on your way to grab a beer.  The goal really was for it to be as seamless as possible.

For those of you who don’t know the games, I recommend you watch this introductory video.  The basic concept is this; you are a test subject navigating through puzzles of increasing difficulty.  You have a portal device which is capable of shooting one blue and one orange portal onto two different walls which then link together.  You can then pass through the portal to go from one place to another, or transfer objects through in the same manner.  We named some of our meeting rooms after characters in the game and we also had some test chamber warning stickers made with our mascot Charlie in place of the traditional stick figure.

 

How does it work?

The wall itself is made of wood and has a back hatch.  Inside is a 42″ TV mounted in portrait orientation, a Mac Mini connected through HDMI, a set of PC speakers running off the audio jack on the Mac Mini and a rope LED light with RGB controls to make the portal any colour (one is set to blue, one to orange).  On the right hand side of the TV is a hole with a web camera showing through.  By having the web camera and TV both mounted in portrait orientation there was no need to play around with rotation display settings in the OS itself.  For the A/V side of things, we are just running FaceTime in full-screen mode.  To maintain the illusion of the portal, we ensured that the preview video of the near side is covered by the oval cut-out in the wall itself.

To conserve power when people are not in the office, we use the Energy Saver ‘schedule’ feature in Mac OS X.  This allows you to select a time to have the Mac Mini power on every day, and you can select to have it not power on over the weekend.

What’s next?

Some of our developers have started looking at ways to hack it to integrate with Xbox Kinect with one idea being to swipe between video feeds of our different offices, and they are looking at using our ShipIt Days to do it.

Our founder has recommended some pranks that could be played with the portals, including the common heist movie trick of syncing up a video stream on one of the portals showing the same person walking past in a different location.

We’re looking for other creative or amusing uses of the portals, let us know your ideas in the comments!